Danuru Sherpa represents a new breed of Himalayan guide By Terry Cunningham Explore Big Sky Contributor Danuru Sherpa and John Dahlem’s headlamps lit the riot of wind-whipped ice pellets peppering their faces like buckshot, plinking against their oxygen masks. It was 4 a.m. on May 24, 2010, and the men were at 28,500 feet on Mount Everest’s southeast ridge. They braced themselves as another 50-mile-an-hour gust threatened to blow them tumbling 8,000 feet into Nepal. Dahlem, 67 and a retired school principal, looked back at his 34-year-old guide Danuru, who flashed a broad smile accented by a single gold tooth and motioned upward. Several steps later, Dahlem was suddenly unable to breathe. “It felt like there was a hand clamped over my mouth. I thought I was having a heart attack,” he recalls. He gestured madly to Danuru, who knew immediately what was happening. The Sherpa smacked Dahlem’s oxygen mask, knocking ice chunks from it. But he still wasn’t getting air. “Then he leaned in like he was gonna kiss me,” Dahlem says. Danuru, a native of Phortse, Nepal, placed his lips over a thin tube venting Dahlem’s oxygen mask and, with a sharp puff, blew a hunk of frozen sweat and snot back into the mask, unclogging the system. For Dahlem, standing atop Mount Everest in 2010 was a stepping stone in his goal of completing the Adventurer’s Grand Slam: surmounting the highest summit on each of the seven continents, and reaching the north and south poles. For Danuru Sherpa – who Bozeman alpinist Conrad Anker describes as “one of the two or three strongest people on [Everest]” – the goal was to earn enough money to send his daughters, now ages 13 and 11, to school in Kathmandu.
Since the late 19th century, western expeditions have employed Sherpas to haul heavy loads and establish high-altitude camps on 8,000-meter peaks including Everest, despite their lack of technical or rescue training. A significant flashpoint in the Sherpa-Westerner relationship occurred on Everest in 2013, when three European solo climbers ignored the pleas of a Sherpa rope-fixing crew not to traverse the icy slopes of the Lhotse Face above them. The Europeans then inadvertently knocked down chunks of ice toward the rope-fixers and rebuffed the Sherpas’ subsequent challenge with a deluge of vile insults. Danuru was at Camp I when a group of furious Sherpas confronted the solo climbers at Camp II. “Very angry talk,” he says of the melee in an excited tone. “[Western man] make the first punch and then big fight with fist and rock.” The brawl – which was portrayed very differently by the Westerners involved – became the subject of world headlines in the weeks that followed. “They don’t listen when we ask please wait,” Danuru said, shaking his head. “Need respect to Sherpa more. Climbing is Sherpa way to make money, change our life.” Anker is more direct. “This altercation should serve as a wake-up call for ‘Westies’ to quit treating [Sherpas] like trash and slaves.” __________ Danuru was 18 when he met Anker and Dave Hahn, both renowned American climbers now with myriad Everest summits. The year was 1999, and all three were part of the expedition that discovered famed British mountaineer George Mallory’s body on the north side of Everest. At the time, Danuru had limited technical climbing skills and no guide training, but both Anker and Hahn were impressed. At 6 feet tall – which is 6-12 inches taller than most other male Sherpas – Danuru is a physically imposing man, Anker says. “But [on that trip] he also displayed exceptional situational awareness and a knack for connecting with people.” Hahn describes Danuru at that time as an “undiscovered Michael Jordan… He just needed to refine that raw talent.” That opportunity arose in 2003, when Anker and his wife Jennifer Lowe-Anker founded the Khumbu Climbing Center in Phortse, its two-week programs focusing on proper equipment use, situational awareness, medical first-responder training and English language skills. “Our goal was to reduce the alarmingly high fatality rate among the native high-altitude workers,” Anker says. Since excelling in his KCC training, Danuru has served as an instructor there for the past seven years. In June 2013, he attended the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming on a KCC scholarship, learning compass, leave-no-trace, map-reading, multi-pitch climbing and risk management skills. “Now I go teach these things at KCC,” Danuru says. Natural talent combined with this advanced training has made Danuru one of the most highly regarded guides in the Himalaya – a sort of “poster-Sherpa” for a new breed of native high-altitude workers there. Major expeditions vie for his services each climbing season. “He’s like a rock star,” says Dahlem, who Danuru also guided to the summit of Cho Oyu in 2008. “When we moved from camp to camp, Sherpas and climbers would come out of their tents to speak with him, yet he’s one of the most genuine, humble men I’ve ever met.” Despite his skills, Danuru’s job is laced with peril. He survived a 1,000-foot avalanche ride on Cho Oyu in 2011 and has – on three occasions – given his own oxygen to a client struggling on the upper slopes of Everest. The youngest of nine, Danuru has lost two brothers to altitude-related work, and another to alcoholism. Although the gap in technical mountain-craft has narrowed between Sherpas and westerners in recent years due to programs like the KCC and the Nepal Mountaineering Association’s month-long training course, there still remains an extensive gap in respect.
Danuru’s humility reflects a culture that values modesty and deference – something that doesn’t necessarily best serve Sherpas guiding well-heeled, type-A clients on 8,000-meter peaks. In the fall of 2002, Danuru tried to turn around slow moving Korean clients just below the Hillary Step for timing and safety concerns. “Client say: ‘We spend lots of money to come here. Almost there. We go up!’” Danuru recalls. After several calls to Base Camp, they finally heeded the Sherpa’s advice. Hahn believes Danuru has outgrown his current role as a personal guide for one or two clients at a time, and is capable of leading expeditions. “I don’t like keep working on the mountain too long, but I need to make money for education for daughters,” Danuru says with a sigh. This is also cultural, Anker says. “Their biggest investment is in their children’s education. Improving your place in life is the social bling in the Sherpa community.” Given the complex risk/reward calculus of high-altitude mountaineering, one can only hope Danuru Sherpa will know when the time is right to hang up his crampons.
This story was first published in the winter 2013/2014 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.