How Sherpas Work


A Sherpa man standing in Namche Bazaar in the Solu-Khumbu region in northeastern Nepal.
Hugh Sitton/Getty Images

If you lay a map of Nepal's roads beside a map of its terrain, you'll notice a stark difference. Nepal's road map looks like a few lonely rivulets cutting through a barren landscape -- no spider web of intersecting road lines snake this country. But a topographical map reveals a completely different and much more dramatic image. The map virtually explodes with the craggy grandeur of the Himalayan mountains.

It is to those highest points of Nepal's geography that the Sherpa people migrated more than 500 years ago from Tibet. Famous for their domestic backdrop of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, Sherpas have developed a fascinating culture and livelihood interwoven with the perilous peaks among which they dwell. Likewise, where the world sees a geographical obstacle to overcome, Sherpas see a life source.

Sherpas migrated from Tibet through the Nangpa La pass in the 1500s and settled in the Solukhumbu region of Nepal.
2008 HowStuffWorks

Sherpa literally means "people of the East" because they came from eastern Tibet. In the northeastern corner of Nepal, they settled in the Solu-Khumbu region at the southern base of Mount Everest, near the Dodh Koshi River fed by Himalayan glaciers. Here, they established multiple villages, home to around 25,000 people.

Until the influx of British settlers occurred in neighboring India in the early 20th century, Sherpas remained relatively isolated and unknown to the rest of the world. Then, with the first successful ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and a Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa people and their seemingly natural ability to brave the staggering heights were thrown into the international spotlight. Tourists typically characterize them as hardy, friendly mountain guides and assistants who are incredibly strong and physically compact.

Yet, as we'll learn in this article, there's much more to the Sherpa culture than climbing. In fact, summiting Mount Everest is an afterthought for most of them, despite the personal glory some have earned.

But if Sherpa life isn't all about mountaineering, what is it like to live in the shadows of the Himalayas? Read on to discover the many intricacies of the Sherpa culture and the role Mount Everest plays, aside from the tourist draw.

Lay of the Sherpa Land

Sherpas carved out terraced fields on the mountain slopes for farming.
Sherpas carved out terraced fields on the mountain slopes for farming.
W. Robert Moore/National Geographic/Getty Images

Hundreds of years ago, Sherpas crossed through the Nangpa La mountain pass to arrive in the southern slopes of Mount Everest. They first settled in the higher altitudes in the Khumbu valley, between 11,000-foot and 13,000-foot (3,352-meter and 3,962-meter) altitudes. Gradually, they fanned out toward to the Solu region between 6,500 feet and 10,000 feet (1,981 meters and 3,048 meters). To survive on the mountainous inclines, Sherpas literally carved out terraced fields for farming, transforming the slopes into wide earthen staircases. Stone walls built against the steps support the staggered plots.

Stony ground and scrubby plants like juniper bushes and rhododendron cover the Khumbu area. As you move down to the Solu valley, pine and hemlock trees attest to the more fertile soil.

Although the Solu-Khumbu region lies in sub-tropical latitudes, the steep altitudes make for a chillier climate. While cold, the seasonal temperatures in the populated areas do not plunge into arctic extremes. Winter hovers below 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 degree Celsius) with summers reaching upwards of 50 degrees Celsius in lower lands. Most climbers attempt to summit during April and May when the weather is warmest before the annual rain. Then, from June to September, Sherpas endure monsoon season.

Because of threats of deforestation and the growing number of tourists attracted to the area, the Khumbu valley was protected as the Sagarmatha National Park by the government of Nepal in 1976 and designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1979. Saragarmatha is the Nepalese name for Mount Everest. Around 3,500 Sherpas live in the park, many of whom are engaged in the mountain-related tourism.

Aerial view of the Solu-Khumbu region at the base of Mount Everest.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Sagarmatha National Park hosts an array of exotic animals, such as snow leopards, red pandas and musk deer. Other interesting fauna include the Himalayan tahr, which looks like a huge goat with an overgrown beard, and Nepal's national bird, the rainbow-colored Impeyan pheasant.

When it comes to domesticated animals, yaks are the Sherpa's preferred beasts of burden. Yaks are well-suited to the high-altitude life with large hooves that can navigate snowy paths and strong bodies. They also have larger lungs and more red blood cells to allow them to better survive the lower-oxygen levels in high altitudes [source: Animal Info]. On the outside of their bodies, thick layers of shaggy fur protect them from icy temperatures. Yaks also serve as a food source for Sherpas. Yak milk, yak butter and yak meat comprise part of Sherpas' diets. In lower elevations, Sherpas may use zopkios, or male cow-yak crossbreeds, for similar tasks.

