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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Apa Sherpa, left, and Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa stand at the top of Hidden Peak near Snowbird. They have 30 Everest ascents between them.

When he was a young boy in Nepal, Apa Sherpa's goal wasn't to climb Mount Everest. Instead, he dreamed of becoming a doctor so he could heal people.

But his father died when he was 12 years old, forcing him to drop out of school and start working as a porter on a mountain pass between Tibet and Nepal.

"There was a need to support my family, and I had to quit school," he said. "I was a porter, I had to carry more weight than my body."

Apa, the second oldest of six siblings, worked his way from porter to trekking guide and then to climbing because the pay was better, and he added, "Everyone was talking about Everest."

Now a seasoned Everest guide and Utah resident, Apa has reached the top of the world's tallest peak 16 times, more than anyone else. He and another record-holding Sherpa, Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa, are leaving for Nepal on March 28 to lead an all-Sherpa expedition with hopes of bringing attention to the Sherpa people and financial aid to Nepal. Like Apa, Lhakpa holds an Everest world record — he's climbed the peak in the record time of 10 hours, 56 minutes and 46 seconds.

In Nepal the two are famous, and Apa is known as the "Super Tiger." However, in the Western world the spotlight rarely falls on the Sherpa people, who serve as guides and porters, risking their lives to make the journey to the top of the world — 29,035 feet — possible for others.

The expedition, dubbed "Super Sherpas," will be the subject of a documentary and a book, with at least 25 percent of the net proceeds to be donated to Nepali schools, hospitals and other deserving entities.

"There's not many Sherpa people with very good education," Lhakpa said. "Our expedition will make a documentary and history and tell our story, we will raise money for Sherpa and Nepalese education and schools. ... Education is very, very important."

The two will be assisted by four other Sherpas and the documentary team will be all Sherpas as well. They'll be supported by friends from Utah at base camp as they take a route designed to highlight the role of the Sherpa and Nepali people since the historic summit of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa in 1953.

The guide and porter pay ranges from $500 to $5,000 for expeditions, according to the Super Sherpas, while non-Nepali guides and team leaders can earn $15,000 to more than $100,000 for the same trek.

"What's exciting to me is to know people are going to be able to find out who the real kings of Everest are," said Roger Kehr, who will co-manage the base camp. "When the all-Sherpa team summits, that's going to be one huge big day for Nepal."

The base camp's other co-manager, Jerry Mika, added, "The two leaders have 30 ascents between them. ... It's the strongest team in the history of Everest."

Local support has helped raise the $100,000 needed for the journey itself. However, the group is still raising funds for the documentary. The trip will also serve for medical research. Doctors at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital will conduct physiological tests before the Sherpas leave and during the trip to try to determine what allows them to ascend the world's tallest peaks without the weeks of altitude acclimation required by Western climbers.

But for Apa and Lhakpa, the main goal is education for children in Nepal. After visiting Utah several times, Apa moved his family here in December for his children's education, and his oldest son, 21, is attending the University of Utah. Lhakpa also is in the process of bringing his children here for a better education.

Apa was able to briefly attend middle school after members of an expedition helped him pay for it. For two years, he walked three hours from his home in Thame each morning to get to the school, but his education was again cut short by a need for money.

He dropped out and started working as a porter again. Later, as a member of the school board, he worked to open a middle school in Thame so that students don't have to walk three hours each way, like he did.

"When they finish the seventh grade, they still have to go to another school, and their parents cannot afford it," he said. "We are trying to help them with better education, so they don't have to carry loads and do not have to quit school."

Apa began carrying loads on Everest in 1988 but was considered too small to make it the summit because of his small frame — he's 5 feet 4 inches tall.

He first reached the summit in 1990 at age 28 in a group that included Rob Hall, a new Zealand climber who became a close friend.

In 1996, Hall was among eight climbers killed when a surprise storm ripped through Everest's high- altitude "Death Zone." Apa was supposed to join Hall in 1996, but his wife, Yanjin Sherpa, asked him to stay at home and help build a lodge.

"I still remember his face, how he always used his left hand," Apa said.

Apa acknowledged the dangers of the trek. Apa and other Sherpas have had to rescue people by carrying them on their backs. Apa recalled one Ukranian whose legs were dragging because he was so much larger than Apa.

Apa said the Ice Fall is perhaps the most dangerous part of the ascent. Ladders are laid across deep crevasses and the ice continually shifts. Ladders can fall or break in unpredictable ice shifts. Guides and porters cross the area several times to carry all the gear required by a group.

"All the time I have to worry about clients," he said. "This time I don't have to worry."

Yanjin, speaking in Sherpa, smiled as she said she still worries about Apa when he climbs Everest. She'll be staying in Utah with the couple's children.

Apa shrugged as he acknowledged it would be nice if this trip were his last attempt at climbing Everest, saying, "We'll see."


What: Cocktail party and auction to help the "Super Sherpas" Everest expedition

Where: Snowbird's Golden Cliff Room at the Cliff Lodge

When: Friday, March 23, at 6 p.m.

Cost: $100 per person

For more information, call 801-933-2147 or visit www.supersherpas.com

E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com