The Sherpa people, native to the Himalayan region, are one of the most remarkable ethnic groups in the world.
Yet, too often, they are glanced over in favour of the achievements of the clients they guide; a mere footnote in the annals of Western mountaineering.
Most of us, when asked what we know about Sherpas, will reply that they are skilled mountaineers, helping ambitious climbers to scale extreme-altitude peaks such as Mount Everest – the mountain known to the Sherpa as ‘Chomolungma’, meaning ‘Mother Goddess of the World’. Some may even be able to name Tenzing Norgay, who, along with Edmund Hillary, made the first ever recorded successful climb of Everest in 1953.
Yet behind the image we all have of the smiling, patient Sherpa guide epitomised by Norgay, there is a fascinating and complex story of incredible athleticism and bravery – but it is a story darkened by increasing exploitation.
The obsession with climbing mountains isn’t a Sherpa thing.
To them, many of the Himalayan peaks are sacred, to be respected and appeased rather than clambered over.
However, they are incredibly good at mountaineering. Their superhuman reputation is well-deserved and recently backed up by science: a 1976 American study by Morpurgo et al. showed that, from thousands of years living and working at extremely high altitudes, the Sherpa people have genetically adapted to survive in low oxygen – with doubled nitric oxide production, haemoglobin-binding enzymes and more efficient lungs than those of us who live closer to sea level. This adaption plays a huge part in the Sherpas’ role as elite climbers. They climb faster and easier than everyone else, and require less supplemental oxygen to do so.
Commercial climbing companies have utilized this remarkable adaptation well. Most will employ porters, both Sherpas and members of other ethnic groups, to carry enormous loads of equipment and supplies for their clients to campsites, even as far as Everest Base Camp. However, nearly all of the climbers who go with these clients further on to the higher camps or the summit are Sherpas.
These men make several trips up and down the mountain before it’s even ‘officially’ open for business; setting up ropes for climbers to pull themselves up with in the more difficult sections and stashing oxygen bottles on the higher ridges for when the air gets too thin to breathe properly.
They also carry equipment and even make tea and bring hot towels to the tents in the morning – all so that the clients they are escorting can concentrate on making it to the summit and back alive.
In short, most expeditions would be impossible without Sherpa guides.
It’s a dangerous job. Sherpas make more ascents of Everest and other high-altitude Himalayan mountains than anyone else.
These extreme altitudes are inherently hostile to human life. Plotting out the trail for clients is no easy task, and it’s entirely too easy to slip and fall hundreds of feet, or to succumb to deadly altitude sickness.
The maze of creaking crevasses and towering blocks of ice known as the Khumbu icefall, not far from Base Camp, is widely considered one of the most dangerous parts of the Everest climb, where a single misstep or sudden collapse of ice can and has resulted in instant death.
All climbers attempting to summit Everest from its south side must pass through the icefall several times – but the Sherpas have to do it up to thirty times a season, picking their way carefully across the shifting ice to lay out ladders and ropes for the clients to use in their own crossings.
Statistically, being a Sherpa climbing guide is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
In 2014, sixteen men were killed in an avalanche in the Khumbu icefall as they were setting out that climbing season’s route – all of them Sherpas. The Sherpa community refused to work on Everest for the rest of the season out of respect, and in protest.
A year later, ten more were killed after another avalanche, triggered by the earthquake of 2015.
As the years have gone by, and with Everest expeditions becoming increasingly more commercialised, such disasters have done nothing to halt the growing tension between the Sherpas and their Western clients.
In 2012, a highly-publicised brawl broke out at Camp II, between a large group of Sherpas and three well-known Western climbers who had allegedly ignored the Sherpas’ request to stay off the 3690ft Lhotse face – a necessary part of the ascent – while the guides were working to set ropes up on it.
Tensions are exacerbated by the fact that, while earning the equivalent of $4,000-$5,000 a season, and, thus, ten times the average national wage in Nepal, the Sherpas’ salary pales in comparison to the salaries of Western expedition leaders, who can earn up to $50,000.
And that’s not even mentioning the millions of dollars the Nepalese government makes through selling obligatory climbing permits. To top it all off, government compensation for the families of Sherpas killed on the job are slow in coming, and usually amount to very little, usually just enough to cover funeral costs.
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were often pestered by reporters to name which one of them had ‘officially’ set foot on the summit first. They refused, insisting that it didn’t matter – they had reached the summit as a team. Hillary went on to help build hundreds of schools and hospitals across Nepal as a mark of respect and gratefulness to the Sherpa people.
In 2002, on the fiftieth anniversary of that first successful climb, Peter Hillary and Jamling Tenzing Norgay – the sons of the original Hillary-Norgay team – followed in their fathers’ footsteps and climbed Everest together in a touching tribute.
But a lot has changed in the fifty years since their fathers took those last few historic steps, and that sense of camaraderie between Sherpa and climber may soon be in danger of being lost to the history books.
Header: Nepali rescue team members evacuate a survivor of an avalanche on Mount Everest on April 18, 2014 – National Geographic – PHOTOGRAPH BY PRAKASH MATHEMA, AFP/GETTY
Most Sherpa climbers work on the mountain. They guide foreigners to the top, set ropes and ladders, and carry everything from food to tents and oxygen canisters up. These jobs have brought money and development to their communities, but little glory for the Sherpas.
After 16 Sherpas died in the Khumbu Icefall in 2014, safety concerns grew and so did demands for change.
The government started requiring guiding agencies to increase the life insurance policies they purchase for Sherpas from $10,000 to $15,000.
This sum barely puts a dent in the loss of a family’s breadwinner, so fundraisers by climbers help too.
