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Gelje Sherpa made history on January 16, 2021 as the youngest member of the 10-man team that summited K2 in the winter for the first time. Even now, more than a month later, when he is asked to recount that moment, he is at a loss for words. But eventually, he recalls feeling a combination of historical achievement, pride, and bliss.
K2, the ‘savage mountain’, had never been summited in the winter before, although many attempts had been made. In January 2021, an all-Nepali team composed mostly of Sherpas achieved the impossible. For many alpinists and experienced climbers, this was no surprise -- if anyone could’ve climbed K2 in the winter, it was going to be Nepali Sherpas.
For Gelje, K2 was just one stop in the culmination of a long cherished dream -- to become the youngest person to climb all 14 8,000 meter peaks in the world. At 28, Gelje has less than two years to beat the current record, held by Mingma David Sherpa, who was 30 years and 5 months when he summited all 14 peaks. But given everything he’s achieved in the last five years -- including summiting 10 of the 14 eight-thousanders -- this does not seem like a difficult goal for Gelje.
Five years ago, Gelje was an “icefall doctor” -- highly skilled Sherpas who carry out the dangerous task of creating a pathway of ropes and ladders through the Khumbu Icefall en route to Camp II from Everest Base Camp.
“The Khumbu glacier is the most dangerous section of Everest as it is steep, treacherous and filled with large pieces of ice,” Gelje told me when we spoke in February, his face still sunburned from the K2 expedition. “I soon realized that it is very risky to continue this work and switched to leading expeditions in 2017."
After five years of fixing ropes through the Khumbu Icefall, Gelje led his first expedition as a high-altitude climbing guide to Kanchenjunga in the spring of 2017. However, inclement weather forced Gelje and his clients to return from 8,200 meters, unable to summit the mountain. That autumn, Gelje tried again, this time successfully leading an expedition to Manaslu. A year later, he scaled Everest.
“That was when my childhood dream came true,” he said. “All those years, I had laid the way towards the top for others, but finally, I managed to reach the top. It felt so surreal.”
Born and raised in Solukhumbu, Gelje carries the work ethic, the perseverance and the genes that mark him as belonging to the community of the world’s greatest climbers, the Sherpas. Gelje’s father was a high-altitude porter who often told him stories about trekking and mountaineering. When his father retired early due to his failing health, Gelje took up the mantle.
“I followed my father’s footsteps and started as a porter back in 2009 or 2010,” he said. “My first assignment was to Island Peak and I was filled with curiosity and excitement.”
A real opportunity to realize his dreams of summiting all 14 eight-thousanders came with the arrival of Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja and his Project Possible in 2019. Purja was attempting to set a world record for climbing all 14 mountains within the shortest span of time possible and had to Nepal looking for a team of climbers to support him. Alongside Purja, Gelje managed to scale eight of the world’s tallest mountains -- Annapurna 1, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu, Makalu, Nanga Parbat, Shishapangma, Gasherbrum I, and Gasherbrum II.
“In six months, I scaled eight mountains, which is a record in itself as I was the youngest on the team,” said Gelje, who was only 26 then.
When the K2 expedition came around in 2020, after a year-long pandemic had all but destroyed Nepal’s tourism industry, Gelje was ready. He had already been there on a winter expedition in 2018-19 with a Spanish client, but they had to give up after 7,000 meters.
“Mountains are unpredictable. The weather didn’t favor us and there was heavy snowfall so we gave up,” said Gelje. “But I am glad the mountain called me back in 2021.”
The K2 expedition made history and headlines across the world. The winter ascent of K2 was the last remaining prize in mountaineering. Since most other historical ascents of the type had been claimed by primarily white, Western men, K2 in the winter was the last time for Sherpas to claim the alpining glory they so richly deserved. Purja was instrumental in infusing the expedition with this sense of national pride, saying that he saw it as an attempt to put Sherpas and Nepal on the map.
“We all had that common pride, a common goal,” Purja told The New York Times after the ascent. “This was for Nepal.”
It was Purja who proposed that the two Nepali teams on K2 that December-January make the attempt together. Ten men, arms linked across each other, stepped foot on the summit of K2 together, singing the Nepali national anthem.
