Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa knows the dangers of climbing mountains.
He’s scaled the world’s tallest peak 15 times, holds the world record for the fastest ascent of Everest, and has led nearly 100 ascents of Mount Rainier.
Gelu has never gone to the top of Washington’s tallest mountain via the notorious Liberty Ridge route.
“I don’t know why they take that risk,” Gelu said.
Within the past few weeks, Liberty Ridge has come into the spotlight. Of all the climbing routes up to the 14,410 foot peak of Mount Rainier, Liberty Ridge stands out for its extreme beauty and dangerously unpredictable conditions.
On May 29, Arleigh William Dean, a 45-year-old climber from Alaska, died on the route when an unexpected rockfall blasted through his group’s campsite during the night. The fall injured two others.
Five days later, a different group of four climbers became stranded on the route. They spent several days without equipment at a 13,500 foot elevation until a helicopter rescue on June 6.
These types of accidents are not new to the route. In 2014, Liberty Ridge took over headlines when an avalanche swept through one of the campsites, killing six climbers, including two guides from the tour company Alpine Ascents International.
Mark Mahaney, 26, from Minnesota; Erik Britton Kolb, 34, from Brooklyn, New York; Uday Marty, 40, who lived in Singapore, and John Mullally, a 40-year-old Seattle resident, lost their lives on the mountain that day. Matthew Hegeman, 38, and Eitan Green, 28, were the group’s guides.
Alpine Ascents no longer offers a guided Liberty Ridge climb on their website.
Remote and unmaintained, the route includes periods of near vertical climbing on ice and snow. Once climbers reach a certain point, it’s easier to summit than to turn around and go back down.
Around 100 people attempt the route each year, according to a climbing guide the park released, but only 53% actually make it to the top.
The route is responsible for 27 deaths, a quarter of the park’s climbing fatalities since they started keeping records, according to Tracy Swartout, the Superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park.
Glenn Storbeck, the adult services librarian from the Graham branch of the Pierce County Library System said the first recorded death was in 1968. Since then 24 have died on the ridge and three on Liberty Cap at the top of the route, Storbeck said.
The deaths started increasing in frequency in 1981, soon after the route was described in the 50 Classic Climbs book (published in the late 1970s), he added.
Even with these dire statistics, people still attempt the route. Climbers Ome Daiber, Arnie Campbell, and Jim Borrow first scaled it in 1935 over the course of three days. The danger, skill, and dedication required to summit continues to enthrall prospective adventurers.
“There’s a certain beauty to the commitment of that route,” Glenn Kessler, the Aviation Manager at Mount Rainier, said. For years, Kessler worked in search and rescue in the park, and assisted in rescue operations to save stranded climbers on Liberty Ridge.
“On most routes, turning around is an option, but on Liberty Ridge, getting there is difficult, (and it becomes) more difficult to turn around than continue.”
Steve Roper and Allen Steck listed the route as one of the “50 Classic Climbs of North America” in their 1979 book, now considered an iconic piece of climbing literature.
“Being on one of the many less traveled routes gives a sense of true climbing,” Kessler said.
“It’s not easy; it’s not fun”
Plaques detailing the climbs and expeditions Gelu has worked on decorate the walls of Wildberry, his restaurant in Ashford. Photos of snow capped Himalayan peaks and Dalai Lama quotes adorn the spaces in between.
In the corner, a mannequin dressed in goggles and bright orange thermal clothing displays Gelu’s high altitude climbing gear.
The restaurant, which sits directly off State Route 706 close to the entrance of Mount Rainier National Park, advertises “a taste of two worlds,” with “traditional Sherpa Himalayan dishes,” and an “American mountain menu.”
Gelu and his wife have operated the restaurant since 2016, after they bought it from another Sherpa family in the area. Gelu seems satisfied in his retirement and his work as co-owner of the restaurant.
“I don’t miss Nepal … because I feel like I’m in Nepal here,” he said. Gelu loves the natural beauty of rural Ashford and the striking topography of the nearby snow capped mountain.
Gelu’s path to Washington was long and complex. Born in the mountainous region of Kharikhola in Nepal, his family comes from a tradition of mountain climbers.
