Sherpa Girl's Dreams Come True in UtahBy Daniel A. Washburn
Nawang's homeland happens to be the envy of many world travelers, with daring mountain trails leading up to Mount Everest. Standing at 29,028 feet it is the highest point on planet earth, and it was first successfully summited by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Since then, adventurers from around the world have risked their lives, and some would say their sanity, against the avalanches and hazardously thin atmosphere to follow those famous steps to the top. Thousands of tourists from the world over also engage in more leisurely treks to witness the breath-taking and surreal vistas of the Himalayan mountain range.
Nawang grew up hearing fantastic tales about travel abroad from the many friendly foreigners she met. But the best accounts came from her father Pema Dorje Sherpa, a veteran Himalayan guide who has successfully led expeditions to the summit of Mount Everest three times. He has made many good friends from his challenging treks and he has taken them up on countless invitations to visit them everywhere from New Zealand to the Netherlands, with several summers in the United States in-between. Her father's stories lit up her imagination and she dreamed of seeing the world outside of Nepal's borders.
Utah businessman Richard Christiansen, of Spanish Fork, had a special dream too. He has a habit of setting big goals, and he set his sights on climbing in the Himalayas. In 2001 he set out with his wife Gaye for a month-long trek through the high elevation Khumbu region of Nepal. Regardless of their passion in preparing for the experience, the culture and the natural wonder were together an amazing discovery for them. Just as many other first-timers have learned, the magnitude was more than they could have imagined.
Along the arduous hiking trail in Khumjung, where the oxygen level is at roughly 60% of that at sea level, they stopped for the evening at a lodge to rest and acclimatize to the 13,000-foot elevation. They soon saw quite an unexpected sight. The guide from another trekking group stepped into the lodge wearing a hat with a Utah logo that the Christiansens immediately recognized. They were eager to meet him and to ask about his hat. Talking with him they learned that he had a special, personal interest in Utah since his oldest daughter Mingma Peti had traveled there as a student. His name was Pema Dorje Sherpa.
Richard and Gaye already felt an affinity for the people they had met in Nepal and agreed that they wanted to make a positive effect there somehow. Pema mentioned his younger daughter, Nawang, who was attending boarding school in the capital city of Kathmandu. Soon they began discussing the idea of hosting Nawang as a student in Utah, and the elements fell into place. Within a year Nawang had a new home and an unbelievable new hometown, Spanish Fork, Utah.
Nawang arrived in Utah just three weeks before the start of school, her sophomore year in high school. A native speaker of the Sherpa and Nepali languages, she had only the most rudimentary skill in speaking English. "I was so nervous, but very excited," Nawang says now looking back on those first weeks. "The pressure helped me be strong, and in two weeks I could start talking."
She soon found that getting along well in school and socially came naturally for her. By the end of the school year she had made many friends, enjoyed countless activities as an outgoing teen, and had a straight A grade point average. At Spanish Fork High she was especially motivated by the challenge of an advanced biology class, and she has since taken a great interest in the medical field. Now a graduate of the class of 2005, the way is clear for living her dreams to the fullest. She one day hopes to return to Nepal to make a difference of her own. Looking forward Nawang says, “I want to become a nurse and volunteer to help my people in Nepal. This is my life’s destiny. I know I’m doing what I was meant to do.”
Her Utah family is touched by her warm and genuine spirit, and they have gained an even deeper understanding and connection with the Sherpa people. The Christiansen family is departing this weekend for another month-long adventure through the Himalayas of Nepal, and this time Richard's two teenage boys, John and Matthew, will be joining in to see Nawang's home for themselves, as well as to deliver humanitarian supplies to schools and hospitals in Nepal. Gaye Christiansen, a registered nurse from Utah, recognizes the shortage of vital medical supplies, such as simple thermometers, at the Kathmandu Teaching Hospital. She has encouraged her sons to fit any of those little extras into their baggage that they can.
Richard has a keen entrepreneurial spirit too, and he believes that economic opportunities in Nepal will open doors for the people. He has founded Mountain Grabbers as a manufacturer of hiking gear in Nepal, all made by expert Sherpa crafters. He has also launched a uniquely innovative website, SherpaTrek.com (http://www.sherpatrek.com/), with the intent of being the world's foremost information portal, literally a doorway to the culture of the Sherpa people, including an ongoing weblog of his family’s experiences on the Himalayan mountain trails. Nawang’s father Pema gives the website a great “thumbs up,” especially since he shares many of his first-hand accounts and wisdom as a veteran Mount Everest guide. He’s also glad to have in Utah yet another place in the world to travel to find close friends and family.