To celebrate International Mountain Day last week, we took the amazing opportunity to chat with our local ground handler in the Himalayas, Dawa Geljen Sherpa and let us tell you, he’s one of the most inspiring and charming people you will ever meet. Having grown up in Nepal, a mostly mountainous country, he has always had a passion for trekking and exploring nature and has been a professional mountaineer and trekking leader for 34 years.
In this interview, Dawa tells me more about his life in Nepal, the culture of the local people and the highlights of Dream Challenges Hike the Himalayas.
Could you summarise yourself in three sentences?
I am Dawa Geljen Sherpa from Nepal, the Land of Everest. I have been a professional mountaineer and trekking leader for the last 34 years and really enjoy getting involved with social activities. I love my profession as it gives me the opportunity to meet new people from around the world and get to know their culture, all the while exploring nature and learning new things.
How did you find growing up in Nepal?
Growing up in Nepal is tough, especially for those who live in the remote villages. Since we are one of the poorest countries in terms of political leadership and 80% of the country is mountain, life is challenging.
I didn’t get to go to school until I was 10 years old, because when I was young, education was more for the elites. The nearest school was an hour walk. I had to drop school when I was sixteen to earn for my family. I started my job as a mountain guide in 1983 and through my guiding job, I got the opportunity to visit about 22 countries. While visiting these countries, I understood the value of education and the impact of development in people’s upbringing. So, I worked hard and now life is beautiful for me in Nepal.
What’s your favourite thing about the Himalayas?
My favourite thing about the Himalayas is that the mountains are so fascinating and motivating that you wish to do better and stand tall as them. I love the people here, the culture, custom, history and most of all, my job of introducing foreigners to the life in the mountains.
Having grown up in a secluded town in the Himalayas, how did you self-educate?
Back in my time, the school culture was still new as well as challenging. I couldn’t continue education further than Year 8 as I had to support my family. But learning didn’t stop then. I picked up English by listening to tourists when I worked as a porter for them. Once I learnt basic English, I was promoted to become an assistant guide, which exposed me more to western people and their culture. I learned from the way they spoke, acted and used technology. I constantly observed their lifestyle, which really helped me to professionally develop my role as a mountain guide.
What drew you to Kathmandu?
Living in the remote mountain is not easy. Many things are very centralised in the capital, making it compulsory for every individual in the country to be a part of Kathmandu. Some very basic and integral parts of life were only possible in Kathmandu, like better education for children and better jobs.
I first stepped into Kathmandu at the age of 18, in search of trekking offices that could provide me with a better job. After I was done with every job in the mountain, I had to get back to Kathmandu as I had to be in touch with the companies for the next job. If you stayed in the mountain, you would be contactless, which meant no further job. Later, I brought my family to Kathmandu for my children’s education and with my professional development, I was finally able to settle myself and my family in the city.
How did you get into managing treks and tours?
After working as a professional trekking and mountaineering guide for various leading companies, like Peregrine and Mountain Madness, I had learnt enough about the tourism industry to set up a company of my own. I believed I could organise trips in Nepal, India, Bhutan and Tibet, as I had explored most of these places and knew enough professionals who could support me if I had my own company. So I did it: I set up the company Adventure Thamserku. Many of the clients who had trekked and travelled with me before, confidently joined my company for their trips to Nepal. Gradually, we began to organise trips for clients from around the globe and partnered with many international companies so that we ran their trips in Nepal. Today, we can proudly say we have served more than 25,000 clients from around the globe and look to serve even more.
I hear you were once metres away from summitting Mount Everest! What was that like?
In my mid-thirties, while working for a company called Arun Treks, I had the opportunity to guide a Mexican client to the summit of Mt Everest. When we’d reached 8800m, I got the feeling that my client was suffering from Altitude sickness. We only had 48 metres left to climb to reach the peak, but the condition was such that this last stretch could have taken us an hour, which meant risking her life as she was already very weak. So I chose to turn back. I had always learnt to prioritize the safety of my clients, so I didn’t hesitate to prioritise her safety either. I knew the summit was very crucial for me, but not as crucial as my client’s life.
How is the trek to the summit of Poon Hill? Do you have any tips on how to prepare?
The Poon Hill trek is one of the best and the quickest trips that tourists can enjoy in Nepal. At the height of 3,200m, you’re surrounded by the majestic views of world famous mountains, like Machhapuchhre, Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and many more.