Helicopters are also being used a little more to ferry, saving trips by Sherpas, and perform high altitude rescues. Rescues of hired climbers are paid for through government-mandated insurance policies; sometimes companies pay the difference. Another solution is to climb from the somewhat safer northern face in Tibet. There’s also a push for more technical training, which helps Sherpa climbers who often start on Everest because of strength and endurance, but without much training.
Some of Everest’s bravest workers are called Icefall doctors. They spend up to 16 hours a day in the Icefall attaching ropes and ladders.
Sherpas often need those rescue skills to save clients and colleagues. Sange Sherpa came close to joining the list of Everest casualties three years ago.
The 19-year-old was working his second season on the mountain, guiding a Pakistani client who, according to Sange, denied his requests to abandon the summit attempt, when the weather turned bad.
Both men wound up unconscious in the snow on the descent. Sherpa men from another team found the climbers close to death and brought them down in time, but Sange’s hands were so frostbitten, amputation seemed necessary.
Alpine Sange Sherpa:
“My Everest Summit Experience 2017”
I feel really lucky and blessed to be able to share my experience with you all.
After Everest 2016 Expedition. I began my another attempt to the summit of Mt Everest on 21st May 2017 with one of my client from Pakistan. We both were doing good on the way to the summit. When we reached balcony ,we replaced our empty bottle of oxygen with a new one. Everything was going good. We were close to the summit of Mt Everest, I could see all the other mountains down below the Mt Everest. I was quiet comfortable with out using oxygen bottle at that point, so I planned to use my bottle of oxygen as a backup when we return from the summit.
Suddenly the weather started to turn bad and soon worse.
Unfortunately my oxygen mask and goggles were frozed completely. The wind was too cold and strong, blowing all the new snow in the air that I could hardly see through my goggles. I realized that it’s more important to return back than heading up for summit of Mt.Everest as I was aware of the risk included. So, I requested my client to return back immediately for our safety but my client he refused my request because the Everest summit was very near and said he had paid a lot of royalty to climb Everest. So, he don’t want to return back without successful summit of Mt. Everest
If I want, I could have left him alone all the way to summit and return myself back alone down but I didn’t did that. His life was equally important for me, I went with him up to the summit to guide and support him despite the bad weather and the fact that we both could loose our life in a blink . You will have hundreds of reason to die in the mountain.
Finally after an struggle and slow walk we both stood on the summit of Mt Everest. It was both reward and risk for us. We were very happy. I clicked some photographs of my client rapidly on the summit ,hoping that I will get some good shot of him as I was feeling dizzy and was not able too see clearly. We spent around 5 minutes on the summit of Mt Everest, I started feeling like a drunk man almost going to fall down, it was too risky to stay on the summit more and the oxygen bottle was also limited so we descended from the summit quickly after replacing a new oxygen for my client.
My client was walking very slowly and I was also doing good climbing down without use of oxygen. It became dark and we had to stop after a long descend. When I looked for my client he was resting on the ridge just few meters away from me. I called him a lot but he didn’t respond me at all.
By now he was unconscious and too weak to walk and speak so do I. I inhaled my oxygen and I was too tired and unconscious that I didn’t realized when I went into sleep. Luckily I was awaken by the noise of other climbers, otherwise the climbers walking nearby would have considered me dead and left there.
When I opened my eyes, I found myself lying unconscious. If I look around, it was just bright white ice and snow. It was just burning my eyes. There were many climbers going to the summit. I was feeling very hungry and thirsty, my water bottle was frozen and no matter how hard I tried I was not able to move my hand and body at all, there was no sense in my both hand. Soon I realized my hand were completely frost bitten, I was very hopeless and tired that I could have easily closed my eyes and become a permanent member of the mountain. It would have been very peaceful than suffering.
I was waiting for death when I could feel my body cold as ice, breathing and heartbeat were very slow. The climbers going to the summit didn’t even approached to me as I was like a dead body. I was unable to move and speak properly. At this point, I needed help. And I gave it to God. I surrendered.
I kept praying to God and at that moment, I witnessed a miracle. God himself came to help me in a form of friends from Seven Summit Treks. Luckily they recognized me, at first they thought I was dead. They feed me some tasty chocolate juice to quench my thirst and after a while with the help of my friends, me and my client we both were able to make it the rest of the way down to Camp 3 & 2 and then got airlifted to the hospital in Kathmandu.
My sincere request to all the foreigners who are climbing or are going to climb the Mountains: Please listen and obey the instruction and decision of Sherpa Guide during your climbing. Don’t put your self and your guide into trouble by making your own decision during such situation. Sherpa Guides are more familiar and experience in the mountains and dealing with harsh environment.
Your life and family is more precious and important than the summit. Mt.Everest will always be there. It wont gonna move anywhere else. If you are unable to summit you can try next time but if you loose your life once, you will never get it back again.. Life is so precious…
People give up on themselves but God’s not giving up on you. No matter what, God is always there. Always have faith in self and god. He’ll lead you through the toughest times and help you survive the impossible.
I am very grateful from the bottom of my heart to Seven Summit Treks family and friends who rescued me and my client from death zone putting their own life at risk. Though I got my hand frost bitten, I am glad that me and my client got a new life and are back alive after successful summit of Mt Everest despite harsh environment with great support from Sherpas.
ONE-THIRD of Everest deaths are Sherpa climbers – 111
On the Everest’s Day, Messner said the most of the people climbing Everest nowadays are not ‘muntaineers’ but ‘tourists’, people paying to be brought up, who think they have bought the summit so they deserve it.
Mountaineers know that the summit is just a possibility, as well as the need to renounce.