The Sherpa Indigenous community in Nepal has lived in the lap of the world’s tallest mountains for centuries. Ever since Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay and New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary became the first recorded individuals to summit Sagarmatha, the Nepali name for Mount Everest, in 1953, the Indigenous community’s ability to endure treacherous high-altitude conditions has gained an almost mythical status.
Every year, Sherpas, who have now become synonymous with mountaineering in the Himalayas, guide hundreds of foreign adventurers on their excursions to Earth’s highest peaks, both in Nepal and elsewhere around the world.
Every spring and autumn, the two mountaineering seasons in the Himalayas, religious leaders from the community offer prayers to the mountains, seeking their permission to start the climbing season. Teams of elite Sherpas, also known as the “icefall doctors”, clad in their climbing gear, trek up mountains such as Sagarmatha to fix the ropes and ladders that make it easier for their clients to climb the mountains. Other Sherpas carry heavy loads on their back so that the clients can travel light.
This service industry that has developed around mountaineering has ensured a much-needed stream of steady income for the people living in harsh conditions, in a climate where agricultural productivity is severely limited. The Sherpa people, who traditionally relied on barter trade with Tibetans on the other side of the Himalayas, can now run their tourism businesses, ranging from eateries to guesthouses, to earn enough to feed their families throughout the year.
But as the world becomes warmer, the Himalayas, considered the water tower of Asia, are paying the price. The mountains are losing their snow cover at rapid rates, glaciers are thinning, and the threat of glacial lake outburst floods looms large over the entire region.
In June, the Nepal government announced it was preparing to relocate Sagarmatha’s base camp, where tens of thousands of people flock to every year, due to the thinning Khumbu glacier located underneath. This puts the Sherpas, their homeland and their livelihoods at the forefront of climate change.
A new book, Sherpa: Stories of Life and Death from the Forgotten Guardians of Everest, seeks to shine a light on the people who live, work and survive on the roof of the world. With the focus on the people at the foothills of the Himalayas, rather than the famed peaks, the book traces the stories of the Sherpas who have guarded Sagarmatha – “the goddess of the sky” – going back centuries before the advent of mountaineering as we know it.
According to the authors, the book covers a wide range of issues as well as geographical areas. It talks about climate change and the challenges the Sherpas face. A narrative-driven work of non-fiction, it features “12 chapters of pure storytelling from the Sherpa perspective”.
Mongabay’s Abhaya Raj Joshi spoke to the book’s co-authors, Ankit Babu Adhikari and Pradeep Bashyal, via video chat about the Sherpas’ relationship with their homeland, how it has changed over the years, how they try to protect it, and what the future holds for them as the climate changes. The following interview has been translated from Nepali and edited for clarity.
Mongabay: How did the idea of the book come about?
Pradeep Bashyal: Both Ankit and I, we grew up in the plains of the Terai in Nepal’s southern belt. We didn’t know much about the people living in the mountains, especially the Sherpas. All we heard was that the Sherpas are very good at climbing mountains and that they hold many records for climbing mountains such as Sagarmatha.
Back in 2014, when I was working as a reporter for Nepal Magazine and Ankit for The Himalayan Times, we got the opportunity to go to the Khumbu region to cover the Everest Marathon, which is organised every year. It struck us that there’s so much to be told about the story of the Sherpas and we should work on a book someday.
Ankit Babu Adhikari: Our first encounters with Sherpas in 2014 had connected us with their community and the simplicity of their lives. Pradeep continued working as a journalist and reported on various issues related to the Sherpas. In 2017 and 2018, we decided to put something on paper and pitch the idea for a book. The book was commissioned in 2019 amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mongabay: So much has already been written and said about the Sherpas, their ability to climb mountains and their physiological differences that allow them to thrive at high altitudes. Was finding something new to talk about challenging?
Ankit Babu Adhikari: When we were doing research for the book, we found that most of the stories on Sherpas were written by foreign climbers who came to Nepal and hired Sherpas to climb the mountains. The climbers published their personal story of climbing the mountains, glorifying their achievements and only giving a passing mention to the Sherpas who made their climb possible.
But the real stories of the Sherpas have seldom been written, especially in a book; we can find some stories in the media, but they are not adequate. Not much has been written about the human aspect of their lives. Sherpas only became mountaineers in the latter half of this century, but they have been living in the mountains for centuries.
Pradeep Bashyal: When we read old accounts of mountaineering expeditions, even during the time of Hillary and Norgay and the later American and Italian expeditions, we see that Sherpas achieved amazing feats by reaching the final camp of Sagarmatha. But their achievements were never highlighted. For example, the foreign adventurers would say something like, “I climbed the mountain and around seven Sherpas helped me out.” It was as if they didn’t have names, and the Sherpas were mere tools for them to summit the mountains.