“Sherpa is one of the ethnic groups in Nepal,” Gelu explained. “Most Western people think that sherpa means porter. That’s not true.”
While there are 38 different ethnic groups in Nepal, only Sherpas are mountain climbers and guides, Gelu explained.
Growing up, both his father and brother worked in mountaineering. Gelu attended primary school through fourth grade, but then had to drop out. The high school was a three day walk away.
“My oldest brother was a mountain guide,” Gelu recounted. “He passed away on the mountain in 1991. An avalanche caught him and six people died. Six months later my dad passed away.”
“We were a poor family,” Gelu said. “After this I had to go climb the mountain. It’s not easy; it’s not fun. Sometimes (it’s) fun but most times (just) really scary (and) difficult.”
As a teenager, he started his work in the climbing industry, first as a porter, carrying heavy packs up and down the mountains, then as a cook, and an assistant to the climbing guides.
In 1993, Gelu got his first job on Everest. He was 25. Ten years later, during his twelfth ascent, Gelu broke the world speed record, reaching the top in 10 hours, 56 minutes, and 46 seconds.
As a result of his work in climbing, Gelu obtained a visa to come to the US. In 2005, he and his wife received permanent residence, and brought their children over with them. Eight years ago, the whole family received US citizenship.
Gelu began guiding on Rainier in 2008, and led climbs until two years ago, when he retired to devote time to his family and his business. His family visits Nepal every year, and once a year he goes on a two day trek on Mount Rainier with an association of Sherpas from the area.
“If I continue mountaineering, I don’t know how long my life (will be),” Gelu said.
In 2013, he started the Lhakpa Gelu Foundation to help children in his home region of Kharikhola. Remembering his own childhood, Gelu’s foundation stresses access to education and improving health. The foundation also helped the region recover in the wake of a devastating earthquake in 2015.
“Lots of kids are similar to me,” he said, speaking about the lack of educational opportunities in the region. “All children have to go to school. Education is very important.”
Gelu’s emphasis on education comes directly from his personal experiences. He recounted some of the difficulties he had, especially during his first trip to the US.
“When I came in 2001 ... I was crying all the time because people spoke to me and I couldn’t reply,” Gelu said.
Gelu is incredibly proud of his children, both of whom are highly educated. His oldest son works in IT, and his daughter studies bioengineering at the University of Washington.
“She’s going to be the doctor,” he said, “If she wants to do that.”
A Deadly Season
Both mountains on which Gelu has made his livelihood have seen deadly accidents this season. In Nepal, lines of climbers waited on the snowy slopes to summit Everest, leading to dangerous delays and eleven deaths, more than double those who died last year.
Nepal issued 381 permits to climb, a record high number, and climbers lined up to summit, sometimes over 200 in one day. Most climbers died on the Nepalese side.
To obtain a permit for Everest in Nepal, prospective climbers only have to show their passport, a certificate that says they’re healthy, and some personal information.
In the wake of this year’s deaths, the Nepalese government is considering making harsher permit requirements.
Gelu is humble about his achievements, and he speaks realistically about the dangers of mountain climbing. Stunning natural beauty should not seduce climbers to attempt more than they are capable of.
Climbers shouldn’t receive permits to climb Everest, he says, unless they’ve scaled mountains of a similar height, 23,000 to 26,000 feet at the least. Climbing those peaks would help prepare to summit Everest’s 29,029 foot peak.
On both Everest and Rainier, inexperienced climbers can endanger both themselves and others.
Gelu knows this from personal experience. He recounted a climb he led in 1995, his third ascent of Everest. One of the members of his expedition was a man from San Francisco.
On the way down from the summit, Gelu said that he noticed that he was using the ascenders, a tool used for climbing up the mountain, while climbing down. When Gelu asked him what he was doing, the man responded.
“He said, ‘Lhakpa, I’m so sorry, but I’ve never climbed a mountain before. This is my first time.’”
“I was so scared,” Gelu said. “That’s crazy.”
The man continued causing problems sometimes refusing to walk down the mountain. At one point, “we tied a rope to his harness and were pulling him down,” Gelu recounted.
“It’s still like that,” Gelu said. “(There are) lots of inexperienced climbers on Everest this year.”
