Unsung Heroes: The Sherpas of Everest – Populous

This article was originally published in Populous Magazine, our biannual publication featuring news, information, and trends from the worlds of sport, entertainment, and major public events. Find out more, and sign up to receive a free copy, here.

Every year, Sherpa climbing guides help hundreds of mountaineers up Everest. And most years Sherpas are among those who die in the process. Dominic Bliss salutes these unsung heroes.

No one knows for certain how many dead bodies lie on the slopes of Mount Everest, buried in the ice and the snow. In all, over 300 mountaineers have died attempting to reach the summit, the majority of them Nepalese porters and climbing Sherpas. Because of the harsh conditions, their bodies are often left unrecovered where they fall.

Two of the worst years ever for fatalities were 2014, when 16 Sherpas died on the Khumbu Icefall, and 2015 when a massive avalanche engulfed the South Base Camp, killing at least 20, mostly Sherpas.

So popular is Everest that the final approach to the summit often gets congested

Working as a Sherpa, or climbing guide, on Everest is one of the riskiest jobs in any sport. As well as avalanches and falls while climbing, one must run a sniper’s alley of falling ice, collapsing crevasses, altitude sickness, exposure, frostbite, retinal haemorrhages, blizzards and winds powerful enough to blow you off the mountain. The riskiest place of all is above an altitude of 8,000 metres – the so-called death zone – where oxygen levels and atmospheric pressure are too low to sustain human life for any length of time. The summit of Everest is at 8,848 metres, making the death zone unavoidable for glory-seeking mountaineers.

One professional Sherpa who has met more than his fair share of glory-seekers is Da Gelje Sherpa – or Dawa, for short – a guide with a Kathmandu-based expedition company called ExpeditionHimalaya.com. (Confusingly, Sherpa is both the name for a climbing guide and the ethnic group from which most of them hail.) A 55-year old father of five, originally from the Solukhumbu District (the area in which Everest stands),nowadays Dawa spends most of his working life at Base Camp. But in his younger days he summited Everest a total of seven times, most recently in 2007.

A year before that, he remembers the death of a climber just below the summit. Dawa had successfully led his own group to the top and was asked to help with a Russian climber from another group who was suffering badly from the altitude. “Fifty metres below the summit he had serious problems. He went crazy with altitude,” Dawa tells Populous magazine. “I helped bring him down more than 100 metres. But after that he died.”

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