Sherpa Team’s Dream of Conquering the 8,000-Meter Peaks Shattered Amidst Controversy and Broken Bonds

In a dramatic turn of events, the pursuit of scaling 8,000-meter peaks led to the dissolution of a cohesive climbing team. Pasdawa Sherpa and Dawa Ongju Sherpa, renowned Nepali mountaineers, played instrumental roles in assisting Norwegian climber Kristin Harila in her quest to conquer the highest summits in 2022. However, their partnership ended on a bitter note, shedding light on the power disparity that exists between Sherpas and the clients who hire them.

The ill-fated incident took place in late July 2022 when Pasdawa and Dawa Ongju found themselves battling treacherous conditions on the summit ridge of Broad Peak in Pakistan, standing at an imposing height of 26,414 feet. The two Sherpas were guiding Kristin Harila, who aimed to break the current speed record held by Nepali mountaineer Nirmal Purja for summiting all 14 peaks above 8,000 meters.

Tragedy struck when an avalanche suddenly swept two Sherpas off the ridge. Miraculously surviving the ordeal, albeit shaken, they managed to free themselves and persisted towards the summit, only to face yet another avalanche.

“At that point, we realized it was prudent to turn back,” Dawa Ongju revealed to Outside. “However, we thought, ‘If we live, we live. If we die, we die. It doesn’t matter.’ So, we took the risk and pressed on towards the summit.”

He added, “We did it all for Kristin.”

Undeterred by the perilous circumstances, the trio ultimately reached the peak. Broad Peak marked Harila’s eighth successful summit with the two Sherpas, drawing significant attention from international media due to her remarkable achievements and unconventional climbing strategy. While most record-seekers employ different teams of Sherpas for each mountain, Harila expressed her desire to etch her name in history alongside her two trusted guides, both of whom were affiliated with the renowned outfitter 8K Expeditions. In May 2022, Harila praised Pasdawa and Dawa Ongju, stating, “I would love to share the record with them. I don’t want the focus to be solely on myself.”

However, in November 2022, their harmonious relationship abruptly crumbled, even though they still had two mountains left to conquer: Cho Oyu (26,864 feet) and Shishapangma (26,335 feet). These peaks are typically approached from the Chinese side, but due to pandemic-related border closures, Harila was unable to secure the necessary permits. While she planned a winter ascent of Cho Oyu from the Nepal side, Pasdawa and Dawa Ongju were conspicuously absent from her roster. Although they did not provide specific reasons for parting ways with Harila, a representative from 8K Expeditions revealed in a March 2023 interview that a payment dispute was at the heart of the disagreement.

Harila’s subsequent attempt to conquer Cho Oyu proved unsuccessful, prompting her to announce plans to pursue the speed record on the 14 peaks in 2023 with a different outfitter. Surprisingly, she extended an invitation to Pasdawa and Dawa Ongju to join her on the first two climbs in April—Cho Oyu and Shishapangma—allowing them to complete the 14 peaks together.

In April 2023, Outside interviewed Pasdawa and Dawa Ongju, who admitted to feeling hurt by the turn of events. Nevertheless, they both conveyed their well wishes to Harila for her 2023 endeavor.

“We had intended to share the record, so naturally, this is disappointing,” Dawa Ongju expressed. “We faced challenges together and put our lives on the line for her. But I offer her my blessings.”

Unfortunately, their permits to climb the peaks from the Chinese side were not approved, leading Harila to proceed without them. As their travel plans collapsed for the second time, their sentiments changed. Dawa Ongju vented his frustrations on Facebook, penning an icy message. He wrote, “We carried all the gear, backpacks, crampons, clothes, water bottles, oxygen canisters, camera, backup batteries, food, and all the equipment while prioritizing Kristin. She didn’t have to lay a single meter of rope or tie a single knot. After receiving our canceled passports back, we were shocked and dumbfounded.” Despite efforts to seek a response from the Chinese consulate in Kathmandu regarding the travel problems, Outside did not receive a reply. Six days after their plans fell through, Harila successfully summited Cho Oyu, and by the end of May, she had conquered four additional 8,000-meter peaks.

Harila declined to delve into specifics about her decision to work with a different expedition operator in 2023. She told Outside in April 2023, “I believe people think this was our project, but the truth is, it was always my project from the beginning.”

The fractured relationship between the climbing team exposes the longstanding power dynamics prevalent in Himalayan mountaineering. Western climbers often attain celebrity status and lucrative sponsorships for conquering the highest peaks. The media attention garnered by their achievements propels their future expeditions and occasionally helps them navigate the complex diplomatic barriers that obstruct access to these mountains. However, the high-altitude workers who support them seldom achieve the same level of fame or wealth. Despite their unparalleled climbing and survival skills in the world’s harshest climates, their profession remains arduous and perilous. And when challenges arise, be it avalanches or visa issues, they are typically the ones who bear the brunt.

