THE SHERPA PEOPLE
Known for their cheerful smiles and legendary mountaineering ability, the Sherpa have played an integral part of Himalayan mountaineering from the very beginning. In fact, very few significant ascents and expeditions would have been achieved without their help.
Nowadays, the word ‘Sherpa’ conjures up images of local people helping Western mountaineers reach the top of Everest. It is term often used to refer to almost any guide or porter hired for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalaya.
In fact, the word means ‘person of the east’ and specifically refers to a group of people who live in the Nepalese region around Everest. The first Sherpa arrived in the area in the 16th century, having walked from Tibet. The majority settled in Nepal, although some live in Tibet and northern India.
Amazingly, the Sherpa didn’t climb mountains at all until Western climbers began to arrive in the Himalaya. The Sherpa are a deeply religious people and regarded the peaks and summits of Nepal to be the homes of gods. Today, most expeditions begin with a ceremony to leave offerings and pay homage to the gods, in the hope of a safe and successful climb.
Traditionally, the Sherpa survived through high-altitude farming and trading with Tibet. Yak and cattle would provide materials for clothing, dung for fuel and dairy products for food. Other food was limited to what could be grown in the mountains, and what could be traded from Tibet.
When European mountaineers began to arrive, the Sherpa found work on expeditions. Initially working as porters, the Sherpa became renowned for their hardiness and strength, carrying huge expedition loads with seemingly little regard for the cold weather or altitude. Later, some Sherpa began to work higher on the mountains, helping with the climbing and at very high altitudes.
Today, the Sherpa work in every area of expedition life, as guides, cooks, and base camp staff. They do much of the work fixing ropes high on Everest, which the paying expedition clients will use to reach the summit. They have become some of the most accomplished mountaineers in the world, with Sherpa holding many Everest ‘records’: Ang Rita Sherpa amassed an amazing ten Everest summits – all without oxygen; Babu Chiri Sherpa spent 20 hours on the summit of Everest, an unheard-of feat, and also held the record for the fastest climb at 16 hours and 56 minutes; and two Sherpas Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi hold the record for the most ascents – 21 each!