Gelje Sherpa, Superhuman

Around 800 people attempt to summit the world’s highest mountain each year. Since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first humans to reach the apex of the world in 1953, 6,338 people have successfully climbed to the top of Mt. Everest.

The vast majority of these people owe their triumph to Sherpas. These people are an ethnic group of Tibetans native to the Himalayas. Without the Sherpas, who risk their lives to set ropes, attach ladders, and haul gear for clients, Everest would be an unreachable dream for many that spend tens of thousands of dollars to give the crag a shot. Scientific studies show that Sherpas have various genetic factors that allow them to thrive in areas most humans suffer. Their bodies can more efficiently regulate hemoglobin and their mitochondria can convert more oxygen to energy than the rest of us.

It’s no surprise that Tenzing Norgay was a Sherpa.

Tenzing Norgay on the summit of Everest - photo by Edmund Hillary
Tenzing Norgay in 1953 - unknown photographer

Despite the relatively high number of people to have summited Everest, the task is far from straightforward or easy. Without the Sherpas laying the infrastructure each year, the numbers would be far lower. The death toll would also significantly rise. Somewhat shockingly, only 323 people have perished in the pursuit of the world’s highest point. 

Part of the peril of Everest lies in the so-called “Death Zone.” Above a certain point, usually cited as 8,000 meters (approximately 26,000 feet), the pressure of oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life for extended periods. Either one goes up with supplemental oxygen or zips into the Death Zone and out of the Death Zone quickly. Because of the significant risk to each person in this zone and its remoteness, if someone becomes incapacitated there, rescue is extremely unlikely. Below the summit lies “Rainbow Valley.” Far from the seventh book in the Anne of Green Gables series, this location features an unplanned graveyard of hikers, whose bodies and their colorful winter coats are preserved in the frigid temperatures. It’s too dangerous to bring them home.

Still, some people have encountered trouble in the Death Zone and lived to tell their harrowing tales. In these situations, many of the happy stories happen thanks to Sherpas.

In the 2023 climbing season, a rescue occurred that might redefine the word “superhuman.”

The jet stream rakes the summit of Everest - photo by Ralf Kayser

On May 18, Ravichandran Tharumalingam found himself in jeopardy in the Death Zone. This climber was not a neophyte to the world’s tallest mountains: he had summited Everest multiple times and even lost eight fingers to frostbite in 2022.

Without a guide or supplemental oxygen, Tharumalingam clung to a rope, shivering and unable to fend for himself. If someone did not intervene, he would have succumbed on an unforgiving mountain. Reportedly, multiple climbers passed him and opted not to help. As callous as this fact seems, aiding a person in this condition is an extreme risk. Many simply do not possess the strength or ability to rescue another human at that elevation on Everest. If one decides to help, one inherently endangers one’s own life. Stories abound of stranded climbers urging others not to help them.

Then Gelje Sherpa, leading a client toward the summit, encountered Tharumalingam. Many Sherpas adopt the word as their surname, but Gelje might want to add another word to his official nomenclature: superman.

In one of the most dangerous areas on the planet, Gelje Sherpa picked up a dying man, wrapped him in a sleeping mat, and carried him down Mt. Everest on his back.

For six hours. 

Lest you disbelieve this feat, video evidence exists:

As someone who toted a toddler on my back and congratulated myself for completing the grueling 15-mile trek up and down Mt. Marcy, New York’s High Point, in 55-mile-per-hour winds, let me assure you how hard this task is. I cannot even comprehend accomplishing this mission.

I cannot comprehend accomplishing this mission for a tenth of a mile or five minutes. Gelje went six hours, descending 1,900 vertical feet on the world’s highest mountain. After that point, another Sherpa took turns carrying the injured climber with Gelje.

This feat is insanely incredible.

Gelje Sherpa, Superhuman - photo from the legend's Instagram account

Thanks to the heroics of Gelje, Ravichandran Tharumalingam survived.

Unfortunately, some mountaineering dramatics ensued afterward. Tharumalingam caused a minor uproar when he took to social media to thank the people who helped save his life. Sounds great, but he omitted Gelje Sherpa. Instead, he praised the mountaineering company with which he is affiliated and his rescue insurance. Though his team certainly aided his recovery after the descent, one could argue they left him hanging on the slopes. Not to mention, they had nothing to do with carrying him down (Gelje is not affiliated with the company in question). Perhaps Tharumalingam simply forgot to add recognition to his savior? Astute observers noted that he actually blocked Gelje’s profiles after receiving backlash from the public.

I don’t know about you, but if someone carried me on their back for six hours down the inclines of Mt. Everest, I would spend the rest of my days effusively showering that person in all possible superlatives. After significant blowback, Tharumalingam finally recognized Gelje in a post, though the role he played still seemed muted. For his part, Gelje remained graceful, wishing Tharumalingam continued health.

On the mountains, as in life, many humans show us the ways not to be. Gelje could have left a person to die. Instead, he performed something mighty, saving a life in the process. Do not be like Tharumalingam. To those that help us along the way, let us recognize them properly.

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