When we talked to the Sherpas during the research phase of our book, we repeatedly found that they themselves are not proud of setting foot on the mountain more than once.
Ankit Babu Adhikari: Yes, they told us that each time they set foot on the mountain, they felt guilty of putting their family’s ecosystem at risk. But whenever they return home to their families, they realise the harsh economic reality of their situation and have no other option but to return to the mountain. They are men and women just like us, they don’t have any physiological differences that make them superhumans. All they are doing is pushing themselves for the sake of their families and the future of their children.
When we talked to a high-altitude medicine scientist who had studied the Sherpas’ physiology, we were told that Sherpas have become good at climbing mountains just as Cristiano Ronaldo became good at playing football. It’s about practice and repetition. There are many Sherpas, not known to the outside world, who regularly summit the mountains.
Mongabay: How did you go about meeting the Sherpas and talking to them about their stories?
Ankit Babu Adhikari: We visited Sherpa communities in major hubs such as Rolwaling, Sagarmatha and Makalu [the fifth-highest peak in the world]. As mountaineer activities in the region started from Darjeeling in India, we also visited the town to gain insights on how Norgay and Hillary started their expedition. Both of us and our editors consciously decided not to have a long bibliography at the end, as this book is solely based on interviews with the Sherpas. In our book, the Sherpas tell their own story, we don’t impose our views and opinions on the readers.
Mongabay: The mountain plays an important role in the lives of the Sherpas. They offer prayers to the mountain before climbing it. What is their relation with the mountain like?
Ankit Babu Adhikari: We have a chapter in the book titled “Angry Gods,” in which we explore this topic. Elderly Sherpas told us that the avalanche in 2014 [in which 16 Sherpas were killed] and other disasters that have taken place on Sagarmatha can be attributed to the “gods’ anger”.
The Sherpa people believe that the goddess Miyolangsama, who is considered the epitome of giving, lives atop Sagarmatha. As they have a lot of respect for her, they are very strict about the dos and don’ts on the mountain. Before they step on the mountain, they have a ceremony to seek forgiveness from the goddess for they are walking toward her abode. The community believes that the goddess only gives and doesn’t seek anything in return. That’s why there’s no reason for her to become angry when people climb the mountain. But there are others who don’t agree, they believe the Miyolangsama can get angry at times.
Pradeep Bashyal: This is the reason why people don’t kill animals in the Sagarmatha region. They say that climbers used to kill yak for meat at base camp several years ago in the early mountaineering days and this brought a lot of misfortune for people. Sherpas are mindful not to throw cigarette butts into crevasses as it’s disrespectful to the mountain. Sherpas and the Lama priests believe smoking and drinking in the mountains, littering everywhere, cutting down trees and killing animals in the sacred forests all affect the sanctity of the region.
During the first expedition, when they needed wood to build ladders, they were not allowed to chop trees in the region as it was home to one of oldest monasteries. The members of the expedition had to go to the jungle downhill to get the wood they needed. This also shows how sensitive the Sherpa people are about protecting nature.
Mongabay: The whole idea of mountaineering is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before it came to the Sagarmatha region, how did the Sherpas survive? How did Westerners convince the people that it was OK to climb the sacred mountain?
Ankit Babu Adhikari: The Sherpas were leading lives full of struggle. The only way they survived was by walking to Tibet every few months to barter and trade some of their produce on the other side of the border. They didn’t get enough to eat. With the unrest in Tibet in the 1950s, their livelihood options were severely affected.
Fortunately, it coincided with the popularity of mountaineering in the Western world, and mountaineers started flocking to the region, much to the respite of the Sherpas. In the early days, the Sherpas received a small amount in wages, and food the mountaineers brought was considered exotic and luxurious. When the expeditions were over, the mountaineers would leave behind their gear, such as warm clothes and jackets, which the Sherpas really liked.
The Sherpas were convinced that the goddess was giving them another option to earn their livelihood and thus started climbing the mountains.
Pradeep Bashyal: Until the mid-1990s, the number of expeditions to Sagarmatha and other mountains was limited, only a few groups were allowed in every year. This meant that only a handful of Sherpas with the right connections could get jobs. The legendary Kami Rita Sherpa himself had to come to Kathmandu to seek a spot in expeditions to Sagarmatha. It’s only been a few years since almost all Sherpas started getting jobs in mountaineering. The old folks still hang on to their old jackets and treat them as a luxury, even as companies run by Sherpas organise expeditions for almost all of the 8,000 people who seek to climb. They have taken the job to the next level.
