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On top of the world

on April 24, 2013

Take it from a man who climbed Mount Everest six times: anything is possible.

Kami Sherpa is a soft-spoken man who laughs in pronounced staccato bursts. He’s wearing a jungle green Everest jacket. When he climbs stairs or breaks into a jog, he looks more like he’s gliding across the ground and it’s difficult to keep eyes on him, let alone keep up.

In 2007, a civil war had just ended in Nepal, and Sherpa, now 36, left his mountainous homeland, family and accomplished dual-career as a mountain guide and television news reporter to move to the United States. He eventually settled in low-lying Richmond, where he now works as a plumber.

Earlier this month, he took the oath of citizenship at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, along with 1,000 others and five from Nepal. With his new status and passport, Sherpa is waiting to bring his wife Sunita here. And he’s ready to answer the call of the mountain yet again.

“I like climbing a lot, yes. This is like an addiction, you know. I like climbing, just climbing and climbing and climbing,” Sherpa says in his backyard in Richmond. From 2002-2007, Sherpa climbed and summited Mount Everest six times, led treks, and did three expeditions to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.

Getting the chance to work as a mountain guide is not a matter of pedigree. Guides must take extensive mountaineering courses to be qualified for the job, Sherpa says. On their first climb, most are considered too inexperienced and do not summit the 5.5-mile tall mountain.

“If anything happens on that expedition, you can handle those situations,” Sherpa said. “But I got a chance on the first time. The main thing I got a chance (to do was) assisting video with the television crew.”

It was 2002 and an American film crew invited Sherpa to assist them. They were shooting a documentary for National Geographic called “Surviving Everest: 50 Years on the Mountain” with Peter Athans – known as “Mr. Everest,” the American who summited seven times, the record for a non-Sherpa.

“They gave me one camera and I shot some video,” Sherpa said.

Climbing Everest is not an easy feat, Sherpa admits. It takes months of preparation and at least four days from base camp to summit. Sherpa guides schlep up to 70 pounds of gear, including gear for their “clients.” But he talks about the mountain with a hint of understatement and frequently encourages reporters that they could eventually  make it at least as far as basecamp.

Kami Sherpa, 36, poses for photos at his naturalization ceremony at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on April 9. (Photo by: Sean Greene)

Kami Sherpa, 36, poses for photos at a naturalization ceremony at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on April 9. Sherpa was joined by his cousin’s family. (Photo by: Sean Greene)

And at his citizenship ceremony in early April, Sherpa was surrounded by reporters. As he stood in silence waving a small American flag in the gold-painted walls of Oakland’s Paramount Theatre, a corps of photographers and television reporters trained their cameras on him in his black suit and striped tie. The shutters fired away and TV cameras trained small lights on his face, but he paid no mind to it. He put his right hand over his heart and inaudibly recited the Pledge of Allegiance with 1,007 other immigrants from 95 nations. He is, finally, a citizen of the United States.

“I’m very proud … (to be) a citizen of this country. I am so happy,” he said after the ceremony. “I would love to do something good for the country.”

In the foyer, his cousin Rinji Sherpa and his family greeted him. Now wearing traditional Nepali garb, Kami Sherpa held his poses for photos with Rinji, his wife Sheri and their five-year-old daughter Dawadoma. His family draped white cloths around his shoulders.

Asked if he thinks he’s given something up to become a citizen – namely his Nepali citizenship – he says no. “I’m more proud to be an American,” he said.

Sherpa says he’s looking forward to bringing his American friends to Nepal – and Everest – with him. He wants to build up his travel agency, Everest Sherpa Travel, which he runs along with a Swedish partner.

He started the travel agency in 2010 and by now it’s about ready to go. The travel agency deals in “hard and soft” outdoor adventures in Nepal, Sherpa says, such as mountain climbing, sightseeing, rafting, kayaking and cycling. For the plumber, the business is a way to return to what he knows best: the Himalayas.

The Everest climb is fraught with perils. The white snow and white clouds of Everest blur the border between earth and sky. There are the high winds, the high altitude and the deep chasms that indiscriminately claim adventurers. It’s hard to move up there.

“Sometimes the weather is so bad you can’t even see anything in front of you,” he said. “If you run into those kinds of situations you cannot see anything and that means you are in very big danger. And also there are crevices, hidden crevices because of new snow … sometimes people just fall down into crevices and just die. Or sometimes people get rescued.

“It doesn’t happen to everyone,” he said. “It’s called bad luck … someone gets bad luck … there will be at least a couple in the expedition season.”

To that extent, Sherpa and his climbing crew have been lucky. He’s seen others, though, who haven’t.

After three successful expeditions, the weather and reality caught up with him during a 2005 expedition, when he climbed to the top to hoist the Rotary Club flag for its 100th year of existence.

A large avalanche at Camp 1 (the first camp above base camp) buried the climbers while they were asleep in their tents. No one was killed, and there were people nearby to dig the trapped adventurers out.

“We had to carry many people down to the base camp and send many people to Kathmandu hospital by helicopter and that was the scary moment,” he said. “I was thinking like if we weren’t there at that time, what would happen? Most of the time in the morning people would be walking by that camp. There were so many people at that camp and it was all gone.”

