Sherpas: How a noun has become a verb

A mountainous community from north-eastern Nepal, who carry vast loads up the treacherous terrains of the Himalayas for their foreign clients.


Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Thu 2 Jun 2022, 4:11 PM

Kami Rita Sherpa (52) and Lhakpa Sherpa (48) — the guardian angels of the Himalayas — have broken their own records by climbing Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain at 8,848.86 metres (29,031.69 feet), in May.

Kami Rita holds the men’s record for a stupendous 26 climbs and Lhakpa by a woman for 10 summits.

In the popular imagination, Sherpas are a mountainous community from northeastern Nepal, who carry vast loads up the treacherous terrains of the Himalayas for their foreign clients.

Such is the strength of these superhuman climbers that the foreign mountaineers, despite their ambitious zeal to be on top of the world, can often be found panting and are left some distance behind their Sherpas.

Sherpas trace their origin to one of the Tibetan ethnic groups from the eastern part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).

The word ‘sherpa’ originally meant “people from the East”. But the community has found such global resonance and acclaim through the years that a noun — on the lines of Google and Wikipedia — has become a verb.

From Tenzing Norgay Sherpa — the first from the community to reach the summit on Mount Everest along with New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary on May 29, 1953 (even though the mystery to this date lingers who went up first between the two) — to Gyalzen Norbu Sherpa to Ang Rita Sherpa to Pasang Lhamu Sherpa to Babu Chiri Sherpa to Apa Sherpa to Kami Rita Sherpa to Lhakpa Sherpa, it’s a rich list of Nepalese mountaineers who changed history, including early pioneers and modern-day record-breakers.

Who can forget Temba Sheri Sherpa?

On May 23, 2001, at the age of 16, he became the youngest person to climb Mount Everest. However, that record was shattered by American Jordan Romero in 2010 at a tender age of 13.

But such record-breaking solo heroics apart, the Sherpa saga is an awe-inspiring one since the Middle Ages.

Initially, nomadic Sherpas moved from Tibet to northeastern Nepal’s Solukhumbu Valley in the 15th century and settled down at Pangboche village.

Nepal’s government has declared Solukhumbu Valley as a national park. The village is the designated starting point for scaling Mount Everest — also known as Sagarmatha in Nepali and Chomolungma in Tibetan.

Jamling Tenzing Norgay, the son of legendary Tenzing Norgay, who followed in his father’s footsteps and climbed Mount Everest in 1996, is a voice of reason for the community that has come of age since his father’s feat in 1953.

Jamling was part of a team of mountaineers, led by David Breashears, and included Ed Viesturs and Araceli Segarra, which was documented in the 1998 IMAX film Everest.

Later, in 2002, he and Peter Hillary, the son of Sir Edmund Hillary, were part of an expedition to climb Everest and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first ascent.

Jamling has written a book, Touching My Father’s Soul, which documented his experiences on the summit attempt. He demystified the superhuman spirit of his community members in the book that delved into the relationship between the wealthy mountaineers and the impoverished Sherpas who sustained themselves by assisting expeditions.

Contrary to popular belief, Jamling says, Sherpas don’t overcome nature’s fury. He cites the Sherpas’ point of view of the disastrous May 1996 Mount Everest tragedy, where 12 climbers had died. “Little attention is paid when Sherpas die, but much attention is given when foreign clients meet a tragic end,” he says.

Jamling’s assertions are borne out by cold statistical data. Of the 300 lives that have been lost in a bid to climb Mount Everest, more than one-third have been Sherpas. Nature’s wrath has struck all and sundry, according to Jamling. “Nature has the final say. Sherpas, a deeply religious community, respect nature. We respect mountains that are sacred places, where Almighty lives. We pray to Sagarmatha before every climb and light sacred incense sticks for a safe passage in the Himalayas,” he tells wknd. over the phone from Kathmandu following a busy expedition season to Mount Everest this year after two consecutive years were lost to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sherpas have come of age and captured the global consciousness, thanks to Jamling’s illustrious father, Tenzing.

“He made it synonymous with mountaineering and Mount Everest. Today, when people talk about Sherpas, they immediately think about mountains. The Sherpas have immensely benefitted from the trekking tourism and mountaineering industry. Back in the day, most Sherpas survived on subsistence farming. Now, many of my community members’ homes, especially in the Khumbu region, have been converted into homestays and lodges,” he says.

Jamling weighs in on the rosy economic outlook of his community. “At a conservative estimate, 90 per cent of Sherpas are engaged in trekking tourism and mountaineering sector in both the Khumbu region and the Annapurna circuit,” he adds.

However, he rues the fact that the community isn’t receiving much support from the Nepalese government, even though “Mount Everest brings about $3.5 (Dh12.86) million in royalties annually”.

On the contrary, he points out, the insurance sum for each Sherpa climber remained $5000 (Dh18,370) since the scheme was first introduced in the 1970s and was raised to $15,000 (Dh55,100) following protests after a series of tragedies in Mount Everest in 2014.

“The sum for accidental and death insurance must be increased to ensure the victims’ widows and children are well-looked after,” he says. “On an average, a Sherpa climber makes around $6,000 (Dh22,400) in a season. It’s a paltry sum as compared to their life risks during the expeditions.”

Over 5,000 Sherpas live abroad, and around half of them in New York alone. Some community members can also be found in England, Australia and Germany.

Sherpas prefer a carbohydrate-based diet, which helps them keep their muscles in shape and on their toes on treacherous and rugged Himalayan terrain.

Primarily, they gorge on a stew called shyakpa made of meat, potatoes and some seasonal vegetables. Daal bhaat — rice with lentils — is the other staple.

More news from Lifestyle