The Sherpas of Everest

Climbing Everest is an exhilarating, yet extremely dangerous feat. This is no simple hike; even the most serious hikers take a year to train for the two-month-long trek. After climbers depart from base camp, they slowly acclimatize their bodies with the high altitude. Combined with the cold temperatures, establishing camps with food, fuel, and oxygen along the way, and avoiding other dangerous circumstances such as physical injury and avalanches, this is an extremely challenging feat.

In a moment, this journey can turn deadly. Instances of illness, physical injury, frostbite, lack of food and water, and adverse effects on the body due to decreased oxygen can leave climbers stranded, suffering a terrible fate.

Another dangerous condition, especially recently is overcrowding, as more people are climbing Everest than ever before, leaving hundreds of climbers waiting in a single file line to make it to the peak.

The warm weather this May caused hundreds of people to flock to the mountain, rushing to reach the peak while the seasonal temperature was still in their favor. However, the overcrowding has caused the death toll to climb to more than 11 people this year alone due to the high traffic at the summit. The queue area the climbers must wait in to reach the peak has been deemed the “death zone”, with many climbers perishing there due to lack of oxygen, dehydration, exposure, and high-altitude sickness.

Crowding at the summit of Everest. Source

As for the Sherpas of Nepal who collect the bodies on Everest, among other things, this is just a way of life.

It is common for a climber to hire a Sherpa who lives near the Everest base camp to accompany them on the journey to mountain’s summit. Sherpas are also responsible for the construction of ropes along the trail to the summit, the removal of trash left behind by climbers, and the retrieval of corpses of those who did not make it. This is a lucrative way to make a living; however, it is dangerous as countless Sherpas have died in the name of safety for other Everest visitors.

All of this comes with the territory. Many young people apprentice with more seasoned Sherpas, and as they become more comfortable with the journey, they are hired by climbers season after season. They become incredible climbers and accompany mountaineers who pay thousands of dollars for a safety companion, as well as someone to fix ropes, stock camps, and shuttle gear such as food, water, and oxygen up and down the mountain for the climber. By the end of a Sherpa’s career, they summit Everest 10 to 20 times, if not more.  

So how are they able to climb to the top over and over again, sometimes to just pick up trash or repair guiding ropes for climbers? Genetically, they are able to adapt to high-altitudes much better than their European climber counterparts. This is because countless generations of Sherpas have lived in the same place, one of the world’s highest regions, which attributes to their adaptability. In the past, this was the only thing that Sherpas could rely on when accompanying a climber to the summit–as they did not have any formal training for high-altitude climbing.

A Sherpa carrying a pack up a cliff face.

Today, improvements have been made for the Sherpas working on Mount Everest. They take courses and receive the training necessary to make the climb, while also learning rope skills and rescue skills. It is also required that rescue and life insurance be purchased when hiring a Sherpa, in case of an accident or death. Many of these Sherpas support their families, and even extended families, by doing what they do every season. For them and their families, this is an important safety net for this dangerous job.

Despite the important job these Sherpas do to ensure the survival of Everest climbers, there is still disrespect amid elite climbers–those who insist on climbing unassisted. Some of this tension ended in an all-out brawl between three climbers and about 100 Sherpas after climbers took to the mountain face on their own, instead of waiting for Sherpas to fix a rope for this purpose. There was a spoken agreement to wait for the repair, and the Sherpas felt insulted and disrespected when climbers didn’t care to wait. This confrontation is now infamous among those who live in the area and other mountaineers.

Internal issues such as these can put Sherpas who are hired to fix and repair ropes on the mountain, as well as stock camps, at higher risk of fatalities. Media may focus on visiting climbers and mountaineers who perish on Everest, but local Sherpa climbers account for one-third of all Everest deaths.

Taking all of this into consideration, how do Sherpas really feel about making the climb over and over? Tackling the summit of this mountain emerged from European culture and was never something that the local Sherpas wanted to conquer. Sherpas would prefer to gaze on at the mountain peaks from afar, in quiet admiration.

The Sherpas believe that mountains were the homes of the gods, but they accepted the mountaineering way of life after the 20th century when scaling the mountain became more popular. They still retain their respect for the mountains, which to them are sacred places, by removing trash and other items left behind by climbers that pollute the area.

Now, with more and more people lining up to summit the mountain, Sherpas are a vital part of this journey. Their culture deserves to be understood, as well as respected.


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