One climber from the United States fell into a 25-foot crevice. “I was going off to help. I just heard on the radio … somebody told me, ‘Oh, he’s just dead.’ I got there anyway and I asked other climbers. And other climbers were saying, ‘Oh, he was just laughing … he was just laughing he was joking. He’s just dead.’”

In 2007, a Sherpa died from a fall while carrying supplies alone to Camp 3. He must have slipped down 50 feet and rolled onto the ice below. “The ice is like glass,” he said.

“I went from all the way from base camp to there and we were thinking to bring his body down the same day, but we couldn’t do anything because we didn’t have enough people,” Sherpa said. ”He was already dead so we left him there. We brought the body the next day to the base camp. It took all day from early to the evening.

“Those are the things that I … cannot forget. Those are very scary moments.”

In Richmond, Sherpa doesn’t typically tell his plumbing customers about his past life. He got the job when he moved to Richmond through his cousin, and he doesn’t mind the work until his travel agency picks up.

But sometimes his co-plumbers let slip that the man fixing their drain is a six-time summitter of Mount Everest. Then customers want to know how he ended up plumbing, what the weather is like in Nepal and how they can climb. “So many questions,” Sherpa said.

“I like to explain and everything … but usually I don’t tell customers that I climbed Everest,” he said. “Once we tell them, we know it will be a long day.”

view from summit of everest

A view from the balcony of Mount Everest just below the south summit. The mountain in the background is Mount Makalu, elevation 27,825 feet. (Courtesy photo: Kami Sherpa)

On top of the world, you can see the Bay of Bengal to the south, China and Tibet and the Gobi Desert. You’ll see the clouds surrounding the mountains. You’ll look down on snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. Sherpa cried the first time he made it up there.

The accomplishment – plus the $60,000-$70,000 cost of the expedition – makes it worth the risk. Sherpa said the guides approach the risks with a sense of duty. “That was my profession,” he said.

It takes strength, dedication and great bit of care to make it to the top.

“Most of the people, as I know, climb Everest for their name,” he said. “They can (say) they climbed Everest. Because even though there are so many risks involved and financially it is big, still they want to climb.”

On his sixth and final attempt, Sherpa gained some fame to his name in Nepal. As a reporter for Nepal Television, he was the first to transmit live broadcasts from the mountain. He shot dispatches from his own expedition, as well as covered news from the mountain. On the summit, he raised his nation’s flag. “That’s my Nepali flag,” he said while watching a video of the expedition, “next time it will be an American flag.”

When he got back, he was honored in a ceremony. The video shows him with white cloths draped over his shoulders. Sherpa says they’re a congratulatory symbol.

“I miss (journalism) a lot, that’s a great job, man. I like it,” he said. “That’s a very respected job. … That was my favorite job, actually.

Sherpa mostly covered tourism, mountaineering and festivals for Nepal Television, but as he said, “If I see something that needs to be covered, I will.”

This is the part that led him to leave Nepal. “Nepal is not free for journalism,” he said. “The system is broken.”

Sherpa said he observed political corruption and a convoluted system with more than 30 political parties. He uncovered and aired stories about political parties that kill people. “And they did not like it.”

“It made me a little bit scared,” he said. “I thought just leave the country.”

He left for the United States, where he had been before. He settled first in Santa Rosa, then finally in Richmond where housing prices are cheaper.

He lives in a pale blue single-family home with the next-door neighbor’s house built right up against his. A new Lexus is parked in the driveway and a blue Benjamin Franklin Plumbing truck is parked next to the curb.

These days, in addition to working full-time as a plumber, he volunteers on weekends as treasurer and a lifetime member of the California Sherpa Association. Formed in 2011, the nonprofit serves almost 300 Sherpa in the state and works to preserve the group’s customs and culture.

Sherpa said the association is working on a program to help immigrants adapt to life in the United States because many Sherpa are immigrating here to be with their families, he said. “We just found out from friends before, but now we’ll help them learn the rules of this country,” he said.

The association hopes to help newcomers find jobs, offer legal advice and guide them through the naturalization process. It also can help with day-to-day matters – like learning to drive on the right side of the road.

“The weekend is everything,” he said. “Once my wife gets here, it will get better. She can take care of the travel agency or I can reduce my plumbing by a day.”

With citizenship, he can also petition to bring his wife to Richmond.

“My wife and I should be staying together. It’s not easy being husband and wife across the world,” he said.

They met in Nepal before he left, but kept in touch over Facebook and Skype. Last November, they were married in a small ceremony in India. “We are addicted to each other just to talk,” he said.

On mention of her, Sherpa’s phone rings and it’s Sunita. She just woke up in Nepal and her voice is still raspy. They have a short exchange in Nepalese, concluded by a rapid-fire “I-love-you-bye” that sounded more like one word than four.

“We don’t say I love you much in Nepal,” he said. “She’s shy.”

The process of getting Sunita here could take up to eight months. Sherpa isn’t worried. Getting to climb Mount Everest and becoming a citizen took time, but it happened.

“If you want to do something, it happens. Nothing is impossible. It takes time, though. You have to be patient but it happens,” he says with a satisfied smile. “Like in my life, whatever I wanted to do, it happened. Like becoming a citizen of this country … it took time, but it happened. Even climbing Everest, I didn’t say, ‘Oh, OK I want to climb Everest.’ It didn’t happen in one day. … Like climbing Everest, that was my dream.”

Take it from a man who climbed Everest six times, anything is possible.

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