Nobody wants an old Sherpa and so Rinzin Sherpa won't tell you his age. He'll only say "over 50." And then he'll laugh."Sherpa" is the name of the Nepalese ethnic group from the mountains of the Himalayas that has since become both a last name and a generic term for someone who guides people through the mountains. For decades, Sherpas anonymously aided westerners through the Himalayas, carrying gear while the visitors earned glory. After a deadly avalanche at Everest in 2014 killed 16 guides, Sherpas went on strike, walking off the job.
Rinzin isn't one of the Sherpas who specialize in summiting—and are the most highly paid—but over the decades he's earned enough to send his children to university in the US. When I spoke to him on the phone from Kathmandu the other day, he had just returned from a trip in the Everest region. In his youth, trekkers would flirt with him, complaining of the cold in their tents, inviting the Sherpa in to warm them. Now, "over 50," married, and slightly rounder, he still leads trekkers through the Himalayas, albeit with fewer solicitations and a slightly slower climb up the steep mountain passes.VICE: Where were you born?
Rinzin: I was born in the Everest region. My mother, she used to be a herder. I was born in a yak shed. The yak cannot survive below 3,600 metres, so I was born high in the mountains, above 4,000 metres. That's why the mountains are my home.What was your education like?
When I was about nine or ten they sent me to a monastery. I spent about eight or nine months there, but I didn't like it. Then they sent me all the way to Bhutan, the little kingdom of Bhutan. I studied there for almost nine years. I was supposed to be studying Buddhism, but I wasn't. I was studying English. While I was there as a student, my father passed away and I came back to Kathmandu to support my family. When I came back here, English-speaking Sherpas were very wanted. I could speak quite good English and so I started taking people into the mountains.
What was your first expedition?
My first time, when I was about 16 or 17 I took a group to Langtang [an area north of the Kathmandu Valley, bordering Tibet]. I didn't have hiking shoes. It was a different time and you couldn't buy any shoes at Kathmandu. I was wearing thongs, and I took people all the way up through the snow, with my thongs on.What are the biggest challenges of the job?
I'm a local. I'm a Sherpa. I come from a remote area. The challenge isn't physical. The biggest challenge was dealing with different cultures, dealing with westerners. I don't know what their expectations are! What do they eat, what do they want? Now I've had the opportunity to travel to Europe, Australia, the United States. Now, I find that part of the job easy.What was the most difficult trek you've ever done, physically?
I took a German guy to Annapurna 1 [known as the most dangerous mountain in the world] as part of the expedition crew. It was a small group and it was dangerous. Annapurna is over 8,000 metres. We almost got up to the top and I was dragging this person up Annapurna. We were just about to get to the top and I had to decide to turn back and go down. I don't think this person was very happy, because he wanted to get to the top. But if we went on we'd end up in some ice cave, dying of hypothermia. If we wanted to get back down, we had to stop. I had to drag this German all the way down. That is the most dangerous trip in my entire life.Do you enjoy the job?
I do. I really do enjoy this job. The reason why, every time, every trek, I deal with different people, different treks. If I work by myself, with the mountains, it doesn't matter how beautiful it is, I can't even look at the mountains. Because I was born here. But when you take new people, they see the mountains for the first time. I love showing it to them. I get so much joy from these people.Are you going to retire?
I haven't thought of it. I still have a lot of energy. I have absolutely no problem with walking. I haven't decided when I'm going to retire. Every time, I take different routes all over Nepal. You go to Annapurna, Everest, Langtang. We're always making different trails.And it's still challenging. You're taking people to the mountains and these people have absolutely no idea about the altitude. No idea.Follow Nicholas Hune-Brown on Twitter.