The Sherpa Of New York

Illustration: Elena Scotti (GMG), Photo: Serap Jangbu Sherpa, Getty
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“This was the original price,” Serap Jangbu Sherpa assured them as he pulled down a waterproof jacket from the rafters, “but now you get 35 percent discount.”

It was fall clearance at Tent & Trails, a decades-old, family-owned outdoors retailer in Lower Manhattan, two blocks from the World Trade Center, and Serap was helping a group of three middle-aged Chinese tourists. One of them tried on the jacket, held his arms wide, gestured to his companions for advice. Recognizing a language barrier, Serap retrieved a notepad from his desk and wrote out some calculations. “This is how much you save.”

Four rows of apparel, sleeping bags, and tents climbed from wood floors to the fluorescent-lit ceiling. The windowless store feels, if you squint just right, a little bit like a mountain lodge. But across the street, the Woolworth Building—nicknamed a “cathedral of commerce” when it opened as the world’s tallest building in 1913—towered over Broadway, with enough stairs to summit a 4,000-foot peak. In this part of the country, that passes for high elevation.

Short, wiry and ponytailed, Serap, age 49, waited patiently on his customers, a bit amused. “Aye yi yi,” he whispered to me.

They rummaged through a rack of clothes from the Sherpa Adventure Gear brand, and the tag on one shirt stood out: Atop a dark Himalayan ridge, a short, silhouetted climber gazes at the icy jags of Mount Thamserku.

That climber is Serap.

Flip the tag, and he’s smiling broadly at you. Customers used to notice this, surprised and perhaps a little confused, recognizing the sales clerk who was at that moment standing in front of them. Sometimes they got bits of his story—that he was one of the most accomplished Himalayan guides in history.

The photos were taken years earlier, in 2010, shortly after Serap had become the first Nepali to summit his country’s eight peaks over 8,000 meters. He had only three more giants to scale, all in Pakistan, to become the first Sherpa to top the 14 tallest Himalayan peaks—the eight-thousanders, they’re called—a kind of alpine Hall of Fame.

One year later, he was living in Queens, in an apartment across from one of the city’s largest public hospitals, and working at Tent & Trails. Thousands of Sherpas have come to New York, their largest community outside of Nepal, trading the mountains for an uncertain struggle in a distant metropolis. They settled 7,500 miles away in Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, the most ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhoods in New York, and maybe the world, with 167 different languages spoken in a 1.64 square-mile area. In 2010, about 5,000 Nepalese lived in Queens, according to the census, a number that local leaders said was a significant undercount, and which they now believe has gone up by 60 percent. Despite only comprising one half of one percent of Nepal’s population, the Sherpa people are the most populous Nepalese ethnic group in New York, numbering roughly 3,000.

Serap hasn’t climbed a high peak since moving here.

The path to Queens and out of Nepal started in Tibet, of all places. It was 2006, and Serap was climbing Everest for the fifth time, but not in the usual way. Serap and Korean climber Park Young-seok had become a fearless duo in the alpine world after climbing Kangchenjunga, Shishapangma, Lhotse, and K2 together. Now they planned to traverse Everest from Tibet to Nepal, north to south, base to peak to base, a hair-raiser only two teams had ever pulled off.

It is already an axiom that the descent of Everest, after expending all the energy it takes to reach the summit, proves the most deadly; Serap’s route, on top of all that, would cross unfamiliar terrain on the way down. The south side wouldn’t contain fixed ropes laid down on the ascent; they’d have to open a brand-new route. Speed was of life-and-death importance, so they decided to travel lightly, without a tent.

On Tibet’s Mt. Shishapangma in 2011.
On Tibet’s Mt. Shishapangma in 2011.
Photo: Serap Jangbu Sherpa

Just before midnight on May 11, with four other Sherpas and two Koreans, they started up the North Col from the third camp and arrived at the summit at 11 a.m. They remained on the summit for 90 minutes, then Park and Serap started into Nepal. They climbed down in alpine style, connected to each other only by a thin lightweight rope, seven millimeters thick and 50 meters long.

Serap led, even though he’d never come this way before; he’d only ever reached the summit from the north face. They were climbing blind at 29,000 feet. Coming down the Hillary Step at 12:30 p.m., one of Park’s crampons caught an old rope, and he slid to the edge of the exposed rock face. His headlamp flew off, dropping 8,000 feet to Camp Two.

Serap slammed down his ice axe and tied their rope to the handle. If Park fell, Serap would be pulled off with him.

