A Vermont Sherpa
Bringing Nepal to Vermont
Name: Ongyel Sherpa
Lives in: South Burlington Age: 42
Family: Wife, Jessica; daughter Sabrina; son Sonam
Principal sports: Hiking, running, mountaineering
Profession: Runs US Sherpa, importing authentic Nepali knitwear.
Ongyel Sherpa’s story is the kind they make movies about. Raised in poverty in Nepal, he had the good fortune to meet a mountaineer and ophthalmologist Dr. Geoff Tabin, who brought him to Vermont to help with his children. After graduating from Rice and then Champlain College, Ongyel Sherpa launched his own business here, US Sherpa. The business has grown and while he continues his family’s heritage of guiding in the Himalaya, most of Ongyel’s time now is spent on US Sherpa. His business selling authentic Nepalese wool hats, mittens, and socks, which helps. support more than 300 back home in Kathmandu. Now, Ongyel Sherpa is in turn sponsoring one of Nepal’s most acclaimed Everest climbers: his cousin’s widow.
Tell us a little bit about growing up in Kathmandu?
I was the youngest out of three. We were outside a lot, playing all day with neighborhood kids: playing with marbles, soccer, playing hide and seek, going to the river, jumping off the cliffs and going to the forest. My parents lived a very hard life growing up in the remote mountains without any education and later moved to Kathmandu. They worked as porters in the mountaineering profession at first carrying heavy loads in their back in a doko basket. They slowly gained knowledge of the mountaineering profession the very hard way by doing everything despite any education. Later on, my parents got a job working for this family from New Zealand as living au pairs. For a long time, I was extremely shy towards Westerners.
Did you spend much time in the high mountains?
Around the age 14, I started doing longer and bigger hikes along with the camping trips around Kathmandu at 5,000 ft. Then, I started joining my father’s trekking expeditions as a paid Sherpa staff. I got a chance to work for groups from Germany and Japan doing 7 days camping treks in 8,000 ft. elevation then later on joining a 19-day trekking expedition going as high as 14,000 ft. Back then, most were expedition style camping treks where everything had to be transported to the. I also worked on the mountain village in Nagarkot at 7,100 ft. where I would stay at the lodge then do short half day guiding, selling local souvenirs and posters while the tourists came there to experience spectacular sunrise views over the majestic Himalayas
Then you had a big change in your life. Tell us about that?
At 16 years old, I felt like I was grown enough to support myself and be economically independent. I had applied for a labor job to go to Japan but that morning, I didn’t get the job and I was extremely disappointed. I cried and was depressed all day. Then the same afternoon, I happened to pick up a phone call from Dr. Geoff Tabin who was working at this eye hospital nearby. He had called to let us know that he had brought a small gift for my family from the USA. My uncle was one of the Sherpas who had summited Mt. Everest in 1988 with Dr. Tabin and they had kept their friendship over the years. My father asked me to go with him to meet this doctor. At that meeting, we asked very shyly if he could help me come to America. He wrote me a sponsor letter on the yellow pad right then. I was absolutely shocked and amazed by what had just happened. Then, we came home and my mom was knitting on the porch, we told her what had just happened, then all of us started jumping with joy and tears in our eyes.
What happened next?
Within one month, I flew to America. That was April 1998 and I had about $150 cash with me. Everything was new to me: the people, smell, food, road, language, culture and I will never forget my first trip to the supermarket, I was amazed at how large it was and the amount of food I saw. Then, my new life started living with Dr. Tabin’s family, taking care of his children, helping around the house, going to school full time. Later the family decided to help me with my education so I was granted a student visa and graduated from Rice. I was very homesick for a long time as I did not see my parents for 6 years. At times I would say I am going back to Nepal but I stuck to my dream of making my life in the United States.
What was life like with the Tabins?
