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Steamboat Magazine

A Chance Encounter

04/05/2023 08:00AM ● By Matt Tredway
(Photo: Dan Bell and Chhiring Dorje Sherpa on the top of Lobuche. In the background, Khumbu region mountains include Mount Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse.)

From Steamboat Magazine Mountain Edition 2023. Photography by Matt Tredway

I'm up early today. Somehow time is more punctuated in the shadows of huge peaks. I've been swallowed by Nepal. 

I grab my pack and shuffle over for tea, coffee and food before we set out. Anticipating another in a string of many stellar mountain days, I search for my camera. Today would be a terrible time to be without it, in the middle of the three-pass circuit. This iconic trail, Renjo La, will tweak our spirits and bodies. It will also serve as a moving acclimatization in lieu of bouncing up and down the slopes of Ama Dablam, which is our ultimate goal.

We head out in the dark. Each day’s trek with Chhiring Dorje Sherpa begins the same way: with singing and chanting. There is no modesty. Chhiring sings with gusto. Intuitively, I know he is signaling the mountain gods as to our intentions for the day, though I don’t understand a single word. I look forward to hearing it every morning; it sets the tone for the climb and just about anything we do. It becomes a part of my meditation, my church experience. It spurs me to feel the joy of life and tune in to where I am and what I am doing. The song begins and ends with no warning or fanfare, but is received with soul-wrenching appreciation. And Chhiring has plenty to sing about.

Chhiring Dorje Sherpa is an accomplished mountaineer and well-respected guide. 

A Nepalese guide with an infectious personality and a giant belly laugh, Chhiring and I first crossed paths in 2008 when he came with our friend Dr. Eric Meyer to work in the United States for a summer. I hired him before meeting him to be a part of our construction crew. I soon found out that the more you are around him, the better he gets.

His gregarious charisma makes him seem almost fictional. I’ve been on multiple international expeditions with him; partnering with him in the mountains is what it must feel like for a high school basketball coach to shoot hoops with Michael Jordan. He can speak six or seven languages and does so consistently whenever we encounter international groups. He has the uncanny ability to get along with everyone, perhaps due to his hardships growing up.

Chhiring was born in the Rolwaling Valley in 1974. The valley, which stretches along the border of Tibet into northern Nepal, is home to many of the most successful climbing sherpas in history. Reaching his town required a six or seven day walk from the end of the nearest road. 

Ama Dablam, meaning “mother’s necklace,” is a peak in the eastern Himalayan range of Province No. 1, Nepal. The peak measures 22,349 ft. 

At age 12, Chhiring’s mother died during childbirth. Chhiring’s father was paralyzed with anguish over the loss, and with his family in dire financial straits, Chhiring took it upon himself to work harder than ever while also raising his siblings. 

His uncle, Sonam Tsering Sherpa, was a well-respected climbing sherpa who had connections to trekking companies in Kathmandu. Still a young boy, Chhiring begged to be given a chance. So Sonam helped him find his way onto a trekking group to prove himself. 

The first crux was to navigate his way to Kathmandu as a 12-year-old boy. Chhiring walked for days, trying to keep up through a mostly unknown world, and with little money. He carried a note from Sonam to present to the head of a trekking company if and when they met. When he finally arrived, the city was in the midst of a political revolution. People were uprising, revolting against the power of the king. Chhiring witnessed riots and huge crowds of screaming people throwing rocks – frightening behavior he had never dreamed of in the Rolwaling Valley. Eventually he found the trekking company that Sonam had referred him to and was rewarded with work.

For 60 days straight, Chhiring carried enormous loads throughout the Annapurna circuit. He received $100 for his efforts, a goldmine at the time. He returned home with bags of supplies for his family: food, clothes, money and critical climbing equipment that would help his ability to repeat that windfall. More importantly, Chhiring established that despite his small size, he was a capable worker with a golden demeanor.

A yak train hauls gear on the three pass circuit of Khumbu.

Over the years, he moved through the ranks from porter to kitchen boy to cook. Then he was a climbing sherpa and finally a Sardar, or field general. He evolved into a leader amongst the sherpas and now, with 50 expeditions and 16 Everest summits to his name, he continues onward.