Serap held the rope tightly; anything more than walking at that altitude felt impossible. After half an hour of wriggling to push himself up, an exhausted Park managed to grab onto a rock for support and with his other hand free his crampon.

They caught their breath at the South Summit, only for Serap to step into a crevasse, where he again used his axe as a handbrake. After pulling himself out, Serap thought he could make out a person in a yellow jacket a thousand feet below, above the so-called Balcony. When they arrived, all they found was a one-foot-tall empty yellow oxygen bottle. Without it, though, Serap would’ve been unable to decipher the route down. “It was like a sign,” he says.

But it was nearly dark now. Serap wore the only headlamp, and the rest of the way down was a mystery. He pushed away the thought that they might not get off Everest alive. “My mind was fixed on getting to the South Col,” he says. He turned on his radio and tried one frequency after another, calling for the south base camp. Finally a friend of his picked up around 6 p.m.

“We just traversed Everest,” Serap told him. “How do we get down?”

He was told to follow a corridor between one large boulder and one small one; if they went too far left or right, they’d go off a cliff or into Tibet. Serap would descend 40 yards, then turn around and shine a light on his footprints for Park to follow. Clouds hid the moon, but when they parted momentarily, Serap made out a familiar blue ice bulge above the South Col. There they sidestepped crevasses masquerading as strips of white snow.

Around midnight, they arrived at the South Col, nearly 26,000 feet up. It was deserted. They didn’t have a tent. Their radio was no longer working. Serap had given Park his oxygen five hours earlier; now they were both empty. Serap told him they had to continue. Altitude sickness was still fatal. “If we stay,” he told Park, “one or both of us will die.”

Serap replaced the old batteries in his headlamp. On fixed ropes laid by other teams, they reached Camp Three at two in the morning. Nobody was expecting them, so their shouts for help went unanswered. Finally, Serap found one unoccupied tent and inside a sleeping bag, cooking equipment, and a single tea packet. Park collapsed, snowblind. Serap left to gather ice to boil. They’d left Tibet 26 hours earlier.

Serap had been too focused, too exhausted, to feel afraid on the climb, but when he returned two years later, the sight of that route shocked and frightened him. It made him physically sick. Below the South Summit they had at times been only a few yards from going off the knife-edge of the icy Southeast Ridge.

A week after he and Park had reached base camp, a Sherpa friend reminded him of his children and told him, “You’ve got to stop.”

Born in 1969 and growing up in Khumjung, Serap could see Mount Thamserku from his stone-and-wood house—except during the winter, when his family sealed its four windows with mud to block the wind and snow. He slept upstairs with his parents, three brothers, and two sisters, while a dozen yaks and dzopkyos (a yak-cow hybrid) occupied the ground floor. Settled nearly 13,000 feet above sea level in a dish-shaped valley, Khumjung was the heart of Sherpa life in the breathtaking Khumbu region, a day trip on foot to Everest and back for its thousand villagers long accustomed to the altitude. Because it was only an hour above Namche Bazaar, the popular trading town where tourists typically stayed, it was often bypassed, which made it quiet and peaceful.

Serap lived a few doors from the monastery and five minutes from Khumjung Secondary School, the first of dozens of schools that Edmund Hillary helped build to repay the Sherpa people for their generosity to him. As a student there, Serap learned about Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first summit of Everest, the mountain his people called Chomolungma, or the “Mother of the World.” Hillary visited the school once or twice a year—the students would form a line to greet him—but he never regaled the students or their parents with his feats, Serap recalled. Instead, Hillary stressed the importance of remaining in school.

Centuries earlier, the Sherpa people had come over the mountains from Tibet to northeastern Nepal, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that Westerners pulled them into carrying their loads up the peaks around them. They lived largely cut off from the rest of the world, and they were perplexed by the foreigners who came to risk near–certain death to reach the summit—a word that didn’t exist in their language, because they couldn’t conceive why anyone would climb a mountain for its own sake. In time, their roles as porters became synonymous with the name of their ethnic group, which actually means “people of the east,” but by mid-century they started to gain recognition for their own mountaineering skills.

Serap’s parents, like his ancestors, were seasonal farmers and traders. Twice a year, five or six households would caravan over the mountains to Tibet, exchanging potatoes, buckwheat, and buffalo hide for salt, meat, and wool. Upon returning, they’d trade with others in the lower valley. Khumjung’s Sherpas were the link between Tibet and the rest of Nepal.

