National Geographic Daily News
Sherpas descending on Mount Everest.

Sherpas descend a slippery slope on Mount Everest.

Photograph by Kristoffer Erickson

Broughton Coburn

for National Geographic News

Published May 1, 2013

The weekend scuffle between a group of Sherpas and a small band of Western climbers high on Everest has raised some basic questions about the nature of the Sherpa-climber social contract, and about the culture of Sherpas. Although the term "Sherpa" has long been a part of the popular lexicon, outsiders generally know little about the role they play in Himalayan climbing.

The Sherpas are a small ethnic group that share many cultural, racial, and linguistic features with Tibetans, who live to their immediate north. About 3,000 Sherpas reside in the drainage areas immediately below Everest; a population of 20,000 or more live in villages to the south.

Until the early 1950s, no high Himalayan peak in Nepal had ever been climbed—at least by mortals, the Sherpas say. Then, as now, they saw the Himalayan peaks and foothills as the realm of a cavorting pantheon of gods. Presciently, a prominent Sherpa Buddhist lama predicted 80 years ago that much attention would come to be focused on Everest, and that people would "suffer hardship as a result of negative deeds generated in her vicinity." (Read dispatches from National Geographic's Mount Everest expedition.)

The Buddhist lamas, the spiritual leaders of the Sherpa community, say that one's motivation in climbing Everest and the nearby peaks is of key importance. Foreign climbers, when asked why they climb mountains, offer a range of responses: Testing one's limits. Personal achievement. Companionship in a shared challenge. Escape. Fun. Spiritual understanding. One Everest climber admitted that he merely wanted a bullet point on his resume.

By comparison, Sherpas share a rather straightforward motivation: Mountaineering is their livelihood, and they do it to support their families. It's tough, seasonal work—similar to the role of commercial fishing in Alaska for enterprising college students. They approach the task with good cheer, and the pay is exceptional by Nepal's standards (high-altitude Sherpas earn several times the prime minister's monthly salary).

Nonetheless, wives of Sherpas who climb are known to hike to Base Camp to persuade their husbands to give up expedition work.

"Climbing is exciting, but dangerous," a young Sherpa named Lhakpa recently told me. "It's best left to young, single men." Like many high-altitude Sherpas, Lhakpa plans to retire early, build a lodge, and invest in the "bigness"—business—end of climbing and trekking. And as the Incarnate Lama of the Tengboche Monastery pointed out, "You can't eat climbing awards, or numbers of summits." (Read more about National Geographic's 2012 Mount Everest expedition.)

Besides, Buddhists feel that casually placing one's precious human body at mortal risk is irresponsible, especially for a frivolous, recreational pursuit such as climbing. The Tengboche Lama has admitted that he doesn't always feel comfortable offering traditional blessings to foreign expeditions, saying that he's tempted to counsel them to take up other pursuits instead. But most Sherpas, for their part, need the work and the money. As everywhere, pay and profit tend to prevail over religious pursuits, though the latter are a close second.

The Sherpas and the sahibs—the Sherpas' generic, not necessarily deferential, moniker for foreign climbers—share an extremely close relationship. And it's an unusual one, in cross-cultural terms, given that they originate in such different worlds. They have found a near perfect symbiosis on the side of Mount Everest. Each provides for the other what they lack: manpower for the sahibs, money for the Sherpas.

But the dynamic goes beyond this. They each embody the romantic human ideal that each is striving for: The sahibs see the Sherpas as spiritual, grounded, resourceful, self-effacing, and light-hearted. To the Sherpas, the well-educated sahibs have an enviable command of technology and organization. In many ways, they want to become more like each other.

For Sherpas and foreign guides, the job of establishing and fixing a route up Everest can be described as a tense work situation. They toil long hours together or beside each other (or above and below each other—hence the falling shards of ice that initiated the recent scuffle). The stakes are high. They need to establish a safe route over difficult terrain for hundreds of climbers and guided clients.

