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Mountaineering & Expeditions

Humans of Everest | A Guide To The Sherpa People And Their Mountaineering Exploits

Who are the Everest Sherpas? What is the salary for an Everest Sherpa? Who are the most famous Everest Sherpas? Everything you need to know, right here.

When you think of Mount Everest, what springs to mind? For some, it’s the fact that Everest is the world’s highest mountain. For others it’s all about the story of the Everest climbers Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent in 1953. Alternatively, some people might think about base camp or the numerous dead bodies scattered across the mountain. Many though, when imagining Everest, will find themselves picturing the Sherpa people and their unbreakable bond with the Himalayan mountains.

The word Sherpa originates from the Tibetan words for “eastern people.” The Sherpa are an ethnic group from the Himalayas, with most of them living in the eastern parts of Nepal. Sherpas also reside in the more westerly Rolwaling Valley and in the Helambu region north of Kathmundu. Bhutan, Tibet, and India (specifically Sikkim, and the northern areas of West Bengal – i.e. Darjeeling) are other Sherpa hotspots. The global Sherpa population is about 277,000.

“…the Sherpa have developed an unrivalled reputation for elite-level mountaineering.”

Over the years, the Sherpa have developed an unrivalled reputation for elite-level mountaineering. Their knowledge of the world’s most mountainous region, and the various routes hidden within it, proved to be invaluable to the Himalayan summiteers of the 1950s. Tenzing Norgay for example, often referred to as Sherpa Tenzing, wrote his name large in the history books when he officially became one of the first two people to reach the top of Everest in 1953. He achieved the feat with New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary.

Sherpa mountain guides are known throughout the world for their stamina, expertise, and work-ethic at the world’s most elevated points. It has been argued that their phenomenal climbing ability is, in part, down to genetic adaptations that have occurred as a result of of living at high altitude. Very similar arguments have been made on the subject of Kenya and Ethiopia’s continued success in the long-distance running events.

Pictured: Nepalese Sherpa smiling for a photo in the Himalayas (via. Getty Images).

Famous Sherpas

As we’ve already mentioned, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay is one of the most famous mountaineers in history as a result of his exploits on Everest in the first half of the 1950s. However, when it comes to Sherpas making a name for themselves off the back of Mount Everest…Tenzing Norgay is far from alone.

Take Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa, for example. These two hold the joint record for the most successful climbs of Everest. Believe it or not, they’ve both made it to the summit an astonishing 21 times each. Not a bad effort, hey?

Other famous Sherpas include Lhakpa Sherpa, who’s climbed Everest eight times (more than any other woman in history), and Angrita Sherpa, who’s done the most summits of Everest without supplemental oxygen (10 times). Angrita Sherpa’s exploits have earned him the nickname: “The Snow Leopard.”

Pictured: Sherpa Porters taking a break on the Everest base camp trail (via. Getty Images).

Sherpa Tragedies

In 1922, during one of George Mallory’s attempts on Everest, an avalanche hit a rope team and resulted in the death of seven Sherpas. These were the first recorded fatalities on an Everest climb.

Over the years, there has been a number of Sherpa deaths on the mountain. In 2014, 16 Sherpas tragically lost their lives when an avalanche occurred on the treacherous Khumbu Icefall.

In an Outside Online piece from April 2014, it was calculated that Everest Sherpas have a fatality rate of 4,053 to every 100,000 (roughly 4 in every 100). This truly alarming statistic illustrates the dangers of being an ethnic Sherpa working on Everest.

 

Pictured: A Sherpa climbs up a mountain in the Himalayas (via. Getty Images).

Sherpa Controversies

Critics have long argued that Sherpas are seriously underpaid for such dangerous work. Earning between $2,000 to $5,000 a season, compared with Western guides who can make up to and above $50,000 per season, there’s a sense that Sherpas are a consistently exploited workforce.

Considerably more Sherpas have died on Mount Everest than any other group. They are regularly exposed to the most dangerous aspects of the mountain; think rockfalls, crevasses, exhaustion, frostbite, and the blood-thickening effects of altitude which can lead to strokes and clots.

One ongoing controversy involving Everest Sherpas revolves around the measly compensation sums paid out to the families in the event of their death (about $4,600). In the event of injury, things aren’t much better with Sherpas often not being covered by the expedition’s finances. This results in them having to pay their own hospital bills.

Pictured: Sherpa guide and porters beside prayer flag (via. Getty Images).

Take the case of Lhakpa Gyalzen, as a case in point. Lhakpa suffered a stroke at 27,000 feet, in the year 2000, while climbing as part of a Chinese expedition. Lhakpa slept on the mountain for two nights before some of the team’s Sherpas went to get him. He had to pay for all his own medicine and food, despite being injured risking his life to help far more affluent people than himself reach the summit.

Following the avalanche that killed 16 Nepalese climbers in 2014, Sherpas were furious when the government offered just $408 in compensation to the families of the victims. This led to a mass walkout from the Sherpas who were angry over the compensation issue, and who were unwilling to climb the mountain out of respect for those friends and colleagues who had lost their lives. Despite external pressures to keep the mountains open, the Sherpas remained steadfast in their commitment not to climb. This led to that season’s Everest expeditions being cancelled.

An infamous Sherpa controversy occurred in 2013 when a team of three Europeans (including the late, great, Ueli Steck) were supposedly confronted by about 100 Sherpas.  The aggressive clash happened at Camp Two and reportedly involved rocks and punches being thrown, as well as ice axes being wielded. The incident is thought to have taken place after a disagreement over dislodged ice falling and hitting a Sherpa in the face. Stories circulating at the time suggested the Sherpas didn’t want to climb for safety reasons, while the Europeans wanted to continue.

Sherpa Funds, Charities, and Foundations

There are a number of projects aimed at helping the Sherpa community, and the families of those affected by mountaineering tragedies. The Juniper Fund, for example, was started by mountain guides Dave Morton and Melissa Arnot. The fund’s online mission statement says they provide “…assistance to individuals, families, and communities in undeserved countries adversely impacted by their work for the mountain-based adventure industry.” Details on how to support them can be found on their website (http://www.thejuniperfund.org/).

The Sherpa Education Fund was established to help fund the education of children in Nepal. The fund hopes that, through education, these students will enhance their communities by sharing their learned knowledge and generating resources in the future. Information on how to assist the project can be found on this website (http://www.alpineascentsfoundation.org/)

Sherpa Documentary

Poster for the 2015 documentary Sherpa.

Released in 2015, Sherpa documentary by Austrian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom. It was shot during the 2014 climbing season, which coincided with the Mount Everest ice avalanche that killed 16 Nepalese Sherpas in one day.

Sherpa contains archive footage of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, and includes interviews with Tenzing’s children. The film’s main focus initially is Phurba Tashi, a man who’s summited Everest 21 times. The documentary looks at the Sherpa culture and the people’s spiritual relationship with the mountain. In the aftermath of the ice avalanche, the film’s perspective shifts to the emotional outpourings and Sherpa protests that led to the cancellation of that year’s climbing season.

Sherpa | This New Movie Will Change Everything You Think About Everest

The Sherpa documentary was critically well-received, and got nominated for a 2016 BAFTA. Patrick Peters of Empire magazine wrote: “…this is a spectacular, intimate and politically provocative exposé of the dangers, racial tensions and harsh economic realities on the world’s highest mountain.”

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