But by the 1970s, their lives were beginning to revolve around mountaineering. Come spring, as the three feet of snow outside his house began to thaw, Serap’s parents would pick up foreign climbers in Lukla and then transfer everything to their yaks back home for the hike to Everest. His father, Nima Tsering, was one of the “Ice Doctors,” the nickname given to the guides who fixed the route up the Khumbu Icefall, a roiling slab of crevasses and ice towers that had already killed six Sherpas in 1970. It was becoming a graveyard that would claim the lives of 44 people between 1953 and 2016.

Many early mornings on those childhood trips with his parents, Serap would look out their tent door and see a string of lights moving slowly through the blackness. It was the headlamps of climbers on the dark ice, and his father was somewhere near the front. He remembers thinking, mesmerized, “Maybe I will do that someday.”

It came sooner than he could’ve expected. When he was 12, his eldest brother, who was 21 and already working in trekking, drowned in western Nepal while attempting to save a friend who had fallen into a river. The shock to the family was great. Now the oldest son, Serap had to leave school and find a job to support his family. He was in sixth grade.

One of his older sisters had married; the other became a porter. So too did Serap. Called a yak boy, he would trudge alongside the woolly beasts on treks and expeditions. It was the first of half a dozen jobs leading up to expedition guide, or sirdar. And it was miserable. “I started from zero,” he says.

He remained a porter through his teenage years, and his load grew heavier, all the way up to a hundred pounds. After many accidents, his father quit climbing in 1989 after 15 years as an Ice Doctor—the icefall had become so dangerous that commercial expeditions had begun paying a fee to the team that went first—and so Serap moved to Kathmandu to seek higher-paying mountaineering jobs. Nima Tsering taught his son the basics, like how to tie a knot and how to recognize a crevasse hiding under snow, but most importantly, he told him, “don’t take risks.” The mountain, he said, would always be there.

In Nepal’s Langtang Himal region, with Dorje Lhakpa in the background.
In Nepal’s Langtang Himal region, with Dorje Lhakpa in the background.
Photo: Serap Jangbu Sherpa

After a short time as a cook, Serap got his first chance to climb with a team from Japan. From the summit of Mera Peak he could see a necklace of alpine giants: Everest, Lhotse, Cho Oyu, Makalu, Kangchenjunga. He longed to climb higher, but experienced guides warned him about too many hopefuls his age who showed up without proper training.

Serap found a mentor (and a job) in pioneering English mountaineer Doug Scott, whom he met through a friend from Khumjung. For most of the next eight years he crisscrossed the Himalaya leading small treks. On rest days, Scott coached him on rock climbing. In 1998, with two others, they received the first permits to reopen the treacherous Tang Kongma peak. Scott entrusted Serap with fixing the route over a cornice to the rocky summit. Not long after that, Scott told him, “You’re good to go now.”

Between 1999 and 2001, Serap scaled three of the monsters he had seen from Mera, as well as Pakistan’s K2, one of the most dangerous peaks in the world—twice within 12 months—where he helped South Korea’s Um Hong-gil and Park Young-seok reach their 14th and final 8,000-meter peak. (Not coincidentally, mountaineers consider the so-called “death zone” to begin at 8,000 meters.) Upon their return to Islamabad, surrounded by local and Korean media, Pakistani officials presented Serap with a certificate: he was only the second person to summit K2 twice and the first from Nepal. He’d only just turned 32.

Serap didn’t summit Everest until 2004. Having come up the Tibet side with an Italian team, he spent two and a half hours on the roof of the world, praying for world peace and trying to spot the village where he’d grown up. He thought about his father, who had made it only as far as the Hillary Step, barely 200 feet below him, and realized that he was halfway to joining the likes of Park, Um, and nine other alpine legends in climbing all the eight-thousanders.

Committed as he was, the difficulties were obvious. As a Sherpa from a poor background, he had little choice in his assignment. The way it worked was foreign climbers, working with outfitters based in Kathmandu, would browse the resumes of Sherpa guides and choose the one they wanted to lead their expedition. Their guide would then build his team of support climbers, porters, and cooks. The large Western companies cultivated relationships built over years and even generations. Serap went where the work was, which forced him to often repeat the same peak.

His resume, however, quickly stood out. “Most impressive to me was that he had climbed K2 twice,” says Henrik Kristiansen of Denmark, who hired Serap to lead the Everest leg of his Seven Summits speed record. “I told him, ‘I won’t hire you for a third trip to K2, because I think your luck will run out.’”

