Adapting to U.S. was an uphill journey

Mountaineering: Climber Chris Warner created a win-win situation by bringing Ram Chandra Sunuwar here. The Sherpa can earn money for a new Nepal school, and Warner gets a better guide when he climbs mountains.

September 16, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ELLICOTT CITY - For Nepalese Sherpa Ram Chandra Sunuwar, conquering Mount Everest is an everyday experience. Learning the ins and outs of Western life this summer - shopping at Target, gambling at casinos and driving a car - have been much bigger challenges.

Now Ram is about to head home again. But not before his U.S. stay with local mountaineer Chris Warner is toasted at a beer tasting Monday, one that will raise funds for a new school in Ram's home village of Khijiphalate in Nepal.

Monday night at the Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. on Main Street, proceeds from the first sales of a limited-run Everest Lager will go toward the school project, aimed at giving 300 children in Ram's remote village a weatherproof structure and more teachers.

The beer bash will be a fitting finale to a strange saga that began on the slopes of Everest earlier this year. Warner, owner of Earth Treks climbing gym in Columbia, returned home in June from Nepal without bagging the 29,035-foot peak, but with Ram, who had been one of his Sherpas, or Tibetan people who act as mountain guides, in tow.

Since then, Ram has spent the summer immersed in American culture, as much for business as pleasure. A Sherpa who can talk with Western clients and cater to their needs earns more money back in Nepal.

The 32-year-old Sherpa's stay in Maryland has been part Berlitz course, part "National Lampoon's Vacation."

The Americanization of Ram started with a trip to Target for some summer clothes. The wiry, 4-foot-10 Ram found adult sizes too overwhelming, so it was off to the boys' department.

"It's good, because it's much cheaper," cracks the lanky Warner, who stands over 6 feet tall.

Ram also took in Op Sail, the tourist attractions in Washington, an Orioles game and the casinos in Atlantic City. "I'm not sure when I play the games if I'm a winner," he confessed.

He also learned to swim, but says he "felt a little dizzy" when he saw "The Perfect Storm."

Pizza was old hat, but crab cakes and barbecue were gustatory home runs.

His one lesson behind the wheel in the Earth Treks parking lot concluded with no fatalities.

"I wanted to wear a football helmet," says Warner, who can now boast of surviving not just the violent winds and avalanches of Everest, but a driving experience with a rookie Sherpa driver behind the wheel.

Ram's goal is to become a sirdir, the boss of Sherpas in an expedition, and earn $3,000 a year so he can move his family to the big city of Kathmandu and send his children to better schools.

The way to do that, he says, is soak up all the knowledge he can about the mountains and the people who want to climb them.

For Warner, helping Ram "is an investment."

"This time here [for him] is like us going to get an MBA," he explains. "We pick and choose the Sherpas who we want [for an expedition]. Our investment in Ram will pay off in the quality of our expeditions."

When he returns to Nepal, Ram will spend a week at home with his wife and children before he begins the fall season as a trekking guide. Then he'll have three months at home to farm before the four-month spring climbing season begins.

"It is a good job," says Ram, who, like most Sherpas, needs the second job to make ends meet.

Khijiphalate is a two-day walk and a day's bus ride east of Kathmandu. It has no electricity. Its three-room school, built in 1981, has two teachers. When it rains, the students in Khijiphalate get wet. When the wind blows, they get gritty. When it's cold, they are too.

"In the countryside, it's very difficult to get an education," Ram explains. "In some places, you walk one hour, two hours to get to school."

The high school is four hours away, he says, and many families cannot afford to board their youngsters.

Ram, who has four children, says while merchants pay an education tax and the government provides some money, it's not enough. He collected $140 in donations last year, most of it from tourists.

"It's not easy raising money," Ram says of Nepal, where the average annual income is $200.

The Ellicott Mills fund-raiser, arranged by Warner, is aimed at sending Ram back to Nepal on Tuesday with enough money to start the school project.

"It's a natural," says Richard Franklin, general manager of the brew pub. "Climbers like to drink beer, and Chris is the consummate beer drinker."

Justin Robertson, Ellicott Mills' brewmaster, calls Everest Lager "a Goldilocks beer."

"Not too hoppy, not too malty," he says. "It's just right."

The brew pub has 40 kegs of the stuff refrigerated and will also be selling it in growlers for home consumption.

Besides tapping the new suds, Ellicott Mills will be showing Warner's video and slides of his four Himalayan expeditions that began last August and ended with the assault on Everest.

Says Warner, "We'd like to fix up the school, build a dorm and buy furniture. Build a playground, pay two more teachers and build bathrooms and buy a wood-burning stove for the school. For $7,000, we can basically revolutionize the school for these kids."

Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. is at 8308 Main St. in Ellicott City. The fund-raiser begins at 6:30 p.m. Call 410-313-8141 for more information.

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