Sherpas, best known for guiding climbers to the rooftop of the world, the tip of Mount Everest, are among the world’s strongest, best-conditioned, and most courageous athletes.
Then there’s Gelje Sherpa, who is all of that and more.
Gelje last month showed something so rarely seen, particularly in sports. A willingness to walk away from both goal and coin for the sake of someone else, someone desperately in need. He did the right thing; something so simple, yet often so complex.
On his way up Everest, a client at his side, Gelje came upon a stranger. A man alone, a man minimally responsive, who was clinging to a rope on the mountain’s so-called death zone, that area within some 3,000 feet of the summit.
“Left [alone] like that,” Gelje later said, per reports on CNN and other media outlets, “he could have died.”
Even on a relatively favorable spring day, temperatures are often tens of degrees (Fahrenheit) below zero on the upper reaches of Everest.
As for Gelje, he could have chosen to keep walking up the mountain, on task, as hired by his client-climber. Many adventurers shell out upward of $100,000 to make the trek. It is a dangerous, serious, and expensive trip.
Instead, on that perilous frozen pathway, Gelje chose the road less traveled. The very same narrow trail, only this time pointing back downhill. He had the dying adult male wrapped in a mat and strapped on his broad back.
“Money,” said Gelje, 30, after his heroic rescue of the unidentified Malaysian man, “can be earned any time.”
Count on your hands how many times you’ve heard an athlete, a club owner, a coach, a top league official, an agent, or even a guy on the grounds crew say out loud that there are things in the sports world more important than the almighty buck. Don’t bother. You can keep your hands and iPhone calculator in your pockets. Zero needs no counting. Money always wins.
Gelje’s quote resonated all the more Tuesday when, out of nowhere, the PGA Tour shattered any semblance of soul it might have had — again, might — when agreeing to take Saudi Arabia’s dirty dough in a freshly minted partnership with its Public Investment Fund. For the previous 52 weeks or so, all we heard from the indignant PGA Tour were righteous claims of Saudi malfeasance — cultural, business, spiritual, and otherwise — and how the PGA Tour, tsk-tsk, stood on the moral side of the dimpled little white ball from LIV Golf.
Then, all of a sudden, it didn’t. Just like that. All that posturing and malarkey flew off the tee and into the woods like an errant John Daly screamer (thwack!) when the opportunity came for North America’s biggest corporate golf entity to stuff those fossil fuel dollars in their fancy knickers. To close the deal, the official PGA Tour tailor was summoned to loosen the bottom hem and sew in bottomless pockets.
The business term for that is a corporate merger. The street name is a drug deal, albeit legal, struck between PGA Tour boss and suddenly reborn LIV believer Jay Monahan and his new best buddy, Yasir Al-Rumayyan. The Financial Times quoted Monahan as saying he began to trust Al-Rumayyan, his Saudi counterpart, “10 minutes after sitting down with him” in Venice, Italy.
Ah, Venice, a little song, a little vino, a little romance, and a heap of money from that bubbling crude that long ago sent Jed, a poor mountaineer who barely kept his family fed, running off to Hollywood and cee-ment ponds. Black gold. Tabuk tea.
Money moves mountains, though Gelje Sherpa, a man who knows exactly how mountains move, no doubt would differ. The PGA Tour chose wrong. He chose right.
Gotta wonder what kind of backlash PGA Tour commercial sponsors in North America will experience now that it’s OK for the Tour to do business with a country that many believe ordered the hit on, and subsequent dismemberment of, journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Remember, recent outrage among vox populi over a trans woman having the nerve to pitch Bud Light proved to be a brand killer. What might that portend for, say, a US car company pushing its 2024 line now with PGA-LIV Murder, Inc.? Or is being trans worse in America today than partnering with a murderer?
Meanwhile, it was an especially hard spring on Everest, also known by its Tibetan name “Qomolangma,” or Holy Mother, though it was not absent its triumphs. The man rescued by Gelje Sherpa, according to Nepalese authorities, needed days to recover but eventually flew home.
Locally, 29-year-old Rebecca Long from Andover successfully made it to the top on May 18. A 2016 Boston University graduate, she told Bostonia, a BU publication, that the “life-changing” trip revealed to her a mountain that was “majestic, dangerous, and terrifying.” And too often fatal.
Sadly, one of the five climbers in Long’s party was among the dozen or so who perished there this season. Dr. Jonathan Sugarman, age 69 and a 1972 graduate of Needham High School, succumbed to acute altitude-related sickness. Such fatal bouts are not out of the ordinary, even for accomplished climbers such as Sugarman.
In early April, an avalanche low on the mountain claimed the lives of three Sherpas as they carried equipment for climbers. In Dr. Sugarman’s obituary, gifts were directed to the Juniper Fund “to support and empower families and communities impacted by the loss of Himalayan high-altitude workers.”
At last count, there were 12 fatalities on Everest this spring. Another five climbers still have not been found. In the 100-plus years of attempts to reach the top of Everest (elevation: 29,032 feet), there have been upward of 315 recorded deaths and more than 10,600 successful summits.
Gelje Sherpa, in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, said he was convinced the climber he bundled up was near death. He carried him on his back for nearly six hours, though sometimes resorted to dragging him through snow and over ice. Another Sherpa joined in the late stages, the fallen climber eventually loaded on to a helicopter after a downhill journey across 1,900 feet.
“No one was helping him,” Gelje told Cooper, offhandedly noting he has made around 55 similar rescues. “No friends. No oxygen. No Sherpas. No guides.”
“It was,” he later added, “the hardest one in my life.”
Money, he said, can be earned any time. So he chose the road so seldom taken, and that made all the difference.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.