We move upwards along the rocky trail and round a corner, revealing an expansive view as dawn breaks. The horizon is packed with jagged lines. Light begins to spill in around them, creating art. Black sky gives way to grays and purples, streaked with the red of morning. I am in awe of the mountains and their possibilities. Their sheer vastness is otherworldly.

Soon, we are at the top of Renjo La soaking up the day’s fresh light and breathing the cold, thin air. Strings of weathered and faded prayer flags flutter with the occasional breaths of air. The sun’s rays are still fresh, casting a beckoning glow as I sit on a rock to marvel at the vastness. Having reached the day’s highpoint, I’m happy to take off my pack and rest.

A young porter rests his loaded basket on a boulder.

Another group arrives at the top of the pass, coming from the opposite direction. We condense to share the narrow exposed saddle. Among its members are two European trekkers and a sherpa girl who places her pack on the rocks next to mine. I strike up a conversation with her despite my desire to gaze into the vast Himalaya without interruption.

“Where are you from?” I ask, assuming the name of one of the local villages would bubble up.

“France,” she answers.

A quick double-take and a sincere jolt of interest; I could have bet the farm she was Sherpa. I study her face while we engage in small talk and then we rejoin our respective groups. Chhiring, unsurprisingly, recognizes their guide and begins talking with him. He reveals to us that they are from the same valley.

“Let me take a picture of the two Rolwaling boys,” I say. As they pose for the photos, the French girl approaches the two. She exchanges quiet words with Chhiring, whose face suddenly flushes. She steps back and stares at him, then simultaneously they are both in tears. This highpoint in the trail has become uncharacteristically emotional.

A choked explanation begins: Chhiring’s uncle and mentor, Sonam Tshering Sherpa, is at the center of this story. One of the only expeditions that Chhiring and Sonam experienced together was Sonam’s final summit on April 22, 1993. Tragically, Sonam died on descent, along with Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first Nepalese woman to summit. They disappeared after being stranded on the south summit when a storm moved in. Chhiring, though distraught at the loss of his mentor, had to continue on with the expedition. In addition to suffering the loss, as a family member, he was charged with returning to Rolwaling to share the horror with his aunt. 

Arriving at Sonam’s house, Chhiring quickly found this task would be exponentially more difficult; his aunt had given birth to a daughter while Sonam was on Everest. 

With a family to care for her and no possibility of extra income, Chhiring’s aunt – now a widow – made a heartbreaking decision to give up her newborn for adoption, praying that she would have a better life elsewhere. The baby girl went to a pair of French trekkers who happened into the area. 

Chhiring Dorje Sherpa, one of the most renowned guides in mountaineering history, was awarded the prestigious Tenzing Norgay Award for his heroic rescue of climbers following the K-2 icefall collapse of 2008. He makes his home in Steamboat Springs. 

Now in her 20s, the girl and her adoptive parents had returned to visit her homeland. And Chhiring has now bumped into her, his cousin, at the top of this pass. I am learning that there are no chance encounters in life. 

We watched Chhiring and his cousin gaze across the valleys to the shoulders of Everest, prominent on the horizon. They were taken back to the spot where their lives would first intersect. Chhiring painted a picture of her father, a strong and skilled climber and a loving uncle. From the moment of the accident, miles, continents and cultures have separated them. 

Had our paths crossed on the way up or down the pass, instead of on top, neither group would have spoken. Because of the exertion everyone would have kept inside their own head. Had Chhiring not recognized the other Sherpa and had there not been an offer to photograph the two Rolwaling boys, the connection would never have been. If there was not the interest and effort of a young French woman to understand her past and Chhiring’s continued love of the mountains, set in motion so many years ago by his uncle, these ships might have sailed past each other.

We go our separate ways after a lingering, joyful departure. We descend in silence for a few moments until the quiet is broken by a fervent song emanating from an emotional sherpa. I have never been part of a more unexpected and uncharted experience, set on the world’s most beautiful stage. Those chance meetings, the ones I avoid, they may have the energy to change everything. I have taken the lessons to heart, or strived to. People we encounter are meant to be in our lives somehow, even if only for a moment.