Sherpas are the backbone of Everest. But who are these people and what motivates them? I have now climbed with Sherpas multiple times and my admiration increase with each experience.
That said, Sherpas are real people with all the strengths and weaknesses of everyone else. They get altitude sickness, have bad days, bad moods and sometimes make mistakes. And, to climb with a Sherpa is a honor.
The Sherpa People
First, a bit of historical background. Sherpa is the name of a people and also used as a last name. They mostly live in western Nepal today but migrated from Tibet over the last several hundred years. Most of the Sherpa people settled in the area around Mt. Everest also known as the Solukhumbu area. They speak Sherpa but in a different form than their Tibetan ancestors.
Anyone who has made a climb in the Khumbu or trekked to Everest Base camp, knows what special people they are. With broad smiles, easy laughs and a genuine desire to help; they become lifelong friends. A kinder and gentler people I have never met.
Their social structure is simple with the men often serving as mountaineers and the women tending the home and often running a teahouse for the tourists. And of course the kids.
If you have followed me over the years, you know how much I enjoy interacting with the kids while trekking the Khumbu. They always lift spirits with their laughter and seem genuinely happy in spite of living in what westerners would consider primitive surroundings.
Thanks to the efforts of many, not the least being Sir Edmund Hillary, schools now dot the Khumbu and most children receive at least a 6th grade education. Many however go on to higher education and even college in Kathmandu; again thanks to the tourism industry.
As I mentioned I have climbed with many Sherpa and have formed tight bonds. My last climb in Nepal was to the summit of Everest. I can clearly say it would not have been possible without “my” Sherpa, Kami.
Climbing With Sherpas
On most expeditions climbers meet the Sherpa team perhaps in Kathmandu, Lhasa or more likely at base camp where they have been busy weeks before preparing the camp. Some commercial teams have a small ratio of Sherpas, just enough to support the minimum logistics of an expedition. The teams, in my opinion, will have a generous ratio thus providing backup for emergencies, rescues or the unexpected and more importantly, not push the Sherpa team to their limits.
While the Nepal and Tibet mountaineering associations set a minimum wage, the teams will pay their Sherpas, provide access to medical ments, gear and insurance beyond the minimum. Sherpa become very loyal to their employers and vise versa. They may will work for the same company for decades.
A hierarchy is in place to manage the Sherpa team. Some Sherpas only climb ferrying gear to high camps, others may climb to provide back-up for members or other Sherpas. Then there are the ‘personal Sherpas” who are assigned to one on one support for members. Typically these are the most experienced climbers. The lead climbing Sherpa, called the Sirdar, calls the shots for all the climbing Sherpas and sometimes a base camp manager provides overall direction.
I first met Kami as I entered the International Mountain Guides (IMG) base camp at the base of the Khumbu Icefall. We were introduced and I felt an immediate connection. Kami grabbed my day pack and led me to my tent. We sat down and started to get know one another.
Kami was born Ang Chhiring Sherpa and lived in the village of Pangboche. As a young child, Kami became seriously ill. As is a custom for the Sherpa people, his mother changed his name to prevent the illness from returning, thus Kami.
At age 46, he had 12 Everest summits, K2, Cho Oyu, Ama Dablam, and many other climbs under his belt. Kami was married and had four children. His oldest son was a monk in the nearby Thyangboche Monastery. His next son was also a guide for IMG and his other two children went to school in Kathmandu.
Climbing was in his family literally, as his father had also been an Everest guide. And soon I learned that Kami was the older brother of Ang Dorge, whom I had climbed on Everest with almost 10 years earlier. I was pleased know the I was literally climbing with living history, a living legend.
Throughout my 6 weeks on Everest, Kami and I spent a lot of time together. We climbed Lobuche Peak together for acclimatization. We made the necessary trips through the Icefall clipped into the same fixed line. We shared stores of families, friends and climbing tales.
High on the Lhotse Face at Camp 3 we suffered through the worst storm of my 30 expeditions as hurricane winds ripped at our tent, piling snow three high against the thin nylon. I looked at Kami as he slept fitfully, ever on standby for whatever was needed.
Climbing with Kami, I leaned new climbing phrase such as “no worry, chicken curry” and “see you later, altogether” But my favorite was “Bistarai, Bistarai” or slowly, slowly. I learned to listen for this phrase carefully from Kami.
On a rest day at Camp 2, 21000′, Kami and I went for a walk. Standing high on the west shoulder of Everest, overlooking the Western Cwm, I marveled at the view: Nuptse, Lhotse, the top of the Icefall. I quietly asked Kami what he thought of as he looked over this scene. He cracked a small smile, shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”
I moved on to ask Kami, why he climbed, not expecting a “because it’s there answer”. He told me it was his job, a way to send his kids to school, to support his family. Ends up Sherpas are no different than the rest of us when it comes to wanting a good life for their family.
Job or passion, on summit night, Kami and the other Sherpas really come into their own. As westerners we sometimes struggle to attach crampons, zip zippers, often showing the early effects of oxygen deprivation. But the Sherpas take over, clipping buckles, tying knots with ease and without judgement.
They set a pace that is determined but mindful of their charges. An occasional glance over the shoulder monitors our progress. At each stop a quick check in. When a pause last longer than they feel necessary, a quick conversation ensues.
It is sometimes said to climb Everest, all you need is to pay your money and have a Sherpa drag you to the summit. This is insulting to both Sherpa and climber. In spite of what is written in famous books, Sherpas climb with members.
Members take one step at a time under their own power and short ropes are used in emergencies for safety, usually on the descent and not as a technique to reach the summit. If I come across a little bristly on this subject, I am 🙂 Sherpas work much too hard to to be dismissed so easily.
I like the way IMG encourages a balance between safety and motivation by paying personal Sherpas a bonus when they get their climber to the South Summit. If they reach the summit, the climber pays an additional bonus. I think this encourages the right behavior across the board.
Standing on the summit of Everest, Cho Oyu, Ama Dablam; any peak with a Sherpa is an honor. They smile as big as the first time summiter. They call back to base camp with pride and excitement shouting out “suuuuummmitttttt” – long, drawn-out, full of excitement. The Sherpa team back at Base Camp bang pots and pans and share in the moment. It never gets old for anyone. Smiles, laughs and an ever watchful eye towards the skies – above and below; the Sherpa continuously to watch over their climbers.
Sherpas are the backbone of Everest. They make the climb. Ask any Everest climber, summit or not, most will talk endless about their Sherpa; then the climb – and that is they way it should be.
My Everest blogger colleague, Colin Wallace at Mount Everest The British Story took some of my pictures and created this nice slide show. Thanks Colin!