Mongabay: How has climate change impacted their livelihoods now?
Pradeep Bashyal: Sherpas such as Kami Rita, who has been on the mountain for more than 30 years, say that the signs of climate change are pretty much evident. Things have changed a lot in the last five to 10 years. For example, the 2015 earthquake buried some of the crevasses in the Khumbu Icefall region, making the climb to Sagarmatha slightly easier. But melting snow has already started causing problems. Climbers use specialised shoes with crampons to walk on snow. But the setup is not suitable to walk in areas without snow. They need to take the crampons off to do that. However, it is not easy to do so high in the mountains.
Similarly, ladders were required only to get past the Khumbu Icefall, but these days, they are required just to get to the higher camps as new crevasses have developed there. With all these changes, it’s important to closely observe the mountains and climbing in the next one or two decades. In the future, people may not be walking on glaciers as they do today, as the trail may only contain thin snow patches due to rapidly melting snow; there might be changes in climbing gear, routes and the technology involved.
Ankit Babu Adhikari: Climate change is affecting them and their livelihoods in a number of ways. Sherpa elders told us that when they took their yaks for grazing, they would come across small pools of water. These days the pools of water have transformed into lakes, and the grazing ground for cattle is severely limited. Yaks are the lifelines of the Sherpas. They not only carry a heavy load, but are intertwined with the way of life. For example, Sherpas say that by observing the behaviour of the yaks, one can predict the weather for the next few days.
In the upper regions, drinking water has become scarce and the signs of climate change are visible everywhere. Scientists say that any adaptation plans should come from the Sherpas themselves as they are in the best position to understand the situation. Any programme that doesn’t make use of their indigenous knowledge is bound to fail. The impact of climate change on the world can be fully understood only by closely observing the lives and livelihoods of Sherpas.
Mongabay: How do the Sherpas deal with waste management? Some climbers abandon all their gear or litter once they’re done climbing.
Ankit Babu Adhikari: Yes, waste management has been a problem. Climbers don’t care about their gear after they are done getting back to base camp. This has also polluted the local water sources. But in recent years, both the government and the Sherpas are proactively trying to clean the mountain. According to rules, all climbers must bring down with them a certain amount of waste from the mountain while they are up there.
Pradeep Bashyal: Some of the Sherpas offer money in exchange for empty oxygen cylinders. One of the Sherpas, Namgyal Sherpa, started a campaign to clean the mountain and to repatriate the bodies buried on the mountain for a long time. But he himself passed away on the mountain in 2010, and his family is still trying to retrieve his body, but in vain. The Nepali Army is also running a campaign to clean the mountain, but they can only do so at lower altitudes, the Sherpas told us. Only Sherpas can do the cleaning at higher altitudes, they told us.
Mongabay: What are some of the other key topics you’d like to highlight for readers?
Ankit Babu Adhikari: In one of our early chapters, we talk about how Sherpas became Sherpas. It talks about the 1930s and the ’40s and the contemporary upbringing of Sherpa kids. We talk about their physiology and the resilience of their mountain living. We have given significant space to their emotions.
Most of books talk about the climb up Sagarmatha, but forget to mention the descent, which is equally challenging. Many people have died trying to come down the mountain; some of their bodies still remain on the mountain.
Pradeep Bashyal: It’s a dark book that talks about the life cycle of the community. Sons and brothers die on the mountain, but that doesn’t stop others from stepping on the mountain. It also talks about the simple dreams of Sherpas to give a better life to their children. For example, the legendary climber Apa Sherpa, who has summited Sagarmatha 21 times, is now settled in the US. He told us that he always wanted to become a doctor, but didn’t have the means to achieve his dream. His daughter recently completed her nursing degree and he feels very proud of it.
Contrary to popular belief, Sherpas are not superhumans, they also have dreams that other common humans have. This book tells that story.
Mongabay: To conclude, what’s in store for the new generation of Sherpas now?
Pradeep Bashyal: The new generation of Sherpas have the option of not being involved in mountaineering. Increasingly, they are being involved in other professions as well. In the past, just being a Sherpa would qualify someone to climb a mountain, but these days, mountaineering requires the right training and the right equipment. Also, other ethnic groups from the country’s hills are also taking up the profession once dominated by the Sherpas.
Ankit Babu Adhikari: Right. The new generation of climbers, including the Sherpas, must acquire high-level training and skills in order to have a sustainable footprint on the mountain. Everything is changing and changing so fast – from wind patterns to movement of ice blocks and glaciers to priorities of climbers worldwide, and whatnot. These changes are warranting new knowledge and skills on top of the Sherpas’ indigenous gifts in climbing.
This article was first published on Mongabay.