Nepal’s rugged mountain people are living it up
They’ve been called the ‘invisible men of Everest’ by National Geographic. And they’re said to carry the heaviest loads and pay the highest price high up on some of the tallest mountains on Earth.
But who are they? And where do they come from?
The Sherpas are a tribe that originate from Tibet and it is estimated that they’re an ethnic community counting a mere 154,000. In Tibetan, ‘Shar Pa’ means “people who live in the East” and the tribe is believed to have migrated to Nepal from the Kham region of Tibet thousands of years ago.
Today, their people live in the Khumbu and Solukhumbu regions to the south of Mount Everest, as well as in Kathmandu, Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kalimpong in West Bengal. They inhabit the highest elevations of these regions and their dwellings are often situated in villages that rise between 10,000 and 14,000 feet.
Sherpas are small-made and have light, yellowish skin tones, and distinctive Tibetan features like straight, black hair and dark narrow eyes. The clan also tends to have less body and facial hair, flatter faces, smaller noses and wider cheekbones.
Rasmus Nielsen is a biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He has studied the Sherpas’ genealogy and found that these nomads have a gene variant inherited from our ancient relatives the Denisovans.
This ‘super athlete’ gene helps the Sherpas and other Tibetans maximise the use of oxygen in their bodies, enabling them to live and work at high altitudes. To put it in a nutshell, they adapt to these conditions by having less haemoglobin in their blood, and scientists believe that this helps Tibetans avoid serious problems such as blood clots and strokes.
Sherpas speak Sherpali (a dialect of Tibetan) but use the Tibetan script for writing. They also converse in Nepali in their day-to-day conversations. A favourite among the Sherpas is Tibetan tea, which is served with salt and butter. Their diet consists of gruel, grains, dairy products, vegetables and occasionally meat – although being Buddhists, they do not kill animals. A beer made from maize, millet and other grains, Chang is a favourite beverage especially during festivities.
As for traditions, the Sherpas follow the Nyingma sect, which is an ancient school of Tibetan Buddhism. This race believes in worshipping Himalayan mountain gods and deities. They call Mount Everest ‘Chomolungma’ (‘Mother of the World’) and worship it as a goddess.
Traditionally, both Sherpa men and women wear a long inner woollen shirt over their trousers (also made from wool). Over this combination, they wear a thick colourful robe that reaches below their knees, a belted sash, an apron, and other ornamental jewellery and trinkets.
Sherpas have been mountain guides, porters and cooks for over 100 years, and are paid to plan and prepare the logistics for mountain-climbing expeditions. They’re skilled at performing tasks such as preparing the route for trekkers to follow, fixing ropes, setting up tents and carrying the necessary equipment up the mountains. Sherpas can earn up to US$ 5,000 over a climbing season, which is 10 times the average salary in Nepal.
In 1953, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became one of the first two people – along with Sir Edmund Hillary – to conquer Mount Everest. In 2011, Apa Sherpa (popularly known as ‘Super Sherpa’) assumed celebrity status by climbing Everest a record-breaking 21 times.
But not all is rosy for the Sherpa community. In April 2014, a deadly avalanche struck the Khumbu icefall and took the lives of 16 Sherpa guides. And a year later, in April 2015, a massive earthquake triggered an avalanche that killed another 12 Sherpas.
SHERPA FACT FILE
Sherpas are very superstitious and religious; for example, they believe that the gods would become angry if the mountainsides are left unclean by climbers and visitors. They are subsistence farmers who grow potatoes, barley, wheat and maize; and they herd livestock for dairy products especially butter and yogurt.
Norbu Tenzing, son of Tenzing Norgay, works in San Francisco as the Vice-President of the American Himalayan Foundation. The charity funds education and healthcare projects for Sherpas, Nepalis and Tibetans throughout the region.
Lhakpa Sherpa has climbed Everest more than any other woman. In 2000, she became the first Nepalese woman to climb to the summit of Mount Everest and make it back down alive. Since then, she’s climbed the peak seven times and has set her sights on extending this to 10.
Present-day Sherpas are the descendants of a small group of families who emigrated from the Khams region of Tibet across the Himalayan range in the middle of the 16th century under the leadership of a great Lama.