Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.
The Sherpas: An Ethnic Group of the Himalayas
The Sherpas are the only people in the world who could imagine setting foot on Mount Everest, the highest point on earth, without any particular sense of pride or excitement. They are just doing their job as mountain guides and waiting for the expedition to finish. By helping others climb Everest, they earn a decent income. While climbing the summits and peaks of the Himalayas many times, they have faced all kinds of adversities possible. They know every conceivable threat while climbing, every path, wind, rock, serac, and glacier. When the team they guide reaches the culmination point of the climb, they would probably just watch the elation of the climbers and smile. The rarely told story of The Himalayan Sherpas is full of unknown facts. They are the real heroes of mountaineering in this part of the world, but their adventures are sparsely recorded in history. They navigate the mountaineers across the dangerous crevasses and sharp ridges of many a glacier. One cannot but wonder what makes the Sherpas such excellent guides in climbing the Himalayas.
History of the Sherpa Community
In the 16th century, the Sherpas migrated from Tibet to Nepal and settled there. After one or two centuries, this ethnic group also spread to the Himalayan regions of India. Before mountaineering started on such a large scale, Sherpas worked mainly as laborers and porters for road development projects. The major settlement of Sherpas is in the Khumbu valley, in East Nepal. The Sherpa life is immersed in rituals, symbols, and a rich tradition. They live at an altitude of 2000 to 5000 meters above sea level. Nestled in the mist-coated valleys overlooking the snowy summits of the Himalayas, the Sherpa villages are shrouded in silence and isolation. The resilience of the Sherpa in this harsh geography and climate might only be equaled by the rock formations that have stood here for centuries. Sherpas are known for their simplicity, gaiety, their natural skills for mountaineering and carrying weight, their kind bearing, confidence, and courage. However, the life of Sherpas has become far too complex in the modern world to be defined by such generic categories.
The Faith of the Sherpa
The Sherpa community worships Mount Everest as the “mother goddess of the land”. This was why for a long time, the local communities believed no one should climb the summit. In 1953, Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand mountaineer, and Tenzing Norgay, his Sherpa guide, climbed Mount Everest for the first time in the history of humanity. The taboo was broken once and forever. Even today, before a climb begins, the Sherpa people undertake a worship ceremony. The summit is named Sagarmatha in the Nepalese language and in Tibetan, the language of the Sherpas, it is called Chomolungma, meaning, the mother goddess. The Sherpas believe that there will be accidents during the climb if the ceremony is not performed. They also do not burn garbage or kill animals during the climb.
Frances Klatzel, the author of the book, ‘Gaiety of Spirit: The Sherpas of Everest’, remembers that when he climbed the Himalayas, his Sherpa companions would murmur a prayer whenever they had to cross a ridge with dangerous cleavages. Each of these mountain ridges, where crossing is extremely difficult would have cairns (mounds of stones made to mark a place, or in memory of something sacred) with a prayer flag placed in the middle. The Sherpas would put a new stone on the cairn and pray before they continue the dangerous trek ahead.
What help do the Sherpas Do?
While climbing, the Sherpas do all the hard work. They carry most of the supplies on their backs, fix the ropes for climbing, build camps, cook for the team, and lead the way. A Sherpa believes mental health is equally important to physical health when setting out on a climbing trip. It is a lot of climbing back and forth and acclimatizing that the mountaineers do before they reach the summit. When compared to the back and forth trips that Sherpas make to prepare the camps and fix the ropes ahead, this is nothing.
Extraordinary Personal Tales of the Sherpas
Apa Sherpa, a Sherpa from Nepal, climbed Mount Everest 21 times. After his father died when he was just 12 years old, Apa Sherpa shouldered the responsibility of looking after his family. He took up work as a porter and his education ended then and there. Gradually he trained himself into the better-paying career of a mountain guide.