"It would not have been possible without strong leadership. I am very impressed by Nims as he possesses the ability to take decisions and manage the team," said Gelje.
Decision-making is particularly important on the mountain, he said, as things can change in a matter of seconds,
There have been concerns, however, about how Purja, who is not a Sherpa himself, has taken up the lion’s share of the limelight, even though he says that he is doing the project for Sherpas and for Nepal. I asked Gelje if he has ever felt overshadowed by Purja, even though they put in the same amount of effort.
“No,” he smiled. “It was all possible due to his leadership and management. He was the one who gathered the necessary funds, which we could have never done ourselves. Regarding the limelight, it is our weakness that we are not able to express ourselves well. We only know how to climb mountains.”
Gelje is soft-spoken and humble to a fault. He doesn’t want the attention and isn’t comfortable speaking publicly in front of a large crowd, something that Purja does exceedingly well. Purja might not be from the Sherpa community but Gelje believes he has helped Sherpas be recognized across the world.
“Nims suggested that we should express ourselves to the media and in the public sphere which can help our growth. But you wouldn’t believe it, I had to attend a week-long RJ training program just to learn to speak well,” Gelje said, laughing.
Gelje has dreams of making it to the top of all the highest peaks in the world, but more than that, he wants to be able to work long enough to provide a good future for his two children aged 8 and 3. He is working for the same reason many other Sherpas and high altitude climbing guides and porters do -- so that their children won’t have to do the same job.
“I was only able to study till Grade 5, but I want my children to have a good education and a bright future. I don’t want them to get into this profession, which is full of hardship. They should do easy jobs,” he said.
Sherpas still shoulder the biggest risks while climbing mountains, especially Everest.
“As a result of their work fixing lines, shuttling supplies, and escorting paid clients to the summit of Everest and dozens of other Himalayan peaks, Sherpas are exposed to the worst dangers on the mountain—rockfall, crevasses, frostbite, exhaustion, and, due to the blood-thickening effects of altitude, clots and strokes,” Grayson Schaffer wrote of the Sherpas in his article ‘The disposable man’ for Outside Magazine.
As expedition leaders, Sherpas even give up their oxygen canisters and help their clients make it down safely in case of emergencies, often at great risk of their own lives. While the work of Sherpas has made mountains like Everest safer than ever before for foreign climbers, Sherpas continue to die. One third of all deaths on Everest have been Sherpas.
In the course of a decade of work, Gelje has been fortunate to avoid any accidents.
“I have never faced death or any sort of life-threatening moment on the mountains, maybe because of luck,” he said. “The income is not that good when compared with the work and the risks. We challenge the weather and we challenge death but in the end, the income is only sufficient to raise a small family. There’s not much in terms of savings. People assume that we make good money, but we only work for a few months a year.”
Despite the hazards and the inadequate income, Gelje enjoys what he does, and he is happy that Sherpas are finally getting recognized for their invaluable work. There has recently been a reckoning in the Western public consciousness about the role of Sherpas in mountaineering. Movies, documentaries, and articles are all bringing to the western public consciousness the invaluable work that Sherpas do.
Gelje believes that Sherpas are “saviors”, who help people fulfill their dreams and make sure they don’t lose their lives in the process.
“Sherpas are the backbone of any expedition,” he said.
But he remains disappointed that despite the recognition that Sherpas are now getting from climbers and journalists across the world, they are still neglected by Nepal’s own government.
“We work today, we earn today, but there is nothing for tomorrow. Once a Sherpa dies, his children have nothing to look forward to. The medical insurance money is limited and the family is left helpless,” he said.
The state needs to set up a fund from a certain percentage of the total mountaineering revenue, which can then be used to help bereaved Sherpa families, he believes.
Gelje is well aware of the risks, but doesn't fear the mountains, whether Dhaulagiri, Nanga Parbat or even K2. He is looking forward to the coming mountaineering season and the four eight-thousanders that he has left to conquer. If everything goes well, he will set his record this year, as the youngest person to summit all 14 eight-thousanders. He is optimistic.
“I love the mountains,” he said. “And I believe the mountains love me back.”
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