Sometimes, climbers push themselves to summit even if they’re putting themselves in danger. “We let them turn around,” Gelu said, “but they won’t turn around because they say they’ve paid lots of money. But they’re not doing very well.”
Experienced guides will sometimes force climbers to stop if they don’t think they can make it, but new guides can push climbers to summit despite the risks. “Then they have accidents,” Gelu said.
From Everest to Rainier
While inexperience can play a part in accidents on Rainier, unpredictable weather and rapidly changing conditions often play a larger role in causing fatalities.
“Everything on Mount Rainier is similar to the Himalayas. The only difference is the altitude,” Gelu said.
“Sometimes on Mount Rainier it’s windy and it’s storming. I’ve never seen Everest do something like that. (There’s) very bad weather on Mount Rainier.”
Avalanches and rock falls represent the unforeseeable dangers of climbing the mountain. Sometimes, though, climbers put themselves in peril by continuing on in the midst of white outs and losing their way. They get lost when wooden trail markers fall down.
Sometimes, climbers on their own without a guide service leave their GPS’s behind and lose themselves on the mountain when conditions change.
Most of the climbers who attempt to summit Rainier do so without a guide, Kessler explained, and climbers sometimes take on more than they are prepared for. “Sometimes folks are in over their heads,” he said.
Gelu said most accidents happen when climbers make the trek on their own.
The Liberty Ridge route is particularly susceptible to rapidly changing conditions.
Because climbers can’t turn around and go back down, if the weather changes they have to continue to the summit. Once climbers summit, they take one of the easier routes down the other side of the mountain, most commonly the Emmons-Winthrop Glacier route.
Liberty Ridge is especially difficult because climbers need to carry all their gear with them. On other routes, they can leave supplies at a base camp and then summit with just a day pack. On Liberty Ridge, this isn’t an option.
On other routes, the ability to turn around can protect climbers from potential accidents, Gelu said.
“We see if they’re not doing very well, and … we let them turn around,” he said.
Gelu counseled experience as the best way for climbers to keep themselves safe. He recommended taking a 10 day mountaineering course before attempting to summit Mount Rainier alone.
Swartout also stressed the importance of experience for climbers.
“People get in trouble when they take on things they don’t have training, skills, or equipment for,” she said.
Experience can’t protect climbers completely, and deadly unforeseeable accidents still happen.
The 2014 accident remains an important example of this.
It is still the second-most deadly accident in the history of the park, only surpassed by an accident in 1981 when 11 climbers died on the mountain. The guides on the 2014 trek, Matthew Hegeman and Eitan Green, were close friends of Gelu’s.
“Both guides were pretty experienced ... and then the avalanche caught them,” he said.
Liberty Ridge is unpredictable, and accidents tend to run in series, Kessler explained. On average there are no accidents on the route, and then some years the park will see several in a row.
“It’s a beautiful climb on a moderately difficult route,” Kessler said. “The difficulty of the route year to year depends on how the snow lays.”
Stay Safe on Mount Rainier this Summer:
Recommendations from Tracy Swartout, Mount Rainier National Park Superintendent. “We want people to come to the park and build a relationship with the park,” Swartout said. “If people can’t visit safely, we can’t achieve that mission.”
For general visitors:
Highest levels of visitation to the park are in July and August, and 30% of the visitors come in just 11 days. There will be long lines for parking during those months on the weekends, so travel to the park Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Make your trip before August and September, because wildfires begin at the end of the summer. Consider alternate entrances to the park to avoid delays, and be specific about where you’re going if you use a GPS.
Don’t hike off trail or park where you’re not supposed to park. This can be dangerous, and also hurt plant life.
97% of the park is wilderness, so visitors can’t expect cell coverage
The National Park Service has exclusive jurisdiction in Mount Rainier. Only park staff will deal with the incidents that happen, and Pierce County can’t get involved. Response times will take longer in remote areas.
In the backcountry:
Expect to be self reliant
People get injured when they want to go too far or go solo. Always make sure someone knows your plans, and let them know if your plans change
Leave a copy of your itinerary, but not valuables, in your car
Plan ahead and be prepared for changing conditions