Depending on the fitness level of the clients, the trip can be considered mild or moderate. Every day, we trek for 4-6 hours on average. For those who aren’t used to walking or trekking, it would be good if they trained for the trip. You need not visit the gym, you can simply start walking for a couple of hours around your local area, while wearing your backpack and up hills if you can. as we have lots of ups and downs on our challenge. The more you train at home, the better you’ll enjoy the mountains.
What should tourists expect when coming to the region?
I would say, come with an open mind and welcome all the good and the bitter experiences, you’ll enjoy every moment of your trip in the mountains. Just a smile on your face can solve your worst problem. Talk to the locals, explore the culture and place, enjoy the nature and you’ll learn to beat all the cold in the mountains.
How would you describe the life of the locals here? What would you say are the core values of rural mountain life?
There are many mountain villages you come across while you’re trekking. These villages are resident to the Gurkhas in the British Army and are very cultural, historical and welcoming to the trekkers. The community and the children like interacting with tourists and are happy to tell you more about their traditional life style. Many of the people rely on the agriculture and farm for their living. On the tourist trail, the public are happier in business like local shops, lodges and hotels. Nepalese people carry simplicity and generosity as two of their major traits. People are hardworking, but at the same time, relaxed and very social.
What would you say has been your proudest moment in life?
The proudest I have ever felt in my life was when I was able to help build two classrooms in the village school where I grew up, through my charity, Classrooms in the Clouds. I felt I was the happiest soul, because I was giving back to the land that had brought me up and contributing to the life of the many children who came to that school for their education. Now, I feel happier every time the organisation can support another community and another school.
Tell us a bit about the charity you set up.
Classrooms in the Clouds is a charity registered in the UK and a registered non-government organisation in Nepal. The organisation is dedicated to improving the education opportunities in the remote mountain region of Nepal to let children explore and develop their potential locally. We basically help build classrooms and other infrastructure necessary for the community schools, sponsor teachers at schools that lack enough government supported teachers and provide professional training to the teachers and the schools.
What are the highlights of Hike the Himalayas?
Hike the Himalayas is one of the most enjoyable and mesmerising trips that we conduct every trekking season. The trip includes people from around the globe, who enjoy travelling and meeting new people. The trip offers trekking in the Annapurna region of Nepal, known as one of the best trekking destinations in the world. In a short period of time, you’re in midst of the majestic and spectacular natural and cultural scenes. It’s a truly incredible life time experience to travel in the land of Everest and be close to its nature and people.
The trekking is always fun and when we eventually reach Poon Hill, its staggering natural beauty renders many people speechless. I have noticed many of our clients get emotional and happily shed their tears for being able to make it to the Poon Hill, a major achievement in life.
Can we expect to see much wildlife?
The wildlife you encounter in the Himalayas depends on the season and if you’re travelling in the winter, you can also see the yaks. But generally, you might expect to see rhesus monkeys, common langurs (also a type of monkey), deer, jackals and the occasional wolf. You’ll also encounter many species of beautiful birds and insects.
How have you found working with Dream Challenges?
Adventure Thamserku works as land agent for many international travels and tour companies and among those, Dream Challenges is one of our important partners. We have found Dream Challenges a very efficient and well organised partner. Working as a land agent for Dream Challenges has been a great learning experience for Adventure Thamserku as well.
What’s the food like in Nepal and more specifically, what kind of food will we be eating during Hike the Himalayas?
When in the city, expect all the varieties of foods such as continental, Chinese, American, Thai, Indian, Halal food and all other sorts. On the trip its mostly Nepalese and continental. The foods are prepared freshly with organic ingredients. Processed foods and packed foods are less common on the treks.
What would you say is your favourite dish?
I love Dal Bhat Tarkari a typical Nepalese cuisine, made up of steamed rice and a cooked lentil soup.
Here at Dream Challenges, we're so pleased to be working with Dawa. He has led a number of our treks in the Himalayas and makes our charity challenges in this stunning mountain range extra special as he gives us an unmatched insight into mountain life and culture. Our Hike the Himalayas heroes not only get to explore one of the most beautiful parts of the world while supporting their favourite charities; they also learn a great deal about the life of the locals in Nepal.