The past few weeks have been hectic for Gelje Sherpa. Ever since he announced that he will be spending his winter, attempting to climb the sixth highest mountain in the world, Cho Oyu from the Nepal side, he has been running around, trying to manage funds for the project. But, help has not been coming and that is making him anxious every day.
“I’ve got a team full of experienced mountaineers, but if I don’t have the funds, it’s going to be hard,” says the 29-year-old.
If Gelje Sherpa does manage to get to the top of Cho Oyu this winter, he will only have one more mountain remaining, Broad Peak in Pakistan, to become the youngest to have climbed all 14 eight-thousanders. But for that, he needs help and he needs it fast as he aims to become another Nepali mountaineer to create history.
Going high one step at a time
Like many Nepali mountaineers, Gelje Sherpa started his career in the lower ranks. He worked as a porter for a few years and that helped him land a job as an icefall doctor (people who fix ropes and ladders along the treacherous Khumbu icefall) on Everest. He worked there five years, risking his life every day for a better future for his children, but as time went by, he yearned for more.
“When I told people that I’m an icefall doctor, they usually asked me if I’d climbed Everest. But, in my five years working there, I never got the chance to climb.”
That is when Gelje Sherpa set his sights on climbing 8,000-metre peaks. He wanted to turn his passion into a profession. He got his first chance in the spring of 2017 when he was asked to go to Kanchenjunga with a team. Even though he did not summit, he got a good first-hand experience of what to expect from 8,000-metre mountains.
He was upset, but he was determined. In the autumn of 2017, he got his first 8,000-metre summit on Manaslu.
“I was so excited I didn’t want to come back. The view was great and since then, I knew that this is where I belonged.”
The following year, Gelje Sherpa also climbed Everest and in 2019 became a part of Nirmal Purja‘s team to climb eight 8,000-metre peaks. It was then when he started to dream about climbing all 14 because, by the end of that project, he only needed to climb four to beat his climbing partner Mingma David Sherpa who climbed all the 14 eight-thousanders before his 32nd birthday.
“Nimsdai gave me hope. If he could climb 14 mountains in less than a year, I could climb four in a year. If there hadn’t been Covid-19, maybe I would have been able to climb all of them when I was 27.”
But, things did not go as planned. Even though Geljie Sherpa reached the top of K2 in Pakistan during the first winter ascent of the mountain in January 2021, he did nothing in 2020.
This year (2021), he also climbed Kanchenjunga, but with China closing its mountains again, he has a big task in hand to climb Cho Oyu and then leave for Pakistan to climb Broad Peak.
The challenge of Cho Oyu
Although Cho Oyu is one of the less technical 8,000-metre mountains, from Nepal, it is the exact opposite. The mountain is treacherous compared to China and is steep and has some extremely technical portions. To date, only 14 people have reached the summit of Cho Oyu from the Nepal side, with the last one in 2009. But, that is not daunting Gelje Sherpa, who knows if he tackles the mountain carefully and with respect, he can reach the top.
What also helps him is the first-ever ascent of this mountain from Nepal was during the winter of 1984, when the Polish team led by Andrzej Zawada became the first expedition to reach the summit. He will also be helped by the experiences he garnered from various winter expeditions. Before he climbed K2 with nine other Nepalis, he also went on winter expeditions on Everest and Pumori.
“I know what to expect. But, that doesn’t mean I’ll get carried away.”
Gelje Sherpa says it will be easier to climb this mountain in the winter as there will be fewer chances of avalanches due to the freezing temperatures. But, that will also mean ice-cold wind, which is going to be his main challenge.
“I’ve been trying to get down suits from Marmot so we can test them in the mountains. But, they are yet to give us the green light on that.”
Another challenge he faces is getting oxygen. He says that he will probably need at least five bottles of supplemental oxygen and that will only be possible if he gets enough funds.
Search for support
Gelje Sherpa says he has been asking major expedition outfits from Nepal like Seven Summit Treks for help and many have said they will help however they can. On the other hand, he is also getting some odd offers.
“One expedition outfit told me they’ll support me, but I’ll have to work for them for a number of years. It’s quite disheartening when that happens.”
When asked if any help has come from Nepal Mountaineering Association or the Nepal government, he says no. The climber says he has no link and without that, he will never be able to get the support from the government he needs.
What is interesting is there is a talk of the NMA sending a team of climbers to Cho Oyu in autumn 2022 to look at the possibility of finding a commercial route. A tentative budget of over $200,000 is also being set aside, but none of that is going to Gelje Sherpa although his input would help them a lot.
“It would be great if I could get part of that budget, but I don’t expect it, which is why I’m willing to take personal loans from banks to fulfil my lifelong dream.”
To support Gelje Sherpa on this quest are experienced mountaineers like Lakpa Dendi Sherpa, Nima Dorji Sherpa, Tashi Sherpa and Tenzing Gyalje Sherpa, but he still wants to take a few more because he knows he will need all the help he can.
“More people will depend on the funding. But, five of us are confirmed so far.”
While foreign climbers with next to no climbing records get funds to go on a guided trip to climb mountains like Everest, for Gelje Sherpa, things are looking bleak. He has set up a GoFundMe page that collected around $4,200 but he says he needs at least $50,000.
Gelje Sherpa says his family is quite worried too. His wife often asks him why he wants to spend his own money to climb mountains.
“She doesn’t understand, but mountaineering to me is more than just a job. It’s become an obsession. I’ve set myself a goal and want to fulfil it.”