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