Another Sherpa, Kami Rita Sherpa has climbed the summit 24 times, which itself is a world record. He also has made 34 summits altogether on five of the highest 14 peaks of the world. In the book, ‘Sherpa: The Memoir of Ang Tharkey’, Tharkey, the much-celebrated mountaineering Sherpa, narrates his childhood vividly. He and his family had to struggle with the weather and the soil of their land to grow at least some grain and vegetables to meet minimum subsistence. Hunger was a constant companion to the young boys of his village. From such dire circumstances does the acclaimed Sherpa mountaineer often emerge. In 2016, Denny Levett, a biologist who studied the Sherpa’s ability to endure high-altitude and low-oxygen situations found that at the level of the body cells, Sherpas have some differences from other people. In the body cells of the Sherpas, the Mitochondria, a part of the cell that generates energy from oxygen, works more vigorously. Levett compared these Sherpa mitochondria to “fuel-efficient cars”. She also found that though blood circulation in the smallest blood vessels of the human body slows down in extreme cold, the blood circulation in the body of a Sherpa demonstrated no change. As early as 1976, another study indicated that Sherpas had more red blood cells than an average human being and a higher concentration of oxygen in the blood.
Even Sherpas Cannot Avert All the Risks of Everest Climbing
In 2014, when an avalanche accident on Mount Everest took the lives of 16 Sherpas, the world media called it the worst accident that ever happened on the summit. The bereaved families of the dead Sherpa guides did not know how to move ahead in life as their only income came from their lost ones working as guides to the mountaineers. The only well-paying vocation that the young Sherpa boys know while growing up in this hard and icy terrain is to be a mountain guide. The opportunities for education are scarce, and the climate makes agriculture highly restricted. In a sense, these people stay trapped by these majestic mountains and the clouds that float above, like an impenetrable ceiling. The only other option to becoming a mountaineering guide often is to become a yak herder, a monk, or a porter. However, a porter’s or yak herder’s income is nil compared to the money that a good guide earns. When considering the risk of this job, the average income of $4000-5000 that a Sherpa earns in a mountaineering season is not yet sufficient or lucrative; another grim reality is 40% of deaths in Everest have been Sherpas.
Yeti, the Mythical Snowman, and Sherpa Lore
In the Sherpa folklore, there are mentions about the mythical snowman, Yeti, which is neither an ape nor human. Sherpas believe Yetis exist and their folk tales talk about it as a child born to a Tibetan girl and a large ape. There are also Sherpa stories that trace their own origin to the marriage of a monkey and a rock ogress. Somehow, Yeti and Sherpa seem to have an ancient connection culturally. It is fascinating to think about a creature such as Yeti, that stands on the connecting threshold of humans and animals. It is no surprise that for Sherpas, who live at the closest possible place to pure nature, Yeti becomes a cultural metaphor, a close relative, and also a mystery carried along by generations.
Another name for Yeti among the Lepcha tribe of the Himalayas is ‘Chu Mung’, which means, the glacier spirit. All these myths of the mountain could be how these people keep their sanity and hold on to hope in the face of the unforgiving snowstorms, avalanches, and shifting ice falls. Sherpas still believe that the mountain goddess, Everest, would protect them and will not mind them climbing her cliffs if they being her children could make a living of it.
Guide: What Does a Sherpa at Mount Everest Do?, BBC.
Last Minutes on Mount Everest, The New York Times. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nAt869JqYg
Apa Sherpa Docu-short, Merlin Films LLC.
Frances Klatzel, Gaiety of Spirit: The Sherpas of Everest.
Ang Tharkey, Sherpa: The Memoir of Ang Tharkey’.
Cnn.com, The Biological Secrets that Makes Sherpas Superhuman Mountaineers.
Sherry B. Ortner, High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism.
G. Morpurgo et al., Sherpas Living Permanently at High Altitude: A New Pattern of Adaptation, 1976.
National Geographic, Sherpas: The Invisible Men of Everest.
Worldrecordacademy.org, Most Ascents to the Summit of Mount Everest: Kami Rita Sherpa.
© 2021 Deepa
Deepa (author) from India on September 06, 2021:
Thank you MG Singh emge for the very relevant feedback. The Tibetan expedition indeed will be a fascinating story for another time.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on September 06, 2021:
Nice and informative article. Sherpas are a resilient community and havs long association with British and Indian army. They were part of the YoungHusband expedition in 1903 to Tibet