Because Sherpas live at the top of the world, they live at much higher altitudes than do most people who live in other parts of the world. Find out more about Sherpa life at those altitudes on the next page.

Daily Sherpa Life

Because of the absence of vehicles, many goods are transported on the backs of porters.
Because of the absence of vehicles, many goods are transported on the backs of porters.
Robb Kendrick/Getty Images

Sherpas lead a utilitarian existence, with many surviving through trade and subsistence farming. Wheat and potatoes are the leading crops, and some raise yaks as well. With both farming and herding, Sherpas often move between multiple small stone huts in the highlands and lowlands, depending on the season. They can then trade these goods for other necessities.

As we'll discuss in more detail later, tourism is the most lucrative economic trend for the Sherpas. While a majority of Sherpas do not work with trekking and expedition companies, those specifically in the elevated Khumbu valley have profited the most from it.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Sherpa life is the absence of wheels. Because of the treacherous landscape, almost no wheeled transportation exists in the Solu-Khumbu region, not even wheelbarrows. Instead of roads and automobiles, Sherpas get from place to place on foot paths. That means that whenever they need to transport anything -- such as firewood, produce or building materials -- it goes on their yaks or their backs. Many Sherpas, especially poorer ones, become accustomed to bearing heavy loads from a young age, hauling their families' cargo or working as porters for wealthier people.

Some Sherpas also earn extra money as porters on mountain climbs, sometimes carrying more than 100 pounds (45.3 kilograms) up the trails. Wide mouth baskets with a strap called a trumpline that goes across the forehead contain the cargo. The trumpline takes some of the load weight from the back, transferring it to the neck. Walking sticks also help ease the burden.

The Sherpa's ability to perform such strenuous labor in higher altitudes with less oxygen has been a perplexing phenomenon for scientists. While most visitors to the region would suffer from altitude sickness, or hypoxia, due to lack of oxygen delivered to tissues, Sherpas' bodies are acclimated to it. In fact, some Sherpa have summited Mount Everest without the additional supply of oxygen that is standard issue on most climbs. Although the precise reason why they are better adapted has not been pinned down, studies have revealed that some Sherpas may have slightly more hemoglobin in their blood that transports oxygen to the tissues to fuel metabolism compared with people who live at sea level. Evidence also suggests that Sherpas' bodies absorb oxygen into their blood more efficiently as well. To learn more about high-altitude survival, read How do Tibetans avoid altitude sickness?.

Sherpas speak a Tibetan dialect rather than the national Nepali language and have no written language. Until the 1960s and the funding, from Edmund Hillary's foundation, little to no formalized education existed in the area. Hillary's Himalayan Fund charity built 30 schools in the Solu-Khumbu region. But today, some schools have fallen into disrepair and suffer from low attendance because most students must trek long distances to get to school.

Health care is also a challenge. Thankfully, Hillary's foundation also funded an airstrip and hospitals in the remote area that have brought modern medicine and dentistry to the villagers. The Kunde Hospital, for example, offers free health care for Sherpas and is staffed by both permanent and volunteer doctors.

Next, we'll back up for a moment and examine the history of the Sherpa people and the significant events that brought them where they are today.

Sherpa History

Mount Everest is located in the upper reaches of the Solukhumbu region.
Mount Everest is located in the upper reaches of the Solukhumbu region.
2008 HowStuffWorks

Sherpas migrated from the Tibetan province of Kham to the uninhabited Solu-Khumbu region in the northeast corner of Nepal around in the 16th century because of warfare. At that time, there was much more forest and wood for fuel than exists today. That, along with the ability to grow wheat and buckwheat, provided the foundation for the first Sherpa inhabitants.

During that time, Sherpas crossed the Tibetan border to trade crops and yak meat. In 1880, the introduction of the potato to the region revolutionized agriculture, giving Sherpas another staple crop that they rely on even today. But aside from farming, the only other way to make money was as a tax collector.

For that reason, the British colonization of India and the subsequent construction projects it sparked lured many Sherpa men. Darjeeling, across the eastern border of Nepal in India became a popular draw for seasonal employment for Sherpas since it was developing into a resort area for British military and political officials. This British presence would soon kick off the evolution of the Sherpa mountaineering profession.

