The Sherpas (and sherpas) of Everest
The idea of climbing the great Himalayan peaks is not traditional in the region; it came with Westerners in the mid-1800’s. The sahibs understood immediately that assistance from the local people would prove invaluable in their attempts to climb these high mountains. The first Nepali people hired for expedition work were the Sherpa living in Darjeeling, India. Over the years, the Sherpa were hired again and again as climbing partners and assistants in the Himalaya. When Nepal opened its doors to foreigners in 1950 (after a revolution toppled the Rana regime which ruled Nepal from 1846-1950), the Sherpa became even more a mainstay of Himalayan climbing. In 1953, when Sherpa Tenzin Norgay summited Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary, members of this small Nepali hill tribe hit the world news.
It’s that time of year again – another Everest season has begun, and the presses are churning. (Be sure to visit Explorer’s Web for coverage and information.) For me, I am waiting to find out if I will be returning to the mountain this spring for a major film project. I cannot disclose the details at the moment, but if it comes through it will be a wonderful film on a powerful story.
With the start of the season, I wanted to touch on a subject which is very important to me – the role the Sherpa and members of other ethnic groups in Nepal play in Himalayan climbing, especially on Everest. I honestly cannot think of more than a few expeditions on Everest – ever! – for which the Sherpa were not instrumental in the execution of the expedition. (The 1982 and 1984 American Everest Expeditions to the North Wall come to mind immediately. See the amazing video from 1984, Winds of Everest.) Sadly, though, these tough souls seem to get the mouse’s share of the credit for doing the lion’s share of the work.
With that in mind, I thought I would re-publish here the text of an online dispatch I wrote On March 31, 2001, during the 2001 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition, entitled Names & Faces of Nepali Climbing:
ESSAY: Names and Faces of Nepali Climbing
Jake Norton – Basecamp
Sat, March 31, 2001 2:00AM
idea of climbing the great Himalayan peaks is not traditional in the
region; it came with Westerners in the mid-1800’s. The sahibs
understood immediately that assistance from the local people would
prove invaluable in their attempts to climb these high mountains. The
first Nepali people hired for expedition work were the Sherpa living in
Darjeeling, India. Over the years, the Sherpa were hired again and
again as climbing partners and assistants in the Himalaya. When Nepal
opened its doors to foreigners in 1950 (after a revolution toppled the
Rana regime which ruled Nepal from 1846-1950), the Sherpa became even
more a mainstay of Himalayan climbing. In 1953, when Sherpa Tenzin
Norgay summited Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary, members of this small
Nepali hill tribe hit the world news.
Over the past 50 years or so, the term Sherpa has taken on a new
meaning in the Western world. Rather than designating a Himalayan
tribe, one often hears people referring to anyone, anywhere who carries
loads in the mountains as a Sherpa. Unfortunately, this is a
misinterpretation of the word Sherpa.
The Sherpa people came to Nepal from Tibet some 800 years ago over the
Nangpa La (Pass) near Cho Oyu. The word itself was originally less of a
proper name and more of a locator: shar in Tibetan means "east" and pa
means people. Thus, when asked who they were, the Sherpa would reply
shar pa — people from the east. After crossing the 19,000 foot Nangpa
La, the Sherpa settled primarily in the Solu-Khumbu region of Nepal, at
the foot of Chomolungma, Sagarmatha, Mount Everest. (Some Sherpa live
in the districts of Rolwaling, Helambu, the Arun Valley, Kathmandu, and
in Darjeeling, India; but, the vast majority live in the Solu-Khumbu.)
Not only were the Sherpa — living at high altitudes day in and day out
— perfectly fit for high altitude work, but geography and politics also
assisted in their rapid rise to Himalayan fame. When Nepal opened its
doors to the world in 1950, the Southeast Ridge was discovered as the
most hospitable route to the world’s highest summit. Simultaneously,
access to the Tibetan side of the mountain was sealed off by the
Chinese. Everest was the understandable focal point of Himalayan
mountaineering efforts, and the Sherpa were poised right at the base.
Until recently, the Sherpa have reaped little reward and received but
minute praise for their Himalayan efforts. Sir Edmund Hillary, Reinhold
Messner, Sir Chris Bonington, Jim Whittaker, Mallory and Irvine: these
are all somewhat of household names in the West. Unfortunately rare,
however, is knowledge of Ang Rita, who has climbed Everest 11 times
without supplemental oxygen. Or Babu Chiri, who first spent 22 hours on
the summit of Everest and, the following year, made an unprecedented 16
hour 45 minute climb from Basecamp to the summit along the Southeast
Ridge. Or how about Ngawang Gombu (who lives in Darjeeling) who was the
first to summit Everest twice (1963 with American Jim Whittaker and
again in 1965 with an Indian expedition.) On this trip to Everest, we
have 16 climbing Sherpa, and all but one — 19 year old Phunuru — have
summited at least once. Dorje from Thame has reached the top eight
While speaking of recognition of the Sherpa, it is important to note
that not all Nepalis who climb in the Himalaya are Sherpa. Nepal is an
exceptionally diverse place, both geographically and culturally. The
Great Himalaya Range runs the length of Nepal’s northern border, and
nine of the fourteen 8000 meter peaks lie within the Kingdom’s borders.
Roughly the size of Illinois (54,000 square kilometers), Nepal is home
to at least 36 distinct ethnic groups, and as many languages. Some
groups, such as the Rana Tharu, live in the jungle regions of the Terai
in south Nepal. In the mountains, one finds ethnic groups primarily of
Tibetan descent: Tamang, Rai, Limbu, Magar, Gurung, to name a few.
Although they may not live at the base of Everest, most of these ethnic
groups make their homes in the high Himalaya, in regions not unlike
As the years go by, we see members of these other ethnic groups working
on climbing expeditions in increasing numbers. The Sherpa are still the
unrivaled leaders in Himalayan climbing, but others are rising rapidly.
On the 2001 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, we have with us Man
Bahadur Tamang, who hopes to get his third summit of Everest this year.
MB was with Eric and I on Cho Oyu in 1997 and has also climbed Makalu.
Also along is Tara Bir Yakha, a Limbu from Dhankuta. Although his home
is only 300 meters above sea level, Tara has been an expedition cook on
many trips and is having no problem with the altitude at our 17,000
foot Rongphu Basecamp.
As always, it is a joy and pleasure to have our friends from Nepal
climbing with us this year. Their strength, tenacity, and unquenchable
good spirits are intrinsic to Himalayan climbing, and it is an honor to
work with them.
© Jake Norton, Climber