Dispatch—Day 22: April 17, 2009
Sherpa and the Culture of Nepal
By Jake Norton

Everest Base Camp—17,530 feet (5,343 meters)
N 28º 00.336' E 086º 51.504'

Sherpa. It's a name that we hear with increasing frequency in popular diction worldwide.

But who are the Sherpas, and who are the sherpas? The answer to this is as complex as the country in which they reside.

Let's begin with a bit of context.

The nation of Nepal, one of the poorest in the world in terms of per capita GDP, is arguably one of the richest in terms of geographic and ethnic diversity. A mere 54,000 square kilometers [20,850 square miles] (about the size of Illinois), it ranges geographically from the tropical Indo-Gangetic plains (Terai) in the south to the crest of the Great Himalaya, the highest mountains on Earth, in the north. So short is the span from low to high that one can literally sit on the back of an elephant in the Terai, gazing at endangered rhinos, and see, some 90 miles [145 kilometers] distant, the snowy crest of the Himalaya rising above the haze of the tropical plains.

Not to be outdone by its geography, Nepal's human diversity is rich and complex as well. In its small footprint reside some 25 million people from 36 different ethnic groups, speaking 36 (or more) different languages and dialects. From the Indian ethnicities of the Terai to the Tibetan peoples of the mountains, the Gurkhas of the center to the Lepchas of the east and the Thakurs of the far west, the countryside of Nepal rings with diversity.

The Sherpas, so often discussed if not totally understood, are one of these many ethnic groups in Nepal. Crossing over the high Nangpa La (Pass) some 700 years ago from Tibet, the early Sherpa nomads found in the Khumbu Valley a rich region with lush vegetation, flowing rivers, and the possibility of a life far easier than their nomadic one in Tibet. They settled in, making the valley that drains the slopes of Everest their home.

When asked who they were, the early Sherpas would reply, as is common in Tibet, with the region from which they came. Their answer: Shar pa, or “east people.” Nomads originally, the Sherpas had come with their yaks across the plains of Tibet from the eastern edge of the plateau, perhaps near Kham. Over time, "shar pa" turned into Sherpa, their tribal name, and also their last name.

Centuries later, when the first Western explorers began their attempts on the high Himalayan peaks, they employed Sherpas as porters to help move equipment on the mountains. From George Mallory to Sir Edmund Hillary to our First Ascent Team, the Sherpas—strong, hard-working, ever friendly, impeccably kind, and loyal—have been a mainstay of Himalayan climbing, with only a small handful of teams getting anywhere in the high peaks without the hard work, diligence, and dedication of these remarkable mountain people. So deep has been their connection to mountain climbing in the Himalaya that the ethnic name Sherpa has come to mean any Nepali who works in the mountains.

However, not every sherpa is, in fact, a Sherpa. Confused? Our team of Nepalis, our sherpas, hail from no less than four different ethnic groups: Rai, Gurung, Tamang, and, of course, Sherpa. All have vast experience:

All these men, Tamang and Rai, Gurung and Sherpa, work hard, day in and day out, and all are contributing deeply to our efforts on the mountain, just as they are for the 30-some-odd other expeditions on Everest this spring.

Simply put, we couldn't do it without them, and our thanks are beyond words.


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