Everest was confirmed as the highest point in the world in 1865, but it took years of diplomatic negotiations for Westerners to get a crack at conquering it. Following the colonization of India, in the early 20th century, British expeditions to Mount Everest began. But because Nepal was closed off to foreigners until 1949, the climbs were routed through Tibet.

Soon, the Nepalese Sherpas who worked in Darjeeling became the desired guides and porters on the treks. Most credit the Englishman Alexander Kellas as the first person to advertise the Sherpas' superiority on Everest. Kellas reported that they were not only physically strong and nimble on the trails but also possessed a friendly demeanor and cheerful attitude.

The opening of Nepal's borders in 1949 and the successful climb of New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953 ignited a tourist rush into the Solu-Khumbu region. The Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1950 also effectively cut off trade with Tibet, turning more Sherpas' focus to the economic prospects of mountaineering.

In 1996, the ripple effect of the Maoist insurrection in western Nepal led by Comrade Prachanda and an army of poor, rural farmers affected Sherpas not so much because of a direct threat, but negative publicity. Maoists follow a strand of Marxism developed by the Chinese Communist leader, Mao Zedong. Although some rebels did appear in the Khumbu valley, by and large, the majority of the violence was restricted to the other side of the country. Nevertheless, images of Nepalese soldiers patrolling the Sagarmatha National Park resulted in a drop in tourism in the early 2000s. The 9/11 attacks in the United States also put a damper on international tourism.

As you can see throughout the Sherpa history, the mountains have constantly played an integral role. Read on for a closer look at the Sherpas' relationship with Mount Everest and how the mountaineering profession has impacted them as a people.

Sherpas and Mount Everest

Tenzing Norgay Sherpa
Tenzing Norgay Sherpa
Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the eyes of the world, Sherpas are indelibly connected to Mount Everest. But their relationship with it contains interesting contradictions. On one hand, they respect it as a deity, calling it Chomolungma, loosely translated "Goddess Mother of the World." On the other, they have experienced the material benefits of the Western obsession with conquering it.

The Hillary-Norgay summit in 1953 opened the floodgates for tourists to pour into the Khumbu valley. Norgay actually worked as a porter and a guide for more than 18 years before the successful expedition. That trek, called the British Everest Expedition, began as a group of 400 people and slowly whittled away to just Hillary and Norgay. With Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpas suddenly had an international face and reputation as being the best of the best for Himalayan mountaineering.

Norgay's reaction to reaching the peak of the world reflects the Sherpa perspective on Mount Everest and how it relates to their lives. He described it as "warm and friendly and living," comparing it to a "mother hen" [source: Tenzing].

Many Sherpas have strived to maintain this type of respect for the mountains because of the life force it possesses. Although they understand that tourists want to attain the personal glory of reaching the top, some Sherpas have grown disheartened from what they feel is a cheapening of the Everest experience [source: Tenzing]. Since the 1953 summit, more than 2,250 people have reached the top of the mountain, often with Sherpa help [source: Everest History].

However, the majesty of the mountain does not come without its share of danger. Being a Sherpa guide on Mount Everest expeditions carries a high risk of severe injury or death. Although specific counts vary, people estimate that about a third of the Everest fatalities have been Sherpas [source: Reid and Kendrick]. In addition, the publicity that Westerners receive for their summits far overshadows that given to Sherpas. Following the Hillary-Norgay summit, for example, New Zealander Hillary received a knighthood, while Norgay only received an honorary medal.

But as you'll see in the next section, many Sherpas aren't concerned about the lack of acknowledgement for their incredible mountain skills. Instead, the deep roots of their religious beliefs play a far more significant role in their lives than the secular praise heaped on successful climbers.

Sherpa Religion

Tibetan prayer flags blow in the breeze at the Mount Everest base camp.
Tibetan prayer flags blow in the breeze at the Mount Everest base camp.
Jake Norton/Aurora/Getty Images

­Although many Nepalese are Hindu, Sherpas practice a form of Tibetan Buddhism. Understanding their Buddhist practices helps one understand their way of life and why the Sherpas are so deeply linked to the mountains. The mountains, particularly Mount Everest, hold spiritual significance as places to come closer to enlightenment. Even the Khumbu valley is referenced in Buddhist literature as sacred.

Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes compassion and selflessness in order to reach enlightenment. It is a pacifist religion focused on the preservation and respect for living things. Although the Sherpas moved into the isolated region in the Khumbu valley, their religious practices continued to flourish as they settled. Local priests, called lamas, and leaders of the priests, called ripoches, served as spiritual guides for the Sherpas. Gradually, their religious practices evolved into more formal rituals and ceremonies.

