“The best part of wakin’ up, is a Sherpa with your cup… of tea,” is the latest jingle by the ever-energetic 27-year-old brain cancer survivor Justin Anderson. It’s in the tune of the Foldgers’ commercial, and though it may be a little rough around the edges with its over-capacity syllable count, that’s one of our favorite elements of his improvisational jams. They keep us laughing.

Sherpa talk has been a topic of choice lately around our camp. We’ve shifted part of our awe from the beauty of the mountains to the grace of the people that make existing within them a possibility.

Sherpa originally referred to a family or tribe of people who lived in this part of the world, specifically Tibet. Then, in 1953 when Tenzing Norgay helped Edmund Hillary summit Mt. Everest, Norgay referred to himself as a Sherpa. It was then that the word began to be used for any professional guide who led aspiring climbers up the mountain. In our group, most of us use the word Sherpa for anyone who doesn’t look like us.


Technically, the staff guiding us on our journey includes six Sherpa (some of the family, some of the profession, a few in both categories), two cooks, 10 kitchen boys and 15 porters. Beginning today, as we continue on from above 14,000 feet, the team will include seven new members in the form of a crossbreed of yak and bull with three men to monitor them.

That’s 36 people in all to lead 29 throughout the Himalayas. They go to bed after us, waiting until the last person has retired for the night. They rise before us, waking us with smiles, good-mornings, and hot cups of tea. I’ve yet to hear a complaint or see a rolling of the eyes or witness a step taken without intention. They’re here to make our adventure more manageable one ounce at a time. During two weeks, it all adds up. They carry all those pounds up the mountain on their strong backs and in their kind hearts.

As I stay behind the group each morning to work on my writing, one guide is assigned to help me catch up to my people by lunchtime. One unforeseen perk of this situation is that I then get to spend a couple hours one-on-one with a Sherpa, or what I think is a Sherpa, trekking through the most beautiful nature on the planet. So far on the four mornings I have followed this system, a new guide has graced me with his presence. There are two ways of analyzing this. Either they are all vying for the position. Or, more likely, after doing it once, they’ve had enough. I ask a lot of questions.

I’ve learned about their curious children and their loving wives and the houses they miss and which part of these mountains they call home. They’ve transformed from strangers to friends in a matter of days. And it’s not just me that has felt it.

When the trip began, there was a distinct dividing line between the team of guides and our group. We gathered in separate rooms for leisure time, or kept to different sides of the room when there was just one option. Now, after a week on the move, as our white skin has darkened from the sun, as our Nepali phrase repertoire has grown and as the dividing line has disintegrated on the dusty trail, it’s tougher to tell the difference between us. We may not be Sherpa people. But like the Sherpa, we are people. That’s all that seems to matter anymore.

Last night, one woman in our group, Teresa, was invited to prepare dinner with them to learn a few tricks in the kitchen. After the meal, the cooks surprised us with a cherry cake. We all ate a slice – every Iowan, every Nepalese. Brandon – a 28-year-old leukemia survivor – leaned over to suggest we surprise the staff with breakfast one of these mornings. “Wait,” he caught himself. “They wake up pretty early, so how about lunch?”

When Justin broke out the guitar in the evening, the Sherpa were the first to begin clapping to the beat within our circle. Most speak perfect English, and quickly realized this new song that was being made up on the spot was about them. They laughed harder than any of us.

We are far from home – the other side of the world in fact. Yet there are moments like these that make me feel like I live here too. Iowa and Nepal are nearly the exact same size, but the similarities of the places end there. This landscape reaches much higher into the sky, the food comes from different sources, there’s not a television in sight.

But as far as the similarities in the people go, smiles are the same around the world. Generosity goes a long way no matter where you are. Laughter rises out of cornfields and echoes off mountaintops.

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