Sherpa's headlamps in the Khumbu Icefall early in the morning
A climber treks along a frozen mountainside.

Photograph by Cory Richards

Briefly put, arguments happen, as they do in most workplaces—among sahibs, among Sherpas, and occasionally between Sherpas and sahibs. The Sherpas are fiercely loyal (they are often related to each other), and they have a keen sense of fairness. They are also aware that the anger that naturally develops in such work situations should be tempered with understanding.

The understanding part comes in because the south side of Everest is regarded as a béyül—one of several "hidden valleys" of refuge designated by Padmasambhava, the ninth-century "lotus-born" Buddhist saint, revered by the Sherpas as Guru Rinpoche.

And a full-on deity resides on Mount Everest herself: Miyolangsangma, the "Goddess of Inexhaustible Giving." The mountain is her palace and playground, and Sherpas view climbers and themselves as only partially welcome guests, all of them having arrived without invitation. It is this goddess's power, one Sherpa Buddhist monk said, that has delivered to the Sherpas great bounty—in the form of climbing expeditions and foreign travelers, to begin with.

Thus, Everest and her flanks are blessed with spiritual energy, and the Sherpas say that one should behave with reverence when passing through this sacred landscape. Here, the karmic effects of one's actions are magnified, and even impure thoughts are best avoided. When climbing, opportunities for fateful mishaps abound.

The scuffle that occurred at Camp 2 on Everest may have merely been a garden variety of professional jealousy. Simone Moro and Ueli Steck are skilled, professional, thoughtful climbers. And now—after a half-century of struggle, training, and experience—the Sherpas are exactly that too. Eastern-minded Westerners are intersecting with, well, Western-minded Easterners.

During the 1963 American Mount Everest expedition, Sherpas and Americans alike experienced a mutual loss of innocence. Arguments broke out then too—serious ones. And then everyone came to terms and returned to work in a spirit of professionalism and good cheer. It's the Sherpa way: fairness and forgiveness on an equal footing.

So, in the years to come, who will wind up as kings of the mountain? Sahibs or Sherpas? Don't be surprised if the Sherpas abandon the race to the summit altogether, and cede Everest to the designs of the recreation-obsessed sahibs.

The Sherpas have demonstrated a remarkable ability to learn, adapt, and excel. In less than two generations, they have traversed a staggering cultural arc. They have gamely followed the natural progression from noble savage (of romantic proportions) to renaissance men and women. Many have targeted careers as doctors, airline pilots, scientists, and professionals.

Along the way, they have seen the world and found it to be a big place, where there's room for everyone—and no need for fixed ropes. The Sherpas of tomorrow have already embarked on a path toward goals that are bigger than Everest and its squabbles.

Editor's Note: Broughton Coburn contributed a chapter to National Geographic Books' forthcoming The Call of Everest, to be released May 14, and he is the author of the recently released The Vast Unknown: America's First Ascent of Everest, from Crown Publishers.

Bhikshuni Lozang
Bhikshuni Lozang 1 Like

"Don't be surprised if the Sherpas abandon the race to the summit altogether, and cede Everest to the designs of the recreation-obsessed sahibs." I would be surprised. This narration here is the best I've seen so far, but it leaves out an important factor in the dynamic, which is the relationships (historical and contemporary) between the Sherpas and the Govt of Nepal, and Nepali patriotism among Sherpas. Like Siddhartha Gautam Buddha and the Sherpas, Sagarmartha Chomolonga Everest (sargarmartha side) belongs to Nepal.

Bhikshuni Lozang
Bhikshuni Lozang

"Don't be surprised if the Sherpas abandon the race to the summit altogether, and cede Everest to the designs of the recreation-obsessed sahibs." I would be surprised. This narration here is the best I've seen so far, but it leaves out an important factor in the dynamic, which is the relationships (historical and contemporary) between the Sherpas and the Govt of Nepal, and Nepali patriotism among Sherpas. Like Siddhartha Gautam Buddha and the Sherpas, Sagarmartha Chomolonga Everest (sargarmartha side) belongs to Nepal.

