The Sherpa are an ethnic group who live in the high mountains of the Himalayas in Nepal. Well-known for being guides to Westerners who want to climb Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world, the Sherpa have an image of being hard-working, peaceful, and brave. Increasing contact with Westerners, however, is drastically changing Sherpa culture.
Who are the Sherpa?
The Sherpa migrated from eastern Tibet to Nepal around 500 years ago. Prior to Western intrusion in the twentieth century, the Sherpa didn’t climb mountains. As Nyingma Buddhists, they reverently passed by the high peaks of the Himalaya, believing them to be the homes of the gods. The Sherpa eked their livelihood from high-altitude farming, cattle raising, and wool spinning and weaving.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that Sherpa became involved in climbing. The British, who controlled the Indian subcontinent at the time, planned mountain climbing expeditions and hired Sherpa as porters. From that point on, due to their willingness to work and the ability to climb the world’s tallest peaks, mountaineering became part of the Sherpa culture.
Reaching the Top of Mt. Everest
Although numerous expeditions had made the attempt, it wasn’t until 1953 that Edmund Hillary and a Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay managed to reach the 29,028 foot (8,848 meter) peak of Mount Everest. After 1953, countless teams of climbers have wanted the same achievement and have thus invaded the Sherpa homeland, hiring an ever-increasing number of Sherpa as guides and porters.
In 1976, the Sherpa homeland and Mount Everest became protected as part of Sagarmatha National Park. The park was created through the efforts not only of the government of Nepal but also through the work of the Himalayan Trust, a foundation established by Hillary.
Changes in Sherpa Culture
The influx of mountaineers into the Sherpa homeland has dramatically transformed Sherpa culture and way of life. Once an isolated community, Sherpa life now greatly revolves around foreign climbers.
The first successful climb to the summit in 1953 popularized Mt. Everest and brought more climbers to the Sherpa homeland. While once only the most experienced climbers attempted Everest, now even inexperienced climbers expect to reach the top. Each year, hundreds of tourists flock to the Sherpa homeland, are given a few lessons in mountaineering, and then head up the mountain with Sherpa guides.
The Sherpa cater to these tourists by providing gear, guiding, lodges, coffee shops, and Wifi. The income provided by this Everest industry has made the Sherpa one of the richest ethnicities in Nepal, making about seven times the per capita income of all Nepalese.
For the most part, Sherpa no longer serves as porters for these expeditions; they contract that job out to other ethnicities but retain positions such as head porter or lead guide.
Despite the increased income, traveling on Mt. Everest is a dangerous job, very dangerous. Of the numerous deaths on Mt. Everest, 40% are Sherpas. Without life insurance, these deaths are leaving in their wake a large number of widows and fatherless children.
On April 18, 2014, an avalanche fell and killed 16 Nepalese climbers, 13 of whom were Sherpas. This was a devastating loss to the Sherpa community, which consists of only about 150,000 individuals.
While most Westerners expect the Sherpa to take this risk, the Sherpa themselves are becoming increasingly concerned about the future of their society.
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