Ongyel Sherpa knows a lot of people in high places. The 41-year-old businessman is founder and CEO of US Sherpa, a Williston-based Himalayan trekking company and supplier of Nepali-made apparel and accessories. US Sherpa employs four people in Vermont and supports more than 300 artisans in Nepal, including several members of Sherpa's extended family.
A common surname in Nepal, the word Sherpa also refers to an ethnic group from the Himalayan region known for its mountaineering ability. Ongyel Sherpa was born and raised in Nepal's capital of Kathmandu. His parents are from Khumjung, a small village in northeastern Nepal at an altitude of 12,300 feet.
Living and working at such elevations can bring many hazards, including sudden storms, rock slides and the perils of guiding climbers up some of the world's tallest peaks. In April 2014, Sherpa's cousin, Chhiring Ongchu Sherpa, was among 15 Nepali guides killed in an avalanche on Mount Everest.
But Ongyel Sherpa, his family and the business that's become their lifeline now face another daunting threat — a second wave of the coronavirus that is sweeping through Nepal. The nation of 30 million people has recorded more than 600,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 8,300 deaths, but experts believe the actual toll is much higher, according to a May story in the New York Times. As hundreds of thousands of Nepali workers return home from neighboring India, which itself is being ravaged by the disease, they are straining Nepal's already beleaguered health care system.
"Right now, my big concern is Nepal," Sherpa said in a recent phone interview. "It's very, very scary."
A series of fortuitous events in 1998 helped land Sherpa in Vermont. At the time, he was 18 and still living in Kathmandu. Hoping to help support his family, he went to an interview for a job that would take him to Japan. But by the time he arrived, all the positions had been filled.