“If you only knew the story of the person sitting next to you on the bus.” – jb
Wildberry, a nondescript restaurant on a two-lane highway a few miles from Mount Rainier, could be on any mountain road in any country. The restaurant sits in a clearing on the side of the road; its exterior beige outlined in brown with a front porch lined with three-feet high stone flowerbeds. The resemblance with typical roadside restaurants ends once you walk through the door.
I never would have set foot in the place had it not been for a fellow-climber from Chicago who asked if I’d like to try the Sherpa restaurant (the reputation Wildberry has earned.) A Sherpa is a Tibetan term for people who live in the mountainous region of Nepal high in the Himalayas. Sherpas are porters and expert mountain guides for expeditions to the highest peaks in the world.
My buddy from Chicago was an ice climber and member of a mountaineering club. He’d spit out names of the highest mountain ranges and world famous climbers the way most guys recite NFL statistics. While we waited for our meal I walked around the restaurant looking at pictures of Everest, K2, Daneli and other climbing memorabilia that decorated the walls. One picture had a list of world records on the bottom; one record in particular blew my mind—the fastest summit ascent of Mount Everest:10 hours and 56 minutes on May 26, 2003.
Impossible, I thought.
Our meal arrived and I returned to the table eager to tell my buddy about the world record for Everest. He said, “You mean Lhapku Gelu,” in a tone that my kids use when they answer me with a “Dah.” I got back up to reread the record holder’s name and I’ll be damned, it was Lhapku Gelu.
After we finished eating and walked to the cash register to pay for our meal I felt my buddy’s attention shift to the far end of the counter, his eyes widening like a five-year-old who saw Santa for the first time. He hit me on the arm. “That’s him,” he said, nodding toward a guy sitting behind the counter.
I looked at the man figuring he was a cook, or a dishwasher, or whatever. “Who?”
What were the chances, I thought, that the world record holder for fastest ascent of Mount Everest would be sitting behind the counter in a restaurant on a two-lane highway in Ashford, Washington? Impossible!
My buddy walked to the end of the counter with his hand extended toward the man, and said, “Lhapku Gelu.” A broad smile spread across the man’s face as he stood and shook my buddy’s hand. Seconds later I shook hands with not only the first Nepalese I’d ever met, or the first person I’d ever met who climbed Mount Everest, but the man who climbed Mount Everest in 10 hours and 56 minutes; a man who had reached the summit of Everest fifteen times.
This man behind the counter who I passed off as a cook, or a server, or a dishwasher, was an extraordinary human being who did in hours what it typically takes expedition teams four days to do. When I shook his hand and looked into his eyes, my world changed. Lhapka was energy personified, humility in the flesh.
Life as a Sherpa is hard work and dangerous, the more time spent on the mountain the more the chance of being struck by falling rock or caught in an avalanche. Gelu’s oldest brother died in a 1991 avalanche on Annapurna 1. Yet rather than sitting content with his unparalleled achievements, Gelu parlayed his love for the mountains with an entrepreneurial spirit cofounding Alpine Ascents in 2013, a company for which he is also a mountain guide.
Sherpa of the Himalayas earn far less than western mountain guides, so Gelu founded the Lhapku Gelu Foundation, a charitable organization that raises money to improve education for people in his native land, particularly children. His passion has shifted in recent years to traveling and speaking to raise funds for projects that improve the lives of his native people.