The Sherpas: The Men who carry the mountains

The Sherpas: The Men who carry the mountains


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When Edmund Hillary first climbed Everest and set foot on its peak, there was a little-known guy who was with him sharing the same spot if not higher. Not much was known about him to the outside world though. His name was Tenzing Norgay. A lot has gone down in the mountaineering world since then, mountains climbed, records madeand broken but through them all, this small group of mountain people have been at the cornerstone of almost every success in the Nepal Himalayas. These men are the ones who carry the mountains on their back, the Sherpas.

Tenzing Norgay Statue in Namche Bazar

The Tenzing Norgay Statue in Namche Bazar

On my three-week-long trek in the Khumbu Himalayas, there was not just one but three by my side. I cannot thank them enough for the unflinching support they provided me and my climbing partner. Since then I’ve been the biggest vocal advocate of the Sherpa people to my friends and family.

Who are the Sherpas?

People ask me who or what are the Sherpas, it is funny how a lot of people know them as only porters or some generic term for guides in Nepal. But these people are way more than just that. The Sherpa people are a tribe that moved in from Tibet to the high Himalayan mountains in search of the mystical Shangri La. Studies say that Sherpas have adapted to the mountain terrain so much over hundreds of years that they are almost superhuman-like. Yes, you read that right, “Superhuman“. Their blood cells are capable of holding more oxygen than the rest of the world at high altitudes.

This is my tribute to these bunch of friendly fellows who always put up a smile on their sunburnt faces no matter the situation. Their humble yet resilient character has been a rock for the success of climbers in the Himalayas for decades. The Sherpas hold the records for the most number of climbs and also the fastest climbs on Mount Everest, their goddess mountain Sagarmatha. I met a few on my long arduous three-week trek in Khumbu, Nepal and these are the stories, life, and lessons from the Sherpas.

Lakpa Thendu Sherpa

As I landed in Kathmandu, I was received by a man I had been in touch with for a few months prior to that, Lakpa Thendu Sherpa. Lakpa is named after the day he was born same as all other sherpas, is also a two-time Mount Everest summiteer and has done multiple summits and expeditions with the Indian army in the Himalayas. Lakpa’s uncle who also runs the trekking company I joined with has climbed 12 of the 14, 8000-meter peaks in the Himalayas. With a profile like that it was, of course, an honor to be received by such a person.

Pasang Sherpa

Days leading up to the trek I was joined by my climbing sirdar, the chief sherpa who would be my main guide for the trek, Pasang Sherpa. Pasang is more of a mountaineer than a guide, Rambo arms, well-built, with a broad face but a really soft-spoken person, fluent in English and an extremely gentle human being. It was such a joy hanging out with Pasang the entire trek. The guy literally had our backs throughout. Pasang is well experienced in guiding a lot of treks is now looking forward to his first Everest gig.

Pasang Sherpa

Pasang elated after we crossed the last and final pass of the Three Passes Trek

Lukla – The Sherpa Airport

As me and my partner got ready for the trek, we landed at Lukla after a scary 10-second landing flight at one of the world’s deadliest airports, the Lukla Tenzing Airport. We were joined by two more Sherpas to support our trek in case we needed help in the harsh terrain. My advice, DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE HIMALAYAS WHATSOEVER.

Tenzing Hillary Airport in Lukla

The Tenzing Hillary Airport in Lukla

Tenzing & Dawa Sherpa

Lakpa Tenzing Sherpa and Dawa Sherpa both younger guys and were also learning how to guide through new routes up these mountain trails. This trek was a first for them. They have served as porters on bigger climbing expeditions and even on Everest. While Dawa is from a village near Makalu, east of Everest, Tenzing lives in Darjeeling in India. Tenzing’s father moved to Darjeeling with Tenzing Norgay who chose to live the rest of his life in India. It was quite uncanny but Tenzing almost looks like Norgay.

