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Sherpas on Rainier

mount-everest-rainier-sherpasSherpas learn skills in the Himalaya (top) that transfer to Mount Rainier. Photos by Charlotte AustinThe mountain town of Ashford, Washington—population 217—is home to a tight-knit Nepali community just as renowned for their climbing abilities as their countrymen 7,000 miles away. There’s a longstanding tradition of Sherpas working on Mount Rainier, the 14,210-foot peak known for the most glaciated terrain of any North American summit.

The first Sherpa to bring his ice axe across the Pacific was Nawang Gombu, known as the first person to summit Mount Everest twice, a feat he accomplished in 1965. From 1971 to early 2003, Gombu worked as a guide at Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. At 10,080-foot Camp Muir, climbers still sleep in a permanent structure bearing his name. Gombu died in 2011, but a select group of high-altitude Nepali climbers still congregate in Ashford, just beyond the border of Mount Rainier National Park, during the Himalaya offseason.

The Tibetan term “Sherpa” refers to the ethnic group that migrated from eastern Tibet to the Everest region some 450 years ago. Today, Sherpa can describe any porter, climber, or trek leader—jobs that people of Sherpa descent have held for a hundred years. Most Sherpas working on Rainier are guides, not porters. To climb Everest, or even to climb past the Khumbu icefall, alpinists need to be versed in techniques for scaling icefalls, crossing crevasses using ladders, and surviving bone-chilling temperatures at altitude. “There’s only one mountain that I know of in North America where people use ladders to cross crevasses, and that’s Rainier,” says Pete Athans, a mountaineer with seven Everest summits to his name.

And because North American guide services covet high-altitude experience, and Sherpa guides need work after the Himalaya climbing season, there’s ready work for migrating or permanent Sherpas. “I moved my family to the Seattle area for my children to go to school, for my wife to get medical care, and for me to have year-round work,” said a Sherpa who didn’t want to be identified in print. “The Sherpa community here is a huge bonus.” —Charlotte Austin

You don’t have to climb Rainier to find Sherpa culture in Washington. Check out Ashford’s Wild Berry Restaurant, which is run by a Sherpa family. Local favorites include blackberry pie, burgers, and salmon, but the menu also offers the same Sherpa cuisine found in a Lukla teahouse.

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