“As Sherpas, we often don’t receive due credit for our work,” Pasdawa expressed. “We toil relentlessly, yet the clients steal the spotlight. It’s disheartening. Things would have been entirely different if we had the opportunity to climb in Tibet this year.”

The inability of Dawa Ongju and Pasdawa to secure travel visas to China has had significant ramifications for their careers. Both men emphasized that completing the 14 peaks would have bolstered their value as guides and provided them with credibility to venture into other areas such as mountaineering education.

“Throughout my career, I have successfully summited 37 peaks above 8,000 meters. However, that alone is not enough,” Dawa Ongju lamented. “I genuinely want to teach and train other climbers. But people won’t listen to me unless I have some kind of record. That’s what upsets me.”

Many of Nepal’s most skilled high-altitude workers hail from cash-strapped remote villages in eastern Nepal, where educational opportunities are scarce. Dawa Ongju left school after the third grade, and Pasdawa after the fifth, as they had to join the workforce. The challenging economic conditions in Nepal make it difficult to find employment in other industries, and compared to other jobs within the country, mountaineering offers lucrative compensation.

In recent years, the plight of Sherpa climbers on Mount Everest and other Himalayan peaks has gained greater recognition worldwide. A 2014 study conducted by Outside revealed that Sherpa climbers face a workplace fatality rate of 4,053 deaths per 100,000 people—a rate ten times higher than the U.S. military’s

fatality rate during the Iraq war. Earlier this spring, the New York Times featured the story of renowned Nepali mountaineer Kami Rita Sherpa, who has scaled Everest a record 28 times. Kami Rita expressed his struggle to support his family of four in a rented apartment in Kathmandu and expressed his hope that his children pursue professions away from the high peaks.

Both the compensation and acknowledgment for Sherpas have seen improvements in recent years. Nepalese climber Nirmal “Nims” Purja, who is not a Sherpa, has observed a growing appreciation for Sherpa climbers’ accomplishments within the international mountaineering community.

“The Nepalese community has always supported individuals in realizing their dreams of conquering the mountains—be it the Sherpas, guides, porters, tea house owners, base camp cooks, or teams. Often, their contributions have been overlooked. However, there has been a recent shift in the recognition bestowed upon the Nepalese climbing community for their work, which is highly encouraging.”

Harila believes that climbers generally hold respect and appreciation for their Sherpas. She stated, “Yes, of course, climbers are primarily focused on saying ‘I reached the summit.’ But I understand that it’s because they have invested so much in that goal. They have paid for the services provided by the fixing team, the company, and the Sherpas. So, most of the time, I see climbers genuinely appreciating the Sherpas.”

While there has been an increase in Sherpa-owned expedition companies that guide paying customers to the summits of the highest peaks, few Sherpas are among the group of record-chasing celebrities within the close-knit climbing community. This is partly attributed to the self-promotion skills and international relationships that record-chasing climbers must cultivate to finance their expeditions and navigate diplomatic obstacles. Both Pasdawa and Dawa Ongju pointed out their limited English proficiency and personal marketing as the main factors that have hindered their progress on the global mountaineering stage.

Some Sherpa climbers have attempted to establish themselves by pursuing speed records. In 2022, 31-year-old climber Gelje Sherpa raised funds through the crowdfunding site GoFundMe while aiming to become the youngest person to scale all 14 peaks. Like Pasdawa and Dawa Ongju, Gelje was unable to enter China to ascend Cho Oyu and instead undertook an unsuccessful mission to climb it from the Nepal side.

On April 26, Harila reached the summit of 26,335-foot Shishapangma alongside a Norwegian filmmaker and two guides: Tenjen Sherpa and Mingma Sherpa. Six days later, she successfully summited Cho Oyu. By the end of May, she had conquered three additional peaks.

Meanwhile, Pasdawa and Dawa Ongju were on Everest, establishing camps and leading new clients on acclimatization rotations through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall. If successful, this expedition would mark Dawa Ongju’s eighth ascent and Pasdawa’s eleventh.

Despite his frustrations, Dawa Ongju expressed his well-wishes to Harila. He said, “From my perspective, she was family. I still consider her as family… I will be delighted if she succeeds.”

When asked if they could break the speed record on the 14 peaks given access to Harila’s resources, Dawa Ongju swiftly replied amidst the clamor of a bustling basecamp kitchen, “We could go twice as fast because we wouldn’t have to wait for the clients to catch up. I am completely confident that we could break the record by at least a month.”

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