Sherpa in the mountains

Lakpa Tenzing Sherpa with his antics on Kala Patthar

 

Sherpa at Kalapatthar

Dawa Sherpa puts on a gleeful smile as we touch the Kalapatthar peak

The Camaraderie

With a team like this, I knew I was in safe hands. Since I knew Hindi it became easier for me to communicate with them all with the occasional English. Quickly, these men became good buddies. We would share our bags, jackets, hats and what not. A sort of camaraderie that only military men share. Climbing is like going to war with a fear of the unknown and bonds like these give you the courage and support to make it through the harshest of climbs. There were places where you’d had to wake up at 5 or 6 in the morning and you don’t have the energy to even tie your shoelaces, yet these men would not hesitate to help out.

Sherpas near Mt. Cholatse

Tenzing and Pasang waiting for me to catch up below that towering Mt. Cholatse in the background

Every evening we would huddle around the fireplace in our lodges and talk about the day, play cards which is one of their favorite past times in the evenings. In the mornings we would join in with the Sherpas to have the Sherpa porridge called Tsampa porridge made with barley and butter tea. High energy meal in the mountains. No one can deny the all favorite Dal Bhat for lunch with these guys. They always say, Sherpa power, dal bhat power.

On the journey up the mountains, you’d not once fail to notice how these people work so hard to make a living. If there are any group of people out there that have inspired me the most it would be the Sherpas, hands down!

Their lives

Since their villages are higher up in the mountains everything that they require needs to be carried up from the cities. And in bad weather days, they have to stay put wherever they are. Some of them get into farming with the little space they have on the mountain, while some get into construction, building houses, some become porters and guides and a few into climbing or mountaineering. There are a few who have now managed to get an education, with limited means thanks to the steady support by the western climbers and some have moved to the West with well-paying jobs but that is a very small percentage. Basic education is still a long way off in these mountain villages.

Sherpa carrying load on his back

Another day at work for the Sherpas

Pasang told me that his village is a three-day journey from Kathmandu. I shuddered at the thought of that on a regular basis. He’d have to jeep for a day and then trek for two long days to reach home to his family. I could not believe this but that was the reality of these people. After the deadly earthquake of 2015, a lot of these people got displaced from their homes. Villages were destroyed. Some of them managed to build their houses and villages again with the help of aid from outside.

To make enough money the Sherpas leave their homes at a young age and take up jobs as porters carrying timber, goods, food, clothes, climbing equipment for mountaineers and so on. Some carry a whopping 60-80 kilograms on their backs (No kidding!)and walk miles a day. I’m not exaggerating. Some don’t even have money to buy a good pair of shoes. There were quite a few barefoot porters that I noticed along the trail. The Sherpas move up in ranks through their hard work to join big expedition companies and find a place to climb and assist foreign climbers which pays them better than most labor jobs in the countryside. Yet for the kind of effort they put in, they get peanuts. That is the reality! But things are changing at a rather slow pace.

View of Namche Bazar

Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa Capital

Thanks to Edmund Hillary, the sherpa bastion of Namche Bazaar now has schools and Lukla further down has an airport. But there are so many such villages dotting the entire Himalayan landscape with little or no exposure to the outside world. I had read a generous lot of about Sherpas prior to arriving Nepal, and I made it a point to help whoever came my way in the means I could which includes tipping generously if not sometimes a smile could go a long way. Yes!

My earnest request

I urge anyone who intends to go trekking or climbing to always inquire and arrange for a local guide that can join you, be it Sherpas or whoever. You might have to pay a little more than intended but that little money helps the plight of these mountain heroes. Most of these men have little or no means and it’s quite heartbreaking, living season to season risking their lives. After seeing first hand of what these men go through and what they have been through, I’ve also advice people to hire a guide for any trek or expedition as it helps them greatly. These men have a vast knowledge of the terrain too which is always an added advantage in case someone gets lost especially on a trek like the one I did where you don’t see humans let alone birds or animals for hours and days together.

This is my tribute to these unsung heroes of the Himalayas of Nepal, the men who carry the mountain on their backs, the Sherpas.

Sherpa in Khumbu Region

A life well lived!

