Boulder restaurateur Pemba Sherpa and friends help heal his earthquake-stricken homeland
By Steven Wilke
A search for adventure brought 18-year-old Pemba Sherpa from the rooftop of the world to the Flatirons, but it was the Boulder community that made him stay.
He didn’t forget where he was raised; since 1991, when he left Sengma, his hillside village in the Khumbu region of northeastern Nepal, he has returned 49 times to visit family, guide expeditions and help improve infrastructure. Back in Boulder, he established a guide company connecting thousands of western climbers to his homeland, and in 2002 opened Sherpa’s Adventurers Restaurant & Bar, the resurrection place of an age-old chai recipe that seduced the taste buds of many connoisseurs. The restaurant has also been a source of employment for local Nepalis—many of whom send a portion of their earnings to help family back home.
Nepal is one of the poorest nations on earth, an issue especially evident in rural areas like the ones where Sherpas live. Between his mountaineering business, contributing a portion of his restaurant and chai sales directly to his village, and personally returning to build infrastructure, Pemba’s been called a one-man stimulus package.
His efforts have been a huge gesture for his people back home, especially in recent years when Sherpas can’t seem to catch a break. In 2014 an earthquake loosed an ice cleave that killed 16 Sherpas, and that year also saw an outbreak of tensions between guides and western climbers that implied a needed reevaluation of the treatment of Sherpas. And then, slightly over one year ago, the big one happened.
The Himalayas are the result of India ramming into and underneath Asia, an imperfect process that accumulates geological stress, which eventually needs to be released in the form of earthquakes. On April 25, 2015, the Indian plate—which had been snagged on the Eurasian plate—slipped and thrust 200 years’ worth of movement northward in just a couple of seconds. The sudden strain/energy force, equivalent to the detonation of 20 nuclear bombs 5 miles below the ground, lifted the Nepali capital of Kathmandu 3 feet. In cities it reduced many buildings to rubble, and the ones left standing were unstable at best. Ice cleaved off Everest, pounding Base Camp with pulverized rock and snow and ending the life of Pemba’s cousin.
The quake and its aftershocks killed almost 9,000 people, injured more than 21,000, destroyed 490,000 structures and affected 8
million Nepalis. Villages, including Sengma, were nearly leveled or completely gone.
Media and aid flooded into Nepal from countless organizations around the world, focusing on urban areas where population density was high. For many villages like Pemba’s, however, aid was stalled or never came at all. After news cameras left the cities, rural Nepal was still left with inadequate shelter and no heat or electricity, a fact especially troubling for villagers anticipating the rapidly approaching monsoon season.
Pemba, although devastated, immediately kicked into high gear, and Boulder seemed to notice. A network almost 25 years in the making whirred into motion.
Sherpa’s restaurant kitchen doubled production on Sherpa Chai, brewing from before dawn until after dark each day and reaching out to local vendors to carry more. McGuckin Hardware hosted chai demos and a “Tarps for Pemba” campaign, matching 82 customer donations for a total of 165 tarps that eventually provided temporary shelter for 282 Sengma families.
“Pemba called and asked if I’d help, and I said yes,” says Malcolm Daly, a Boulder climber and activist who started Paradox Sports, an organization that focuses on making outdoor sports accessible to adventurers with physical disabilities. “It’s all of our Sherpa friends that we’ve developed tremendous relations with.”
“What this man has given to his people, it makes me cry every time I hear it,” says Daly’s wife, Karen, who turned their home into a collection center for aid. “We thought, ‘We need to give back to this community.’ ”
Boulder resident and airline pilot Matt Murray, a Desert Storm veteran and avid climber, flew $65,000 of gear in three trips to Kathmandu, persuading United Airlines to waive all the baggage fees on “10,000 pounds of stuff.”
After the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) sponsored a community dinner and paddle raiser, Pemba was able to return home last June with more than $109,000 that he personally distributed to families, helping them begin the process of rebuilding their homes. While he was there, he also helped rebuild two monasteries, a temple and a bridge over the Dudh Kosi River.
“The great thing is, 100 percent of the money we raised went directly to the village without being absorbed into any overhead,” says Malcolm Daly. Pemba agrees that “it was very successful—but not an overnight fix. It’s going to be an ongoing process.”
Student ‘Chai Team’ Steps Up
The immediate need for shelter was addressed, but with the village’s school destroyed, students attended class in tents. Pemba returned to Boulder and joined forces with locals to form Mission Nepal, beginning another phase of fundraising aimed to rebuild the primary school and a hydroelectric power plant in 2016.
Early last fall, students from Boulder’s High Peaks Elementary, on Aurora Avenue, heard about the school and the 200 displaced kids and wanted to get involved. Seven 5th-graders and one 3rd-grader began a fundraiser selling Sherpa Chai to their schoolmates.
“We all got together and at first I was unsure,” says 5th-grader Sierra Bulk. “It’s hard for kids our age to do something and help, but if we were learning in Nepal right now, we’d be in a tent. We wanted to help these kids that no longer have anything.”
On Fridays the High Peaks chai team sold by the cup or the bottle. They allocated roles, set up donation stations in other classrooms, wrote announcements each day, and met weekly to count money before turning it in to the office.
“They took charge, and I made sure they were prepared,” says High Peaks principal Jeannie Tynecki. “It was a collaborative effort … they did it all!”
By the end of the semester the students raised $1,528, which was matched by a Boulder artist. Pemba continued to fundraise with the help of the CMC, the Dalys and other local climbers. He postponed his planned April trip to the village until late September, when he can make more of an impact, though the school and hydro-plant projects have already begun in Sengma, managed by his brother Chhongba Sherpa.
“With technology and pictures, we can monitor and help from here,” Pemba says, adding that every trip back home costs him about $5,000. “If I send money over this way, it goes further.”
“When this started Pemba looked at me and said he planned to sell his house,” says Karen Daly. “That is the level of dedication that he has to his family and country. And what he’s done for this community is remarkable—he’s given back, and people know that.”
Steven Wilke is a Boulder freelance writer who likes homebrews and messing around in the garden.