Serap hoped for the opportunity to pursue his own climbing aspirations; in essence, to trade places with his clients. But Nepal didn’t function like that. There were no large companies that might back him, and Kristiansen told him that sponsorships abroad for any mountaineer, regardless of nationality, were hard to come by.

Perhaps his own government would sponsor him, Serap thought. He was starting to learn how much it earned from commercial expeditions, in which Sherpas did about 90 percent of the work but received minimal protections. It was said that the politicians were eating the money from the permitting process, which, once primarily closed to foreigners, had been flung wide open, supercharged by bribes and kickbacks. Mountaineering had gone from a close-knit amateur endeavor to a revenue-generating behemoth.

“The Nepali government is one large patronage system,” says American Ben Ayers, the Nepal-based executive director of the Dzi Foundation, which campaigns for better working conditions for mountaineering and trekking workers. “Climbing permits are an easy source of foreign currency and a source of power for the political party in charge of the tourism ministry. The ministers are only in there for a few years, so they try to funnel as much money to their parties as they can during that time.”

Their goal, says Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb the highest Himalayan peaks, became to sell as many permits as possible—especially for Everest, regardless of what that did for safety. “If you want to buy a permit, they’ll sell you a permit,” Viesturs says.

It created a complicated situation for Sherpas. Many saw their fortunes rise through tourism. Serap typically earned between $2,500 and $3,000 per season, plus a similar amount in bonuses if he made the summit—about seven times the average annual income in Nepal. Unlike most who sought the work because of its pay, Serap loved mountaineering, even though it meant he saw his family for three or four months out of the year, and only then for short stretches.

When his family and friends asked him to quit, as they often did, Serap’s response was always the same: “I can’t quit. I love climbing.”

His job, though, was one of the most dangerous in the world. Westerners were dishing out tens of thousands of dollars to climb these Himalayan peaks, but it was the Sherpas who made their dream possible—crossing the icefall a few dozen times, fixing the lines, ferrying supplies and ushering their clients up and down the mountain. They were paying the ultimate price—on Everest alone, about a third of all the deaths in the last century have been Sherpas. Hundreds more had been disabled and could no longer work. And with climate change making the climbs more treacherous, even as more people, with less experience, make the attempts, it’s only getting more dangerous. The Nepalese government offered only insurance payouts of around $4,600 to the families of Sherpas killed on the job.

Serap had met his wife Yutee in Kathmandu after her family had fled the valley below Khumjung to escape the civil war between government forces and Maoist rebels. A son, Sonam, was born in 1995. A daughter, Jubilee, named for the 50th anniversary of the inaugural Everest summit, followed in 2003. In his downtime, Serap taught himself English and Korean, his fifth and sixth languages; he had learned Hindi and Tibetan on his early treks. Although his formal schooling had been cut short, he never quit studying.

The same held for his technical climbing, which by then had become a thing of international renown. But after his and Park’s near-disaster traversing Everest in 2006, and thinking of what would happen to his family if he didn’t come down from a mountain one day, Serap determined that if he was going to take chances, they should be of his own making. He decided to ask the tourism ministry to sponsor his own expedition. He wanted to climb Manaslu, the seventh-highest peak in Nepal and an avalanche alley where the death-to-summit rate is over 35 percent.

“I thought the government should help people who were doing something for the country,” he says. “We couldn’t tell where all that money from the permits was going.”

He had gear, so he only needed a free permit—by then, the government was charging around $10,000 for the right to climb Everest, and somewhat less for other mountains—plus a little cash to hire a porter or support climber. In Kathmandu, he handed the tourism minister his proposal. In the meantime, he flew to Pakistan and scaled Gasherbrum II, his ninth peak over 8,000 meters, but bad weather grounded him at Gasherbrum I. He called Kathmandu about his proposal, but got no response. Back in the city, he called again. Still nothing.

At the summit of Mt. Manaslu in 2006.
At the summit of Mt. Manaslu in 2006.
Photo: Serap Jangbu Sherpa

He waited three months. The season was winding down, and he couldn’t afford to wait. So he went back to work, finding a Japanese expedition tackling Manaslu. They made it up and back safely, and afterward, he looked at the positives—he had completed his third summit of the year and was paid to do it—but he was still upset.

“There’s no incentive for the government to support its people, and it’s also generally run by high-caste Hindu groups that tend to look down on Sherpas,” says Ben Ayers. “His case fell on deaf ears; it wasn’t a priority in their eyes. They probably also feared that if they gave him a waiver that it would set a precedent.”

