What It’s Actually Like to Be an Expedition Guide on Mt. Everest

Dawa Gyaljen Sherpa, a Nepal native who has conquered the world’s highest peak four times, shares his story with AFAR.

Dawa Gyaljen Sherpa

Photos courtesy of Ben Mcnamara and Intrepid Travel

Okay, so maybe most of us don’t really want to summit Mt. Everest for a living, but step in the shoes of Dawa Gyaljen Sherpa, a Nepal native who has conquered the world’s highest peak four times, and you’ll get a glimpse of just how epic, challenging, and fulfilling the job can be. The 29-year-old expedition guide, who is the deputy operations manager for Intrepid Travel in Nepal, the country’s largest trekking operator, recently caught up with AFAR to share his story.

What led you to pursue this career path?

It started with my childhood. I grew up surrounded by mountains in a village west of Namche Bazaar, which is considered the gateway to Everest. When I was a kid, my friends and I would hike around for hours and watch trekkers pass through our village. I told my father, who was a professional climber, that I wanted to be a guide, and at first he told me not to do it. As a mountaineer himself, my father has seen a lot of accidents. He also never went to school and wanted me to study instead. Traditionally, only uneducated Sherpas worked as mountain guides. Today, they’re skilled and educated. I got my undergraduate degree in business in Kathmandu and then went to London to get my master’s degree in tourism at the London School of Commerce.

How does one become a guide?

Usually you have to start as a porter, but for me it was easier because most of my uncles are climbers, so I got the opportunity straight away. When I was 16, I started climbing Nepal’s peaks, including Yala Peak in Langtang, which is about 18,000 feet, and in 2005, I summited Everest for the first time. Local companies and senior guides assess aspiring professional climbers, and you get hired based on your track record, your strength that year, and your technique. The more times you summit Everest successfully, the more pay and respect you get. Some companies even get into bidding wars for a particular guide.

What are the day-to-day obligations of being an expedition guide?

Typically the ratio is one guide to one climber within an expedition group, and the guide basically needs to do everything for the client from Everest Base Camp and above. We need to cook for them, fix their tent for them, help them with their footing, and help carry their loads if a high-altitude porter isn’t available. Another big part of our job is to provide inspiration and motivation. Even if they’re physically strong, mentally they may need encouragement. Sometimes I remind them that we’re climbing together, that if they die, then I also die, so let’s do this together as a team. We also have to know when a client’s life is at risk. Once I was with a climber who wanted to summit Everest without oxygen, but he was feeling so unwell that I had to intervene and give him oxygen so he could maintain his body temperature.

What are the perks of your job?

The first perk is that I get to climb. It’s become a habit. Once you start climbing, it’s an addiction. To me, going only halfway up a mountain is a job only half done. Secondly, I have an opportunity to work with and make friends with people from all over the world.

What are some of the downsides of your job?

Death is definitely a risk. My mother isn’t happy that I’m still guiding expeditions to Everest, especially because of recent incidents. In 2014, 16 of our Sherpa brothers lost their lives in an avalanche, and in 2015 another avalanche following the earthquake in April killed 19 climbers. Luckily, insurance has gotten better for Nepalese guides: if I die, my family gets 15 lakhs of rupees, which is about $15,000. If I’m injured, the medical insurance is 400,000 Nepalese rupees, or $4,100.

How has being a professional climber changed you or your perspective on the world?

I think a lot about the global warming problem. In May, when a lot of the expeditions happen, it used to be a lot colder than it is now. And now the ice is melting very fast. Sometimes I fear that in the future there will be no snow on Everest if global warming continues. Also, the number of people intending to climb Everest increases every year, and I’ve started to see conflicts between foreign and Nepalese climbers. These misunderstandings need to stop because climbing is a long-term business for local people and foreign companies. I want to help create an environment where there’s a mutual understanding and respect for each other.

What is your number-one piece of advice for someone who wants to climb Everest?

I recommend that you don’t go straight away to Everest. For people who climb Everest without enough experience, there can be a lot of risks and they can lose their life. You need to do a few easier climbs first and gauge how you feel. You can try Everest Base Camp first—it’s about 17,500 feet. You can work your way up to higher Himalayan mountains, such as Cho Oyu, which is 27,000 feet. It’s a step-by-step process. If you have trouble doing the lower-altitude climbs, you might not want to go for Everest, which is more than 29,000 feet.

What characteristics should someone have to succeed in this field?

Aside from having a lot of climbing experience, they should have patience. And the capability of dealing with different kinds of people with different minds. The nature and the culture of people depends on the individual and where they are from, and as a guide you need to be sensitive to that. You also need to know how to work as a team on large expeditions.

How many more times do you plan to summit Everest?

I think I will make another try as a guide in 2016. If I reach the summit safely, then I will think about what I want to do after that. Otherwise, aside from the Everest expeditions, I have a job with Intrepid Travel as deputy operations manager and am really happy with it.

What’s it like to stand on top of the world’s highest peak?

When you first reach the summit, your mind is semi-unconscious because you’re so tired, and you almost don’t realize that you’ve made it. After spending a couple of minutes there, it starts to hit you, especially when you see the clouds and smaller peaks below you. That first time you reach the summit, it feels like such a great achievement—it was one of the happiest days of my life.

>>Next: 4 Great Reasons to Visit Nepal Now

Jennifer Flowers is an award-winning journalist and the senior deputy editor of AFAR.
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