Life at the extremes

The evolution of a modern porter-turned-international mountain guide, entrepreneur and visionary

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Tendi Sherpa’s career started in the Himalayan Range, but it soon expanded around the world.
Papa Lima Whiskey 2/Wikicommons

Tendi remembers how his extremities froze in the icy water of the monsoon-flooded river, and the following three days that he survived without food, at the mercy of the weather and wild animals, before finally returning home. He was only 7 years old at the time. 

It would not be the last time Tendi would overcome adversity. It was only the beginning of his life at the extremes. 

At the age of five, his parents sent him to the village of Khanigau Tamku, Nepal, to go to school. It was a three-day walk away. The plan was for him to stay with some family friends in exchange for doing light housework. Little did he or his parents know that he would ultimately be subjected to heavy work unsuitable for a child.

“I had to get up at dawn and go to the woods, carry things to the house,” Tendi says. “It was a lot of work. It took me three hours to walk to school. I was always late.”

He recalls school starting at 10 a.m. but says he often wouldn’t get there until 1 p.m. due to his workload. When he’d arrive late, he was punished by the teacher, who would force him to sit down while she pulled his ears as punishment in front of the other students.

It was exhausting, and Tendi knew that continuing in school under such conditions was not an option, so he escaped and headed back to his home village of Khembalung.

“I remember seeing the river, very strong,” he says, remembering the water’s chill. “I knew that if I fell in the river, my parents would never know what happened to me. I tried to go through a part where there were stones, and I fell.” 

It was an experience that would mark him for life.

Tendi grew up listening to his father’s stories about working as a porter for tourists on trekking expeditions. Once in a while, his father would bring home chocolates that clients had given him. It made Tendi dream of working with tourists one day.

“I begged my father to take me to work with him. He told me I was still very young. That it was a tough job. When I turned 13, he accepted.” 

Tendi was off to Kathmandu.

Tendi Sherpa holds his Foundation’s flag during his 12th time summiting Everest.

When he arrived in the country’s capital, he was impressed that people there had “different feet.” Tendi had never worn shoes and had never actually seen them before. In his village, everyone walked barefoot.

“I remember asking my dad, impressed, why they did not have toes,” Tendi says. That same day his father took him to a market in Kathmandu and bought him his first pair of sandals, and later that day he had his first “job interview.”

Tendi went with his father to the office of the trekking company where he worked. The owner of the company, noting how small the young boy was, said that he couldn’t work as a porter. The decision made some sense. Tendi only weighed 88 pounds. On a trek, he’d be expected to carry a load twice his weight and in high-altitude for 15 days in a row.

But the prospect of seeing foreigners for the first time was so exciting to Tendi, he begged them to let him work. A different manager told him that if he managed to sneak onto the bus the next day without getting caught, he would give him the job.

“The next day, I arrived early, I was so small, I managed to get under a seat, the owner got on the bus, said goodbye to the clients, and I was very excited, my adventure had begun,” Tendi recalls.

Being a porter and carrying twice his weight was not an easy task. As he hiked higher, fatigue set in. As he approached the end of the trip, one of the clients, worried that Tendi was going to go up to the snow wearing only sandals, gave him a pair of boots.

“I had tiny feet, and this client gave me [size 10] boots. I had to fill the space with paper and clothes. I looked like a penguin; my feet were bigger than my body,” Tendi remembers with a smile.

Jimmy Land, Gordon Sutherland and Tendi Sherpa stand on the summit of Mera Peak.

While climbing the mountain pass with his heavy load and oversized shoes, Tendi was eventually forced to hike barefoot. He would walk 20 steps and stop to rub his feet to avoid frostbite. What took the rest of the group six hours took him 12.

For Tendi it was an achievement. He had beaten the odds. “I remember digging deep into my inner strength. I would say to myself one more step.” 

Considering the monumental effort, the pay was modest by Western standards. Tendi earned $5 a day, plus tips. Upon returning to Kathmandu, he used his new-found wealth to stay in the city and take an English course so he could more easily communicate with future clients. 

After that, Tendi worked as a porter and trekking guide, until one day the opportunity of Everest knocked on his door.

In 2003, he was hired as Sherpa for the Ken Noguchi Everest Cleaning Expedition, which removed more than 2.4 tons of trash from the mountain. Tendi says that expedition opened his eyes to the importance of environmentalism.

“I will always appreciate that the first time I came to Everest was to clean the mountain. Otherwise, I think I would not have had the respect that I have today,” he says.

He confesses that after long and exhaustive expeditions, his team sometimes feels tempted to leave the garbage and collect it “next season.” But that’s not an option for him. Today, he considers it part of his legacy to carry an environmental message to those who work with him.

In 2004, Tendi finally reached the highest point on Earth for the first time, summiting Everest from its north side. 