Serap would have to make history by working for others—the age-old Sherpa way.

Still, he harbored an innate sense of optimism, so in the spring of 2009, when he was preparing to tackle the ice pyramid that is Makalu, his final high peak in Nepal, he again asked the tourism ministry for help.

Again there was no response, so he went with an Indian Army expedition. After they reached the summit, he felt the weather about to turn, so he pushed his team back down. It took nearly nine hours, but his instinct was correct: a heavy snowstorm buffeted them for five days until they could be helicoptered out to Kathmandu. It would have been disastrous if they had been caught on the mountain.

The team returned in time for Kathmandu’s annual Everest Day celebration. Serap rode in the back of an open truck along with other big-mountain climbers. On a large stage, the tourism minister brought up the honorees and announced that Serap was the first Nepali to scale the country’s eight 8,000-meter peaks. To the politicians, the photo ops were a lot cheaper than offering Sherpas the support and regulations they needed to live, and stay alive.

Only three eight-thousanders in Pakistan remained. But Serap’s time was running out. He and his family had applied for U.S. immigrant visas; their paperwork was moving through the embassies. One of his younger brothers had moved to Queens, where a Himalayan enclave was growing around elevated subway tracks, and Serap had recently stayed with him for three months.

He had never imagined anything could pull him away from mountaineering, but during his stay in New York Serap realized that his children could have a safer route there than he had had in Nepal, afforded opportunities that he had once been forced to give up. He never forgot what Edmund Hillary had told him: “Education is the most important thing.”

Serap had been working as a mountaineer for 20 years, plus his porter days, and he knew the odds suggested his good luck would turn, and all it would take was one. In total, he summited 8,000-meter peaks on 17 separate occasions. Of the risks, he often said, “We don’t know when, where, or how.”

Two years after his Everest traverse, he had pushed Henrik Kristiansen to safety as an avalanche tore after them in the Khumbu Icefall. But smaller peaks could also turn fatal. During one relatively relaxed trek in western Nepal, an avalanche whisked him and three friends off a cliff, killing one and badly injuring two others. Serap was unhurt. But the thought of his children growing up without their father bruised him.

He saw changes in the mountains that had shaped his life. The lower end of the Khumbu glacier was now black rock. Fall expeditions to Everest were once routine, but because of avalanches caused by snowmelt, there were now virtually none, leading to horrifying bottlenecks in the spring. Serap knew a catastrophe was inevitable.

His career was peaking and yet he was forced to wait on a number of things—permits, sponsors, visas, the climate. That fall, the weather in Pakistan refused to cooperate, and his team waited six weeks before calling it quits. He put his three remaining peaks on hold.

Still, his reputation grew. He became one of the faces of Sherpa Adventure Gear, and its 2010 fall/winter catalog touted his exploits.

“Serap Jangbu Sherpa is not a well known name even amongst his own countrymen,” a short profile began. “But that should change very soon.”

On Christmas Eve in 2010, the American embassy in Kathmandu notified Serap that his visas were ready. His family had six months to move. No expeditions to Pakistan materialized and that spring, Mingma Sherpa, 32, scaled his final eight-thousander, beating Serap to his goal. One day before their visas would have expired, Serap and his family boarded a plane for New York.

Four months later, his friend Park Young-seok and two others disappeared on Annapurna’s south face. Had Serap stayed in Nepal, he might have gone with them.

When Serap and his family arrived in Queens, one of their first stops was to the new home of the United Sherpa Association, a red-brick Lutheran church that it had purchased that August and begun converting into a colorful monastery. Roughly 4,000 Sherpas, many of them living in New York, had donated $1.4 million toward the $1.5 million price tag, according to the organization. On any given weekday dozens of elderly Sherpas pray there; in its lobby are job postings for taxi drivers, airport hangar workers, and the U.S. Army.

They call it the Kyidug, a Sherpa word invoking a principle of banding together in good times and in bad. It is “a place where you share both happiness as well as sadness—a place for weddings and funerals,” says Tendi Sherpa, its general secretary.

Serap initially hoped to continue guiding in his new country, but his wife Yutee needed him at home, to enroll Sonam and Jubilee in summer programs, to shuttle them to school. Two months after their arrival, he visited a friend who was working at Tent & Trails. Within a week he had a job.

