Sherpas – Heroes of the Himalaya

Every climber has heroes; alpinists either past or present which have pushed the boundaries of climbing, inspiring them. Blazing new routes in the Alps or Rockies, treks to Nepal and the Himalaya, these are the modern-day explorers, making new ascents on improbably technical routes in remote, inaccessible destinations. Messner, Tasker, Cassin, Rouse, Jeff and Alex Lowe, Chouinard, Hillary, Wanda Rutkiewicz and many others are synonymous with the golden age of mountaineering while Steck, Hinkes, Lynn Hill and Viesturs are ‘greats’ of the modern era.

Sherpa transporting a heavy load on the Everest Base Camp trail, treks to Nepal in the Himalaya on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Wide load on a narrow trail

The Sherpa people however, are the true heroes of the Himalaya. Very few have achieved the notoriety of the names listed above, but every first ascent owes a debt of gratitude to their porters, without which success would have been unlikely.

Treks to Nepal; A Sherpa transporting a heavy load around the Himalaya on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Extra wood for the fire

Sherpas have transported expedition equipment from Kathmandu to the base camps of every one of the Himalayan giants. They have also been responsible for transporting equipment between the various camps, regularly crossing dangerous and unpredictable icefields. Collapsing crevasse bridges or seracs are a constant danger and on Everest alone around a third of all fatalities have been Sherpas.

One man who rose above anonymity is Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa climber which stood side by side with Sir Edmund Hillary on top of the world on 29th May, 1953. As one of the first men to summit Everest, his place in history assured, he will always be associated with this great mountain.

The sheer number of times that Sherpas climb on the peaks of the Himalaya or travel back and forth along the routes which service the base camps greatly increases their risk of illness, injury and even death.

Treks to Nepal; A basket of firewood waiting for a Sherpa porter on the Everest Base Camp trail in the Himalaya on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Waiting for its carrier

Two men Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi have reached the summit of Everest an incredible 21 times, the latter achieved the feat having summited twice in May 2013! The size of this achievement is not to be underestimated, anybody that has trekked in the Himalaya or climbed into the ‘Death Zone’ can attest to the difficulties involved.

The average Sherpa is not involved in high altitude mountaineering but transporting impossibly heavy loads from village to village is an equally arduous way of life. Wiry, leanly muscled men, backs stooped under crippling burdens struggle up steep slopes and rough terrain often wearing nothing but sandals on their feet. Petite women and even children spend many hours everyday with baskets laden with firewood, or solid wood planks balanced on their backs. Supporting the weight of bottled water, and other stock for the shops and teahouses which trekkers rely upon, on their heads with a cloth strap.

In fact probably every expedition is supported by Sherpas, directly or indirectly. Past or present, most expeditions have employed porters directly. However even those that haven’t, including independent trekkers which rely upon the transported stores can thank Sherpas that goods are available to buy and their dining is relatively good.

They are remarkably hardy, physically very strong, their experience is invaluable and it is likely that many more trekkers would fail on treks to Nepal or fulfill more lofty ambitions without their help.

They remind me of another Nepalese caste which I am familiar with, the Gurkhas; the legendary troops that have served the British forces with distinction in several theatres of conflict. Brave and loyal servants of their adopted country that have only in recent years received fair monetary recognition for their service. Fortunately Sherpas are now generally being paid more acceptable wages for the services.

Treks to Nepal; An old Sherpa porter with a commercial trek to Everest Base Camp, the Himalaya on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

and the experienced

Treks to Nepal; A young Sherpa porter with a commercial trek to Everest Base Camp in the Himalaya on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

The young

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the region on several occasions and every time have been grateful for the companionship and help of these hardy people. They can seem shy at times, but once they open up, they are friendly, honest and enjoy a good laugh, often at the expense of a fellow Sherpa. They have always been courteous, helpful and are even pretty good chefs, at times cooking lunch or evening meal.

Treks to Nepal; Sherpa guides in the shadow of Pumori in the high Himalaya, Sherpa porters in the shadow of Pumori in the high Himalaya, Nepal

Guides in the shadow of impressive Pumori

It is a privilege anytime that I get to spend time in their company, and look forward to the next opportunity to visit Nepal as I already miss being with the heroes of the Himalaya.

Treks to Nepal; A Sherpa woman resting with her heavy load around the Himalaya on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Taking a well-earned rest in Phanding

Treks to Nepal; Sherpa porters in the shadow of Pumori in the high Himalaya adventure, adventure travel, photography on Mallory on Travel

Porters in the high Himalaya

*During the period of my last trek three Sherpas lost their lives from Acute Mountain Sickness related illness.

*All images taken on a Samsung WB250F compact WiFi camera.

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Comments 8

    1. Post
      Author
      Iain

      I did see a couple of small groups/individuals trekking without guides or porters. It almost certainly the trek more difficult and does not really support the people of the region, though they will still have to use teahouses etc. There were also one or two that had privately arranged their assistance, which makes great sense, it can be sorted at Lukla, puts money directly into tha hands of locals and probably works out cheaper than going with a tour operator.

      1. bijay thapa

        ya, some of the trekkers trek without guides.I think they love to travel alone and enjoy mountains.
        I suggest every trekkers to trek with guides and proper information otherwise it will be difficult to them.
        I don’t want to see my guest and friends from abroad in difficult.

        1. Post
          Author
          Iain

          Regardless of difficulty, employing guides and porters is giving back to a community that needs it. Sherpas are not wealthy, guiding is the best option they have for making a decent living.

  1. Greta Calderon

    Their endurances in inhabiting the high altitudes of the Himalayan region and navigating through the arduous Himalayan terrain of Nepal has enabled the sherpas to be world famous as skillful and experience mountain Guides. Because of their faithful, honesty, helpful towards non-violence and their amiable nature has made the sherpas a likeable community amongst foreign trekkers and mountaineers. Today they are playing a significant role in the Tourism sector of Nepal to operate Trekking, Rafting, Tours, Expedition & Mountain climbing.

    1. Post
      Author
      Iain

      Sounds like you are as big a fan of the Sherpa people as I am Greta. They are an amazing race and deserve to be successful making Nepal an even greater tourism destination, playing their part in making it so.

  2. Brad Bernard

    The sherpas amaze me what they can do and carry. It is such a tough life they live being away from family for so long and getting paid peanuts. Even more stinging with the tragic recent events on Everest. I hope it will bring light to the difficulties and challenges they face.

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