— New York is home to the largest number of Sherpas anywhere outside Nepal, and that community has been plunged into mourning for 16 mountain guides killed by an avalanche on Mount Everest.
The Sherpas had been moving across an icefield, preparing a route for a group of Western climbers who were to ascend the world's tallest peak in the days and weeks to come.
Late Friday afternoon, many of the estimated 3,500 Sherpa residents of Elmhurst, Queens, were still at work. In the colorful Buddhist temple at the United Sherpa Association
headquarters, a monk was busy washing ritual brass lamps to prepare for a community-wide memorial service on Sunday.
“New York is like a busy life,” said Ang Geljen Sherpa, the Nepalese-American who leads the organization. “Yet we keep in touch with our community back home.
"We are all connected through emails or phone, so people [here] knew these people" who died on Everest, he said. "Most of them were brought up around the Everest region. So definitely, the feeling is sorrow.”
A proud and dangerous job
An estimated 16 people died in the April 18 avalanche; thirteen bodies were recovered, but another three remain missing, likely entombed somewhere in Everest's permanent ice and snow cover.
Ang Geljen Sherpa is proud of his people’s tradition of safely guiding intrepid mountain climbers, usually Westerners. Everest is usually scaled in stages of increasing treachery, leading to the summit nearly 9,000 meters above sea level. Sherpas work as the foreign climbers' guides and assistants, also carrying supplies up the mountain.
“The Sherpa climbers, they know these risks and they are willing to take these risks because they have to put food on the table,” he said. “Of course, the safety concern is very important. But you can’t do [anything] about the avalanches.”
A sister’s warning unheeded
In Nepal, one can find safer jobs, but they tend to far less lucrative than guiding groups up the mountain. Pasang Kanchee Sherpa advised her brother to stay safe, but he died in the accident, some 22 years after another brother met the same fate.
“Every week I talked to him on the phone and said, '[Do] not go on the mountain!’ I was so worried about him, but ... he won’t listen to me," she told VOA. "Now I have no brother.
"I am very heartbroken," she said. "My brother, he was so kind, careful and always a happy person. I loved my brother. I miss him.”
Ngawang Dhondup, a Buddhist monk, saw Pasang Kanchee Sherpa weeping constantly during an earlier funeral ceremony — a traditional rite, eight hours long — for her brother. The monk said it was an emotional moment, but he also had a spiritual explanation.
“It’s really sad it happened there [on Everest]," he said. "People have to die because of their karma. According to Buddhism, when people die they are born again ... in a good place. And we just have to pray for them.”
Karma, desperation and opportunity
United Sherpa Association President Ang Geljen Sherpa says it was not only karma that brought death to those Sherpas on the mountain. It was economic necessity, and the lack of other options for them.
“That’s why we are in America," the Sherpa community leader said. "We have to tell our kids ... to focus on education. So we have to break this cycle of climbing.”
He said he hopes his people will learn to strike a balance between the proud traditions of the past and present-day safety concerns on the world’s highest peak, where the number of adventure-seeking Western tourists grows every year.
Meanwhile, Sherpas everywhere continue to grieve.