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Who Are The Sherpas And What Do They Do

People in Annapurna

Who are the Sherpas, and what do they do?
If you have read books about early exploration in the Himalayas during the early 20th century to the mountaineering, expeditions until recently, you would most likely have read “My Sherpa carried this much, or this Sherpa could do this unbelievable feat in such height altitude with a load like that” etc.

I have heard trekkers say so many times, “ How many Sherpas will accompany us or meet my incredible Sherpa or meet my Amazing Sherpa guide.”

Let me clear this for you. I know that reading early books of explorers in the Himalayas has made you believe that a Sherpa is a porter, especially in high altitude, or all porters are Sherpas – not true.

Sherpa man

A brief history of the Sherpas – Who they really are.
First of all, the Tibetan words derive from Shar (east) and Pa (people) – People of the east. Some oratory history has it that they originated in the Kham region of Eastern Tibet. They moved west in search of grazing pastures for their animals and trade 600 -700 years ago. There were no borders in the higher grounds below the mighty Himalayan peaks in the past days. They crossed over Nangpa La pass into the Solu Khumbu district of Nepal and settled down in the gentler climate with fertile land. Solukhumbu is also home to Mount Everest and Sagarmatha National Park. The Khumbu valley, which lies in Mount Everest’s shadow, is home to hundreds of Sherpa families.

Another version is that they moved into Solukhumbu, permanently fearing religious persecution. Most of them are Buddhists, although a growing number are now Christians. Their language is related to other Tibeto Burman languages spoken in Nepal, Myanmar, India, China, and elsewhere.

Like most high Himalayas inhabitants, The Sherpas only had two names – the day they were born was their first name and a given name, e.g., Mingma Tsering, but today it will be Mingma Tsering Sherpa. They added the name Sherpa because the Hindus of Nepal required a surname for official documents/work, so to adapt to the requirement, they included Sherpa as their surname, and they are renowned the world over with that last name.

Their role in tourism.
The Sherpa people’s economy and culture changed dramatically in the early 1900s when the British survey and mountaineering expeditions made Mount Everest the ultimate destination for climbing. This was the beginning of the modern era of significant mountaineering tourism. In the past, it was sacrilegious to climb mountains as The Sherpas and Hindus believed the mountains were where the Gods lived.

In the 1950s, Nepal opened its doors to the outside world, which coincided with the mad rush amongst mountaineers to see who could bag the first 8000-meter summit. This rush exposed the Sherpas’ prowess in the high altitude world. They have set and broken several mountaineering records over the decades. They are the real Super Heroes of the Himalayas. They have set and broken records and are listed on The Guinness book of records; some have won National Geography’s Adventurers of the year awards. Here are a few names :

Sherpa and trekker

In the 1960s, commercial trekking was introduced in Nepal. Now Sherpa became a designation – an assistant guide who would walk with the clients, set up tents, serve the meals, help weak trekkers or even carry a sick or injured trekker to safety. Later on, anyone who did this job was called a Sherpa despite being from any other ethnic group.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a further change in their roles in tourism. Some started their trekking and mountaineering companies, while others on the main trail to Everest base camp and adjacent valleys built “tea-houses” to serve the early backpackers. Now the teahouses have been transformed into beautiful lodges, with some having en-suite bathrooms and even electric blankets!

With the income from being tourism entrepreneurs, the older Sherpas have realized the importance of education. Today there are very successful Sherpas in all professions from being Doctors, Engineers, Pilots (flying both in Nepal and International airlines), contractors, owners of airlines, helicopter companies, own luxury hotel chains in the mountains, and are in other businesses, to name a few trades they have adapted to now.

There still is considerable pride amongst the Sherpas, who are supporting mountaineering expeditions as guides. It is believed they make US$4000-US$6000 from 2-month work plus bonuses from grateful clients. This amount is nearly double what people in a city like Kathmandu need to sustain a small family in a year. Of course, the Sherpas and their families know how dangerous mountaineering is; there is a considerable number of families who have resettled overseas, especially in the U.S.A. In fact, the highest number of Sherpas outside of Nepal can be found in the U.S.A.

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