They were this loving family who lived a very active outdoor lifestyle: climbing mountains, hiking, skiing, rock/ice climbing, running, having friends over and traveling around the world. I got an opportunity to meet some of the world’s best athletes/mountaineers, climbers, Olympic skiers, prominent entrepreneurs, and humanitarians. The fact that Dr. Tabin was just starting this non profit organization curing blindness in Nepal meant a lot to me. The Tabin family started connecting me with many doctors, medical students who wanted to go to Nepal to work at his hospital and do trekking. That’s when I started seeing these huge opportunities to connect them with my for guiding and home stays. Around 1999, my father, uncle and brother in law started a guiding company called Nima & Neema Treks. I lived with Dr. Tabin’s family in Burlington for close to 5 years. I learned so much about hard work, passion, loyalty, courage and dedication. This experience really helped me become who I am today. Dr Tabin’s family calls me their son from Nepal.
Where are some of the places you have guided?
We did Thorung Pass at 17,769 ft in the Annapurna region in 2007, Kalapatthar peak which is at 18,519 in 2009, Everest Basecamp & Kalapatthar in 2010, and Thorung Pass/Annapurna Circuit trek in 2012. I also went to Everest Basecamp and Kalapatthar in 2013, Ghorepani Poon Hill Trek in 2017, Everest Trek in 2019.
How did your guiding business help start US Sherpa?
Growing up in Nepal, my mother would knit hundreds of hats, mittens and socks as she raised us to bring some income for the family. She would get a contract job from the expedition outfitters to knit hats and mittens which would then get used by Sherpas going on the mountains to keep them warm. I started seeing the opportunities and market for these functional, handcrafted products in the Burlington area. In the beginning, I would ask our trekking client to bring back some hats. In 2005, I launched US Sherpa, part of a project for me at Champlain College. Right then I clearly knew that I wanted to bring trekkers to Nepal and from Nepal, I wanted to bring handcrafted, natural fiber products that are functional, simple and suitable for an active, caring lifestyle to the U.S.
How have you helped folks back in Nepal?
US Sherpa has been providing jobs now to over 300 artisans for the last 10 years. Over the years, I have directly sponsored several family members to get US visas and green cards. In the last few years, we have also been helping Nima Doma Sherpa who is a widow and was married to my cousin Chirring Ongchu Sherpa who died on Everest avalanche in 2014 leaving his wife and two young children. Over night, she became the sole breadwinner for her young family. To break the cultural barrier and discrimination against widows and to fullfill her late husband’s dream, she and one other widow summited Mt. Everest in May 2019. She later also summited Mt. Amadablam 22,349ft. In the last 4 years, Nima Doma has been guiding for US Sherpa and is one of the US Sherpa brand ambassadors and I am trying to bring her to the U.S.
How has Covid impacted your family and business?
It was a very scary and stressful time in 2020, lots of uncertainty for business and worrisome for our own health and international travel was cut down significantly. We had to cut down on orders in 2020 and one of our producer’s had to change a location due to the decrease in business. Overall, the tourism business in Nepal was down close to 80% in 2020 and in 2021, they were down close to 65%. We have seen incredibly high costs in air freight shipping, longer transit time, challenges in finding materials and longer delays, extra costs in travel.
And what has kept you here in Vermont?
I have been in Vermont now 23 years and I love it here. My business logo has the skylines of Mt. Everest on the top and the skylines of Mt. Mansfield on the bottom, followed by the Red color which represents the national color of Nepal and the Green color which represents tVermont and the color Blue which represents US Sherpa where they two meet. This is the place where you work smart and play hard. I still do business with the Peace & Justice Store, Outdoor Gear Exchange whom I first sold to about 15 years ago. I am beyond proud to live and raise my daughter and son here. My 6 year daughter is starting to ski at Cochran’s and my 3-year-old son is slowly making progress being outdoors in the winter. It was beyond my wildest dreams to get to come to the USA, work for a family, get a college education, start my own business and start my own family. —L.L.