In 1916, the first celibate monastery was established by Lama Gulu in Tengboche. The Tengboche monastery, set 12,700 feet (3,870 meters) aloft, is a spiritual landmark for the Sherpas, with a school and nunnery affiliated with it. More than 30,000 tourists visit the Tengboche monastery each year because of the striking geography and the religious festivals. The popular festival of Mani Rindu culminates in a masked dance ceremony that displays the colorful aspects of the Sherpa's religious culture, celebrating 10 days of prayer to the Buddha of compassion.

Indeed, compassion is central to the Sherpa religion and their way of life. Many Sherpa homes contain religious shrines to which they pray and present daily offerings. Outside, visible symbols of Buddhism dot the footpaths and landscape. Mani walls, which are stones engraved with mantras, or short prayers, of transcendence, remind Sherpas of their journey toward nirvana. Chodens, or religious shrines, are also common milestones along the trials, often wrapped in the strands of Tibetan prayer flags.

This religious background explains much about the differences between the Sherpa mindset and the Western approach to mountaineering. To attain enlightenment, Buddhists must not perform religious acts for their own sake, but rather for others. This selflessness translates into the Sherpa profession of guiding the climbers and sometimes sacrificing their own safety for others. Many Sherpas also do not view the goal of reaching the top of Mount Everest as a means of personal glory likely because it goes against the grain of their religion [source: Neale]. Instead, as we saw with the earlier quote from Tenzing Norgay describing Mount Everest as a "mother hen," the summit of the mountain is merely a way to draw closer to the Buddhas [source: Tenzing]. For that reason, Norgay and other Sherpas have left offerings to the gods at the top Everest.

As the ancient traditions of Sherpas collide with the Western influence that tourists have brought in, many question the future of the Solu-Khumbu region. On the next page, we'll examine the fate of the Sherpas and their culture in the 21st century.

The Future of Sherpas

Although younger Sherpas are moving out of Solu-Khumbu, a National Geographic study found that Sherpas are not worried about the influence of Western tourists.
Although younger Sherpas are moving out of Solu-Khumbu, a National Geographic study found that Sherpas are not worried about the influence of Western tourists.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Thanks to Mount Everest tourism, Solu-Khumbu has taken many steps toward modernization. A hydroelectric plant supplies power, and music stores, pool halls and Internet capacity are other new conveniences. In fact, almost everything that Sherpas or tourists need is for sale nearby, particularly in the southern village of Namche Bazaar. On the flip side, deforestation and pollution from centuries of Sherpa land use and the influx of tourists has threatened the region's environmental health. In response, the government has enforced stricter environmental protection laws and restrictions.

Regardless of the economic improvements and new schools and hospitals, the area still offers few educational or professional opportunities. For that reason, the population has dwindled in recent years with about 3,500 people living in the Sagarmatha National Park. The younger generations in particular are moving away from their high-altitude homeland into outlying villages and more urban cities like Kathmandu, Nepal's capital. In spite of this apparent threat to the existence of the traditional Sherpa culture, a National Geographic study found that Sherpas are not overly concerned about the influence of Western tourists [source: Reid and Kendrick].

Nevertheless, some feel that the spiritual devotion inherent in the land has given way to worldly pleasures. For Sherpas involved in the climbing industry, Khumbu has become a lucrative location. Many climbers pay around $65,000 per expedition, with Sherpas earning upwards of $2,000 a trip. Compared to Nepal's per capita Gross National Income of $331 in 2007 [source: World Bank], successful guides can grow rich by local standards. Multiply that by the 20,000 tourists who travel through each year [source: Reid and Kendrick], and you see the force of the industry.

Sherpa children at a school funded by the Himalayan Trust.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Some Sherpas, like Apa Sherpa, have also started their own trekking businesses or own hotels and lodges. Interestingly, Apa says that he wishes he could have had a better education and become a medical doctor, rather than make a life out of climbing. Even though he holds the record for the most number of Everest summits with 17 successful attempts, he only climbs to afford a brighter future for his children and donates some income from his trekking business to a Sherpa educational fund. Apa shares the sentiment of many other Sherpas who also want to provide more for their children.

Even with this cultural shift, one integral aspect of Sherpa life has not changed: the walking. Still today, no automobiles clog the footpaths in Solu-Khumbu, and it seems it will stay that way. Walking is what brought the Sherpas to where they are today and is what will take them into the future.

