How Sherpas Work

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.