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Top chef is Sherpa

Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa cooking near Mt. Rainier

Photo credit: Courtesy Lhakpa Gelu Foundation

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It rises to a height of 29,029 feet, or, as one movie put it, "the cruising altitude of a 747." Climbers who aspire to scale it must deal with climatic variations from frostbite to sunburn. Then there are the rockslides and avalanches, edema of the brain and lungs, and an aptly-named "death zone" with less than a third of the atmospheric oxygen found at sea level. The Nepali government calls this peak Sagarmatha, or "Forehead of the Sky" in Nepalese. Some locals call it Qomolangma, "Holy Mother" - but that's a word in Tibetan, which makes the government nervous. We Westerners named it for a Welsh surveyor who'd never been there, specifically asked us not to call it that, and pronounced the first syllable of his last name with a long E rather than a short one. It's been climbed by a teenaged British girl, an Indian amputee, Bear Grylls, and an 80-year-old Japanese man, but make no mistake: it's incredibly dangerous. Of the thousand or so people who try ascending it each year, half fail, and some die. There are 200 bodies on the mountain right now. We're referring, of course, to Everest, "the roof of the world," and Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa has climbed it 15 times. He accomplished this feat for the first time at age 25, then held the speed record to the top (under 11 hours) for a year starting in May 2003.

Sherpa, which means "eastern person," is technically Lhakpa's ethnicity rather than his surname. The Sherpa people don't use surnames, so it appears they were arbitrarily assigned one by Nepalese census-takers in the early 1960s. It's tough to be a Sherpa. There are about 70,000 of them, and most have no involvement with mountaineering. Those who do climb must compete with Western guides, who know more English and make better money than indigenous experts. Despite his achievements on Everest - not to mention his ascents of Ama Dablam and Cho Oyu in the Himalayas, Denali in Alaska, and Aconcagua in Argentina (the highest peak outside of Asia) - Lhakpa struggled to make ends meet in Nepal. He wound up moving to Utah in 2006. There he worked as a delivery driver for Pizza Hut among other odd jobs. He was hired as a guide for Alpine Ascents International in Seattle two years later, ultimately founding his own climbing guide service and cooking for Wildberry Restaurant, a mile from Mount Rainier National Park.

Thus, Wildberry is probably the only eatery in Washington that serves true Himalayan cuisine. Try the Sherpa-style beef stew or the momo, traditional Nepali steamed dumplings filled with ground pork or minced vegetables and served with tomato sesame chutney. Lhakpa's proud of his kukhura thali, a chicken curry served with roti, lentils and rice. This work helps benefit his Lhakpa Gelu Foundation, an endeavor to aid fellow Sherpas back home. "We find housing for the children in Nepal," Lhakpa explained, "but my number-one goal is education, because I didn't have a chance to go to school at their age. The highest grade was grade four where I lived."

Lhakpa Gelu isn't playing it safe, by any means. He still leads groups up Mt. Rainier, a peak plagued by bad weather and icefalls. "It's a small mountain," he said, "but with many technical challenges." We can never accuse him, however, of being unprepared. He was, after all, once the fastest guy to reach the Forehead of the Sky. "I was very happy up there," he said simply.

WILDBERRY RESTAURANT, 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Mon.- Sun., 37718 Washington State Rte. 706, Ashford, 360.569.2277

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