Mingma Chhring Sherpa and I met in April of 2013, paired by IMG expedition organizers for an attempt on Mt Everest. Throughout our many weeks of climbing together Mingma was watchful and caring, always looking out for my safety. On May 20th of that year we stood together on the summit of Everest at 3:43 a.m. and, in that moment, bonded in a brotherhood -- what I call The Ozone Brotherhood, a loose collective of the people with whom I have wagered my life to stand atop continental summits.
I stayed in touch with Mingma after that, texting on holidays and posting to Facebook. When an avalanche killed 14 Sherpas the following year, Mingma reached out to me right away so I would know he was OK. "Many Sherpa die," he wrote. "My heart sad." But Mingma had escaped injury, having passed through the ice fall 30 minutes before a mountain of rocks and ice came crashing down into it. In the course of summiting Everest an incredible 12 times, it seemed some protective force had always looked after Mingma.
Then, on April 25th of this year, another tragedy struck in the form of a 7.8 earth quake that rocked Nepal, killing thousands throughout the country, including another 28 people on and around Mt Everest. I learned about it from Mingma, who already had a message waiting on my phone when I woke that morning. He, his wife and two sons had all survived. Once again the protective force that watched over Mingma had done its job. But this force did not extend to Mingma's home, 13,000 feet above sea level in the Sherpa village of Phortse. Friends there told Mingma his home had been badly damaged. "I have lost my home and I don't know what to do..." he texted me from Tibet, stranded there with the Everest Expedition he had been working on the mountain's north side.
It took Mingma a week to make his way to Kathmandu, where he found his two sons living in a refuge camp. The boarding school they attended was damaged in the quake and no longer safe to occupy. He got them on a flight back to Lukla, where they could then make the four day trek to Phortse. But Mingma was forced to live in a tent near the airport as aid workers streaming into the Khumbu took priority for any seats on the few flights going there.
We texted often during those days as I tried to learn more about Mingma's needs and the state of his home. He gradually sank into despair, writing "I don't even know what is going on in my country. Can you help me?" I said I would, still not sure how. By this time I had given money to a Nepal relief fund, but felt this gesture fell short of the personal connection I had with the people there, especially Mingma. Photos taken of Phortse began to appear online, showing a few homes that were a total loss, but several others that looked repairable. I held out hope Mingma's home was one of those, but began working on plans for a completely new home in case it wasn't.
My son, Trevor Mauro, was a few weeks away from graduating from Illinois Institute of Technology as an Architect. I asked if would be interested in designing a Sherpa home and Trevor enthusiastically accepted. He formed a team of other freshly minted Architects and they began studying the challenge. From the very start they were clear that we weren't aiming to change the way a Sherpa lives. We just wanted to make it safer, warmer, and more serviceable. They studied the Sherpa culture, it's traditions, and the many ways their homes are used. They learned about existing building techniques and what had best withstood the earth quakes. They searched out construction methods used in other seismically active areas and what materials were readily available in Mingma's village. And just as they completed their first drafts another earth quake hit, this one measuring 7.2 with an epicenter just a few miles from Phortse.
More Sherpa lives were lost, especially in Namche Bazaar, the largest village in the Khumbu Valley. Again Mingma's entire family survived. But any standing parts of their home were shaken to the ground. Word of this came to Mingma as he continued to camp next to the airport, subsisting on "...done noodles from (the) government." "I do not know why God is so angry," he wrote. "I don't know how we will live."
At this point we had a design for a sherpa home, but no idea how to actually build it. We did not know how much it would cost to build such a home, which seemed just as relevant as the fact we had raised no funds to do so. I considered the notion of scratching together whatever money I could and sending it, through channels, to Mingma along with the plans. But I knew in a state of such chaos there were no assurances that money would get to him and probably no chance the actual construction design would be followed. In the end, he would probably end up with a home that stood no better chance than the last one when the next earth quake came. If we were going to truly help Mingma and his family in a meaningful and sustainable way we were going to have to travel to Phortse, half a world away, and build his home with our own hands. The weight of this settled on me for a few beats after Mingma's message arrived. The moment had come to either commit to something large and daunting or find a graceful exit. I tapped out a return text and sent this message;
“Do not worry. We will rebuild your home!”