 

A Sherpa kid in Namche

A Sherpa kid I struck a conversation with on his way to school

 

Sherpa kid going to school in Namche

Off he goes to school

 

Sherpas carrying mountaineering packs

The load bearers

 

Sherpa carrying goods in Khumbu

In rough terrain, he treads on with his pack

 

Sherpas climbing up a steep slope

Climbing higher with the burden on his back

 

Sherpa resting his pack

A Sherpa calls it a timeout when the temperature rises

 

Sherpa negotiating a slope

A Sherpa negotiating a tough slope

 

Sherpas carrying load near Lukla

A few of them carrying fresh packs from Lukla Airport

 

A pack ready to be loaded by a Sherpa

A pack ready to be loaded from the Everest Base Camp

 

Sherpa in Namche Bazar

A young sherpa chilling by in Namche Bazar

 

Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Memorial

A memorial to Pasang Lhamu Sherpa who was the first woman from Nepal to climb Mount Everest

 

Tenzing Norgay Memorial Stupa above Namche Bazaar

Tenzing Norgay Memorial Stupa above Namche Bazaar

 

Sherpa Museum in Namche

The Sherpa Cultural Museum in Namche Bazaar

 

Sherpa carrying bags in Khumbu

Over mountains and valleys, a sherpa carries on with the pack on his back.

 

Sherpa at Everest Base Camp

A Sherpa leaving the Everest Base Camp with the load on his back

 

Sherpa carrying water jars

The most heart touching sight when I saw how much this Sherpa was carrying single-handedly. That’s 28 canisters. Superhumans!

 

Sherpa kids playing

Two cute Sherpa kids playing by the trail

Truly the Sherpas are our real-life superheroes of the mountains! Don’t you think so?

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The Sherpas: The Men who carry the mountains

 


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Travel Blogger from Kochi, India. An inspired traveler, a travel writer, a photographer, an aspiring mountaineer, a positive thinker and a minimalist.

Also read  RoadToEverest Log #11
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16 Comments

  1. Such a beautiful writeup. Great that you are brining forth the story of the sherpas to the whole world. I am sure we know them better now, after reading your article. As many others said above, they are definitely the heros of the mountains

  2. Johann! First time on your blog, and such a nice post. Its so nice that you chose to focus on them. Its so endearing to give a glimpse into their lives and what they go through. The seemed to have adapted specially to the mountains, with all the risk that they take. Very nice read!

  3. Though I have read and heard about the challenges faced by Sherpas on multiple occasions, nothing has been even close to the details you have provided here. And the title you have for the post makes complete justice to the great heroes of Himalayas. The mention of Shangri La really intrigued me. I hope you had written a bit more about it 🙂

  4. It was lovely reading about the unsung supermen, the Sherpas. These guys literally carry the mountains on their backs. The world needs to learn a lesson or two from them. In spite of harsh conditions they live life with a smile. Thanks for giving us a peep into their lives.

  5. Johann, this is so beautifully captured and I am so glad that you did. These guys deserve more than the current recognition given for they are just amazing. Loved the way you have detailed out their lives.

  6. I am very happy that you chose to write about them. The sherpas are indeed the backbone of Nepalese Himalayas. I have seen them work so hard without any complaint during Everest base camp trek. Massive respect!

  7. Those men seems to have the power to carry the world on their back. They are so admirable. Thanks for this meaningful article about the heroes who conquer the Himalayas mountain.

  8. Loved your post, Johann! And because I have interacted with you before, I could almost hear you speak when I read your tribute. Your pics are spectacular, and my favourite is the little boy going off to school 🙂 Heartwarming and very touching post.

  9. Lovely, lovely post Johann. The least we can do is to give these unsung heroes a fitting tribute in our own way. They are simple and very hard working. I have heard their stories from my husband who did EBC trek around 3 years back.
    When did you do this trek?

  10. A superb tribute to those hardworking, unsung heroes. What a brilliant way to express your gratitude to these men who help create history. I am sure your post will bring huge grins on their sunburnt faces and warm their already warm souls! 🙂

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