Seeing Nepal through the eyes of a Sherpa

NEPAL, mystical and dreamy Nepal, suddenly came into sharper focus for me the other night in New York. It wasn't so much the slides I saw of the shimmering white peaks and colorfully dressed Nepalese as the rare appearance of a small man with jet-black hair, high Mongolian cheekbones, and a shy smile.

Pertemba Sherpa is, at 35, the most illustrious Nepalese mountaineer since Tenzing Norgay, the man who accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary on the first conquest of Mt. Everest in 1953. Pertemba is said to be the only person to have climbed Everest by two different routes; he also leads ordinary treks for ordinary people out of Nepal's capital, Katmandu, for a San Francisco adventure-travel outfit called InnerAsia.

In the crowd at the Asia Society on Park Avenue were two recent InnerAsia customers, former New York Mayor John Lindsay and his wife, Mary, who had divided their time in Nepal between a river run and a modest trek. How high did they go? ''Only to 7,000 feet,'' said Lindsay, who was quick to add, ''but you don't see wildlife if you go much higher, or run rivers either.''

Pertemba, I thought with a rapid calculation, climbed four times as high as the Lindsays when he scaled Everest, and yet here was this quiet man in turtleneck, checked shirt, and Italian climbing boots telling a small knot of admirers before the slide presentation how impressed he was with New York weather. ''We have snow like this, and rain, in Nepal,'' he said in his measured way, ''but not the wind. This weather is very difficult for walking.''

He was ending a five-week tour of the United States for InnerAsia (2627 Lombard Street, San Francisco, Calif. 94123), during which he launched a three-part climbing seminar that will bring him back to Yosemite National Park in July for a technical-climbing workshop and culminate in the ascent of a 20, 000-foot peak in Nepal next November. If he tired of the pace and the questions and the spotlight, it scarcely showed from the lecturn.

Pertemba, said an InnerAsia official, is a Sherpa, a band of people who migrated 400 years ago from Tibet to the slopes of Everest in the northern highlands and are best known today as mountain guides and indomitable porters on foreign trekking expeditions. As the official stood beside him and spoke, a series of gorgeous slides began to bring Nepal - the so-called Roof of the World - to life: the monks, the festivals, the mountain peaks. Yet it all remained a mirage until Pertemba began to speak, and even then his voice seemed to come from far away.

''Sherpas are known as guides and technical climbers now,'' he said, ''but traditionally we were traders and herders. My brother herds yaks and carries goods across the high passes into Tibet each summer. Most of the Sherpas move higher up with their families and herds for three or four months when the weather is warm and they make butter and cheese. When they go into Tibet they take cattle and dyes and come back with salt and meat and wool.

''They carry 60 pounds on their backs but'' - here he chuckled slightly - ''they do stop at teahouses in the mountains and enjoy themselves. Of course, the business of guiding and climbing is new to us. At first I thought the visiting climbers were crazy. Until the 1950s the idea of mountain climbing was totally foreign to us. We have always considered certain peaks sacred; they must not be touched by anyone. And this will never change.''

Pertemba said a typical day on the trekking trail ''begins just before sunrise when the Sherpa brings hot tea to the tent. Then you wash up and dress and have a light breakfast and the trek begins. You walk at your own pace, no rush, no hurry, and carry a small day pack. Everything else is carred by porter and yak. The yak carries 130 pounds, the porter 60 pounds.''

Nepal has a serious problem with soil erosion, the InnerAsia representative told us. Indeed it is said the No. 1 export to India is soil (due to its being carried by rivers across the border). But she said it is population pressure and animal foraging and not trekking that has caused the deforestation. Thus the economy is more than ever dependent on tourism. She said that a national park set up by Hillary in 1976 had helped bring back wolves, deer, pheasants, and the almost mystical snow leopard.

Had Pertemba ever seen a snow leopard, someone asked from the audience.

''Only once, 20 years ago,'' he said.

Had he seen the yeti, the abominable snowman? ''Personally, I have not, but I believe some yeti exist. We have strange animals in the mountains. Five years ago a local girl was watching her yaks at 15,000 feet and she heard a whistling, singing noise and then something was throwing her into the stream. She took five minutes to wake up and she saw that two young yaks were dead, and then she saw a yeti a half-mile away climbing in the mountains.''

What about the future of climbing? ''There are not many difficult routes left on Everest, but there is still a challenge in climbing so high without oxygen.''

What have you liked most about the US? ''I like to see my friends I have met in Nepal and I like skiing - I tried it out for the first time at Snowbird in Utah - and I like salads because we eat cooked vegetables in Nepal. I also like the microwave ovens and the electric garage doors. At 12,000 feet where I used to live when it snowed it sometimes took us 5 or 10 minutes to get the door open.''

Finally, but not, I think, for the first time on Pertemba's US tour, someone wanted to know about the spiritual experience of climbing tall mountains and what exactly one thinks about at 18,000 feet. ''I am not having spiritual thoughts then,'' said Pertemba. ''I am thinking about how to keep away from the avalanche or how to get down the mountain.''

All around the unlikely-looking hero fell torrents of sympathetic laughter.

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