Everest Base Camp; photo Uwe Gille/wikimedia

“I will always remember my first summit: It was my moment, there I knew that [my future] would be to take people who dreamed of being there. I will never forget this moment,” a teary-eyed Tendi recalls.

From there, Tendi’s career as a mountain guide gradually grew. He worked as a climbing Sherpa with Western expeditions until 2011, when he became part of the select group of Nepalese who have the Union Internationale des Associations de Guides de Montagne certification. Today, he owns his own guiding company, TAG Nepal. And he has now been on the top of the world a total of 12 times.

Tendi has not limited his climbing efforts to the Himalayas. After his inaugural years in Nepal, he traveled to guide in the mountains of Bolivia, Chile, Switzerland and the United States. He calls Argentina and its highest peak, Aconcagua, his “home away from home,” summiting the highest point of South America eight times.

On Aconcagua, Tendi met David Schaeffer, a Colorado climber. Schaeffer was making a solo ascent of the peak while Tendi was guiding clients attempting the Seven Summits, aka attempting to climb the highest mountain on each continent. 

From a friendship forged in the mountains, the two came up with the idea of creating a climbing gear company.

For Schaeffer, it all made sense. He’d always wanted to open a gear company, and he saw Tendi as a perfect partner. Not only was Tendi an excellent gear designer, but the fact that he was also an “activist” pushing environmentalism and education, as well as working to provide clean, safe drinking water for the people of Nepal made him a great fit for Schaeffer’s vision. And the connection would make it possible for the pair to test their products under real world climbing conditions. That is how Himali, their Colorado-based start-up, was born. 

In the future, the climbing guide dreams of opening a factory for his company in Nepal, where his products could generate a source of income for his people.

Schaffer wasn’t the only important contact Tendi would make on the slopes of Aconcagua. That’s also where he met Gordon Sutherland and Jimmy Lang. Sutherland, 57, a self-described “hard trekker,” remembers being impressed to seeing a Sherpa guide in South America.

He recalls that first meeting. “Modest as ever, Tendi never revealed to us he was an Everest summiteer.” If not for overhearing a film crew interview him at base camp, he would not have known that Tendi had 10 Everest summits at that time.

Later, Tendi led Sutherland and his friend Jimmy Lang to Mera Peak in Nepal. The three formed a close friendship. After Tendi shared his beliefs and dreams with his new friends, Sutherland suggested he create a foundation to help isolated populations in Nepal, including the guide’s own village.

“Tendi agreed, and I took the project on,” Sutherland says. 

Tendi has now established the “Tendi Sherpa Foundation” in Nepal, and a matching charity will soon be founded in the U.K. The work to set up the charity is being done on a pro bono basis by the Norton Rose Fullbright, Solicitors, a law firm and PWC Accountants. Sutherland will serve as head of the charity.

The bridge Tendi’s foundation built over the river in his village. 

The primary objectives of the Foundation, all set by Tendi, are to build schools and community houses, small medical clinics, guest houses to benefit local communities and suspension bridges over dangerous river crossings. 

The schools will provide education to children who have been orphaned or whose families have been left destitute after their fathers died in the mountains, and older children who did not have the opportunity to go to school earlier due to lack of financial support.

In addition to learning math, reading and writing English, Nepali and Tibetan, the children will receive vocational training to learn skills useful in their daily lives, such as cooking, farming, carpentry, construction and mountaineering.

Tendi has agreed to personally lead two treks a year, to either Everest Base Camp or to his home village, to raise funds for the Foundation. In 2018, both treks went to his home village, and were sold out, raising more than $70,000.

Tendi’s work has already achieved positive changes in his village, including one that has greatly improved the quality of life for women.

“The ovens in which they cooked, the smoke was very toxic. I grew up seeing my neighbors with malformations in their eyes and so on,” says Tendi. He managed to raise funds for 35 ovens that improved the respiratory health of the women who are largely responsible for the fires and cooking.

Another of Tendi’s village projects is a greenhouse effort called “Garden of Sky,” in which Armand Dussey, a friend of Tendi’s from Switzerland, volunteers to teach local people how to work with different vegetables and food and how to grow them all year-round.

The achievements of Tendi in his village of Khembalung are incalculable — from putting 22 children through school, to changing the location of the village to avoid hazards after a 2015 earthquake, to the creation of new community toilets.

But there is one achievement Tendi is proudest of that reminds him of everything he has gone through that no summit of Everest or Amadablam, or Makalu, or any monetary gain has given him: a bridge over the river in his village.

“I always return to the sensation of vulnerability that I felt [at] seven years old in that frozen river. The bridge is my greatest achievement, I see it and I say to myself, ‘You made it Tendi.’”

This 2019 season, Tendi Sherpa is guiding alongside famed American guide Mike Hamill, leading more than 30 clients up Everest.