For more information on the Sherpas and Mount Everest, read the links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Beall, Cynthia M. "Andean, Tibetan, and Ethiopian patterns of adaptation to high-altitude hypoxia." Integrative and Comparative Biology. Jan. 6, 2006. (March 17, 2008)
  • Clark, Liesl. "World of the Sherpa." NOVA Online. Public Broadcasting Systems. Updated November 2000. (March 19, 2008) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/everest/history/sherpasworld2.html
  • Douglas, Ed. "Upwardly Mobile." Geographical. May 2003. (March 18, 2008)
  • Everest History. "Summits and Deaths by Year." (March 24, 2008) http://www.everesthistory.com/everestsummits/summitsbyyear.htmc
  • Fischer, James. "Sherpas of Khumbu." Oxford University Press. 1990. (March 18, 2008). http://www.linkingeverest.com/html/sherpaculture.htm
  • George, Don. "A Man to Match the Mountain." Brilliant Careers. Salon. (March 19, 2008) http://www.salon.com/bc/1998/12/cov_01bc2.html
  • Handwerk, Brian. "The Sherpas of Mount Everest." National Geographic. May 10, 2002. (March 19, 2008) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/05/0507_020507_ sherpas.html
  • Houston, Charles S., David E. Harris; Ellen J. Zeman "Going Higher: Oxygen, Man, and Mountains." The Mountaineers Books. 2005. (March 20, 2008) http://books.google.com/books?id=nmfxsroNQ70C
  • Massicot, Paul. "Wild Yak." Animal Info. Updated March 5, 2005. (March 24, 2008) http://www.animalinfo.org/species/artiperi/bos_mutu.htm
  • Neal, Jonathan. "Tigers of the Snow." MacMillan. 2002. (March 17, 2008) http://books.google.com/books?id=Fnchj8KptbIC&printsec=frontcover&dq =sherpas&lr=&sig=AA25eupnyWzv1adY4hoS7L_AyMA#PPA31,M1
  • Ortner, Sherry. "High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of the Sherpas." Motital Banarsidass Publications. 1992. (March 17, 2008) http://books.google.com/books?id=-LiX0Qjvs-oC&printsec=frontcover&dq= sherpa&sig=dImSkiZTLhccATwOQPCoSDho1lc#PPR8,M1
  • Ortner, Sherry. "Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering." Princeton University Press. 1999. (March 19, 2008) http://books.google.com/books?id=wLgim3BZ5mwC&pg=PP13&dq=sherpa &sig=DFxN1vgNN0Ad4NK6XXbv9GCB7No#PPA34,M1
  • Powers, John. "Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism." FrontLine. Public Broadcasting Systems. 1995. (March 19, 2008) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh//pages/frontline////shows/tibet/understand/ intro.html
  • Reid, T.R. and Kendrick, Robb. "The Sherpas." National Geographic. May 2003. (March 17, 2008)
  • Reynolds, Kev. "Everest: Trekking Routes in Nepal." Cicerone Press Limited. 2005. (March 18, 2008) http://books.google.com/books?id=CKhgE0qgSHIC&pg =PA18&dq=khumbu&sig=mc64SxTdHwY5g9y2nw6n BT6x_8U#PPA19,M1
  • Tengboche Monastery Development Project. (March 19, 2008) http://tengboche.org.
  • Tenzing, Tashi. "For Sherpas, a Steep Climb." The New York Times. May 29, 2003. (March 19, 2008) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res= 9F02E7DB1E31F93AA15756C0A9659C8B63
  • The Government of Nepal. "Sagarmatha National Park." Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation. (March 19, 2008) http://www.south-asia.com/dnpwc/Sagarmatha%20national%20Park/ sherpa.htm
  • The Government of Tibet in Exile. "The Nyingma Tradition." (March 19, 2008) http://www.tibet.com/Buddhism/nyingma.html
  • Whalen, Kelly. "The Legacy of Sherpa Women Mountaineers." PBS Frontline World. May 2003. (March 20, 2008) http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/nepal/lhamu.html
  • Wise, Tad. "Blessing on the Wind: The Mystery & Meaning of Tibetan Prayer Flags." Chronicle Books. 2002. (March 19, 2008) http://books.google.com/books?id=dNFIECupWqwC&pg=PA25&dq=tibetan+prayer+flags+symbolism&sig=WwN4bIgCXPo0kU9viJs2VbwsX2w#PPA8,M1
  • World Bank. "Nepal Data Profile." April 2007. (March 19, 2008) http://devdata.worldbank.org/external/CPProfile.asp?PTYPE=CP&CCODE =NPL/li