He found little time to continue climbing, save for the infrequent visit to an indoor gym and one trip to Mount Washington. Like most recent immigrants, he was overworked and trying to keep up financially. Although he was surrounded by family and friends, it was difficult to make plans. When he had a day off, he did laundry and picked up groceries, and on occasion took his family to dinner at local restaurants like Himalayan Yak. He made time to teach a search-and-rescue course.

In the following years, watching his children find their way in school reaffirmed his decision to leave Nepal. So did a tragedy that reverberated through their pocket of Queens.

Around midnight on April 18, 2014, Serap and Yutee learned that a massive ice avalanche had killed 16 high-altitude guides on the Khumbu Icefall. Serap’s brother and sister-in-law came to their house; years earlier she had lost a brother on Everest, and had another brother, Then Dorje, still working there. After frantically calling friends at base camp, they learned that Then Dorje had been killed, leaving behind a young family.

They walked to the Kyidug, where they prayed for the deceased. It had touched practically everyone in the community, and the monastery became an around-the-clock vigil and relief center. It continued that way until the next disaster struck a year later: a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that killed 8,000 people across Nepal on April 25, 2015, among them 18 on Everest.

One of the most dangerous professions in the world was becoming even more deadly, and driving more Sherpas to Queens. It was said that Queens had more Sherpas than the Khumbu. Most became cabbies. (The United Sherpa Association set up a fund to support drivers who had to miss work because of accidents; the Queens Sherpas take care of each other better than the Nepalese government ever did.) In his spare time, Serap drove for ride-hailing services, and his two brothers became full-time drivers. The women worked mostly as nannies.

When I visited Serap at home one Sunday this fall, he’d been working at Tent & Trails for a month without a break. Not that he was unhappy about it. “I like my job,” he told me. “I like finding out what people need.”

But did he feel sad about the life he had left behind?

“I miss the mountains,” he admitted, and he refused to rule out returning to Pakistan for his final three eight-thousanders. In fact, as I learned later, he and Henrik Kristiansen had recently corresponded about climbing together again.

With a smile, Serap said, “Maybe I’ll climb Everest one more time.”

Serap and family in Queens.
Serap and family in Queens.
Photo: Serap Jangbu Sherpa

On this day, Serap was typically cheerful. He was a beaming new father. When I arrived, I found Yutee cradling their month-old son, named Arian Tsering, inside the dim kitchen. Their three-bedroom apartment occupied two floors of a three-story 1930s vinyl-clad house, plus a balcony hung with clothes and prayer flags. It was crowded inside. Yutee’s younger sister and brother were visiting, and her parents had been living with them for 11 months while her father received cancer treatment at the nearby hospital. Sonam was enrolled in a technical college and Jubilee had recently started high school.

Ahead of my visit, Serap had gathered 35 laminated certificates noting his mountaineering accomplishments. He picked up a stack from one corner of the living room, across from a five-foot wooden altar and beneath four Buddhist thangkas. He said an additional 20 or 25 certificates were hiding somewhere else in the house. “There are too many,” he laughed. “I don’t even remember some of these.”

He pulled out the government-issued certificates from his successful 8,000-meter summits. “Mainly I keep these ones around,” he said. “The 17 peaks.”

I expected them to be hanging on the wall, but that prominence went instead to a half-dozen certificates of appreciation, ornately framed in wood or bronze, from schools he had visited in the last decade with a South Korean teacher and climber named Lee Se Jung. Like Edmund Hillary before them, they’d bonded over wanting to help Nepali children. Since 2008, Serap picked the locations, and every winter, with Lee and a few dozen Korean teachers, they distributed clothes and supplies to the students, rebuilt and repainted their schools, and cooked for their villages. Then Serap led his group on a trek through the Himalayan countryside. He told me these trips still satisfied his love of climbing.

In a few months, he told me, he’d be leading their 10th anniversary trip. He was assembling a team of 44 teachers, plus twice as many porters and cooks—his largest group yet—to help rebuild two schools damaged by the earthquake. After trekking for three weeks, he’d spend time in Kathmandu handling the books of his own small trekking company. (As it turned out, he had to cut his seven-week trip short by nine days after his father-in-law died suddenly in Queens.)

I asked him if he shares his own tales of mountaineering with the schoolchildren and their parents. He shook his head. He doesn’t, he said, for fear that they’d see his story as motivation to quit school at a young age.

“I often look back on my life,” he told me. “I can say I struggled very hard, but I’m satisfied with myself.”

“But without education,” he added, “there are no lives.”

Ryan Goldberg is an award-winning freelance journalist who lives in Brooklyn. His work can be found at his website.