By Randy Wyrick / Vail Daily
EAGLE COUNTY — Pemba Sherpa will trek through his native Nepal for fun, but never for profit. That’s how he came to lead a trek to Everest base Camp, to help lead a ceremony for the late filmmaker and Vail resident Tom Taplin.
Taplin was born in Denver and has been part of Vail since the early 1960s when the family built a home on Forest Road that they still own.
Minturn-based filmmaker John “Woody” Woodruff is on the Sherpa Foundation board of directors. In April 2015, he was with friends Taplin and Eric Poppleton, making a documentary about Everest Base Camp, tracing its evolution from a remote outpost to the current tent city spanning about a mile, beginning with George Mallory’s unsuccessful attempt from Tibet, and Sir Edmund Hillary’s successful attempt from Nepal. Lately, though, Everest had become part of the adventure travel circuit. Taplin had climbed many of the other Seven Summits — the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents — but he declined to climb Everest. He had no interest in climbing Everest because it had become such a zoo, Woodruff said.
They had arrived in Base Camp at 18,000 feet, on April 14, 2015, and planned to stick around until early June and the end of that spring’s climbing season, gathering material for their documentary.
By mid April, they had about all the material they needed, and the weather was awful. Poppleton took off, and was waiting at the Kathmandu airport for his flight home. Woodruff headed out a few days later toward Namche Bazaar village. He was on his descent from Base Camp.
Taplin stuck around to get more material — a fatal decision.
On April 25, 2015, an earthquake decimated much of Nepal, killing thousands — Taplin among them.
Local mountaineer Jon Kedrowski was in Base Camp that day. He has said that no one could see the avalanche, but they knew it was coming by the thundering sound.
A few people in Base Camp dove behind boulders, shouting at Taplin, who was in his tent, to take cover. As he stepped out, hurricane-force winds picked Taplin up and threw him 600 feet. CNN online published a remarkable story about efforts to bring Taplin home from Everest.
Between the time he was born, July 10, 1953 in Denver, and April 25, 2015, Taplin had countless adventures and made dozens of films, including “The Beaches of Agnes” (2008), “Women of Iron” (1984) and “P.O.V.” (1988).
He had the very good sense to marry Cory Freyer. They were both living in California, but their mothers back in Denver fixed them up. Cory received word of Tom’s death on a satellite phone call from a friend on Everest that day.
A TREK’S FIRST STEP
Woody introduced Freyer and Pemba Sherpa in late 2015 at Woody’s Minturn home.
Pemba Sherpa runs The Sherpa Foundation, which has been doing so much for Nepali earthquake victims and others that the Nepalese government presented him with its Medal of Honor.
Pemba also runs treks to Everest Base Camp and other excursions.
Pemba suggested a blessing ceremony for Taplin in the Base Camp, so that’s what they did.
Monuments, called a churung, are erected for climbers who have lost their lives in the Everest region. Pemba had one built for Taplin in the summer of 2016. Freyer put together friends and family members, and Pemba led the trek last November for yet another humanitarian mission with money raised in the Vail Valley.
Part of the trek was seeing so much of the work the locally-supported Sherpa Foundation has done over there, Freyer said.
“The people in the Khumbu Valley are so appreciative of him and all he has done,” Freyer said in a phone conversation.
The villagers performed dancing and welcome ceremonies as they hailed Pemba as a hero. Pemba and his brothers guide treks every year, including last November’s to Base Camp with Freyer and several family and friends.
TEQUILA, CIGARETTES AND COOKIES
For Taplin’s blessing ceremony, Pemba hired a Llama — a Nepalese holy man — who donned his red ceremonial robes and sat in front of the monument. Those monuments are safe havens for the climbers’ spirits.
“The tradition is that you put some clothing into it, something personal,” Freyer said.
The mountain guides put in offerings — candy bars, energy bars, cough drops — all sorts of personal items.
Along with some of Taplin’s clothes, Freyer placed a small bottle of tequila and some cigarettes. Among the last words she heard him say on a phone call from Nepal were, “I miss some tequila and a cigarette.” He has them now.
She also brought a package of mint Milano cookies, Taplin’s favorite.
The Llama chanted for about 20 minutes. They were given dried rice to toss onto the monument. One of the guides lit some incense that was placed at the monument’s base, and they walked around it three times, chanting.
HELPING ALONG THE WAY
Then they went about helping Pemba help people in his remote Nepalese home region.
“There are no roads. Everything is carried. From the airport, it’s a person or an animal carrying everything from food to 20-foot steel beams,” Freyer said.
Earthquake relief provided the spark to launch The Sherpa Foundation in 2015. The work continues to reach from Nepal to the Vail Valley.
Pemba owns and runs Sherpa Painting. No one gets paid for Sherpa Foundation work, and there are mountains of work.
This winter, Pemba and the Sherpa Foundation are building a medical clinic for Bitta Kharka, a remote village in the lower Everest region. Pemba’s painting customer and friend Bob Baker in Eagle is among the clinic’s supporters.
“I am thrilled to have this kind of support,” Pemba said.
On the way to Bitta Kharka, they distributed clothes to disabled kids in Kathmandu, which were donated by Vail Valley locals.
Marie Torrie from Pattern of Joy’s sewing worked with Eagle Valley Charter Academy to make more than 40 hats, which also went to disabled kids in Kathmandu.
Sixteen senior citizens in Kathmandu were able to have cataracts removed from their eyes thanks to Sherpa Foundation work.
The Sherpa Foundation joined North Face in Kathmandu owner Pema Shanti Sherpa, Greater Himalayan Foundation of Washington president Phurba Sona Sherpa, Himalayan Friends Trekking owner Phuri Kitar Sherpa to distribute more than 200 blankets to senior citizens who were abandoned by their families and homeless disabled people.
“This is a first joint effort to encourage others to work together and help others in need,” Pemba said.
SOMETIMES YOU NEED A TRUCK
Then there’s this one.
Kathmandu is the only place with big hospitals and modern clinics. Sherpas from all over Nepal have settled there for medical treatments, or because they’ve grown too old to survive in the remote regions.
People die, but because many Nepalese people remain superstitious, their families often struggle to find a truck to transport the bodies. When they do, the owner often charges a huge amount, Pemba said.
The Nepal Sherpa Association has asked The Sherpa Foundation to sponsor a truck made in India that would cost around $10,000, under normal circumstances. However, import taxes are 240 percent to bring a truck from India to Nepal.
“We are looking to donate one for the community to transport coffins, regardless of whether the families are rich or poor,” Pemba said.