St. Moon
St. Moon

From my experience people living in the Khumbu are generally quite dissimilar to the general national character of Nepal which is warm-hearted, friendliness. (That said, Mr. Coburn is of deserved high status and likely not treated the same as an average tourist in the Khumbu and elsewhere.)

a few inaccuracies, the dispute did not kick off because of a falling shard of ice. It was about independent climbing and crossing fixed ropes (which is entirely acceptable action for experienced climbers).

in fact, one climber was un-roped on the Lhotse face on a 50 degree wall of ice and rappelled into from above by a menacing person, who apparently was also wielding an ice axe as a weapon. 

that said, few people would be on that mountain if not for the money (paid or received). very few local men are climbing for the love of climbing. furthermore, a lot of the profit in climbing in Nepal goes to the companies that set up the expeditions (keep in mind, if from abroad, they must team up with a Nepal based partner). the suits skim a large proportion off the top, and the Nepal Mountaineering Association  takes a big cut (but NMA has a dubious reputation, especially with the funds collected as fees). The govt also takes a big cut (a govt that scores extremely poorly on corruption rankings). What remains, goes toward expenses and the people doing the actual work. Climbers pay a heavy price that evaporates leaving little for the people doing the work and causing unnecessary tensions on the mountain.

Bhikshuni Lozang
Bhikshuni Lozang

@St. Moon"From my experience people living in the Khumbu are generally quite dissimilar to the general national character of Nepal which is warm-hearted, friendliness." 

Recall that the 12 year bloody Maoist insurgency did not include Sherpas. Sherpas are peace-loving people. But they are not weak or stupid. If you put anyone in a (perceived) life or death situation, they will protect themselves, which  is human nature.

St. Moon
St. Moon

@Bhikshuni Lozang @St. Moon the civil war touched every level of society, but generally remote tourist areas were left alone (the fight was among Nepalis) and Khumbu, like it or not, is a remote tourist area and world heritage location. that said, only about 3k Sherpas live in this so-called beyul. most Sherpa people live in Kathmandu, Solu and other others of Nepal. 
nobody is saying the locals of Khumbu are weak or stupid, but the only life or death situation on the Lhotse Face were the un-roped independent climbers on wall of ice (and later at camp 2). the rope fixers were all roped in for safety themselves. 
i would imagine that the mountains are for people who honor them. independent climbers generally have more respect for the mountains than those paying large sums of cash to be escorted up the mountain and those receiving cash to do the escorting. i may be wrong but the independent climbers are usually there for the love of it rather than financial motivation.

suzi colman
suzi colman 1 Like

I just came back from living in a Sherpa home for two weeks just so I can learn more about the Sherpa culture.  I met many Sherpas that have climbed Mt. Everest and make their livelihood from Trekking.  They are honest, religious, trustworthy and caring people.  They are bettering themselves due to the income from tourism but their culture is very strong and will prevail. I don't know what happened at Camp 2 but I can't imagine that the Sherpas started a fight unprovoked and without good reason.  I would really feel that the trekkers overstepped their bounds.  I really believe and trust the Sherpas and would really encourage anyone to listen to their advice when on the Mountain.

St. Moon
St. Moon

@suzi colman  does this mean you can't imagine that a mob attempted murder 'without good reason'? 
furthermore, a two weeks home stay hardly qualifies a person to make quality generalisations of a whole community of people, especially if you don't speak the local language and paid for the home stay...most people are hospitable, friendly and caring when  being paid to be, aren't they?  
my anecdotal experience from trekking in the everest region is that it is over-commericialised and getting worse, and the local people are much less hospitable than areas outside the khumbu.

Bhikshuni Lozang
Bhikshuni Lozang 1 Like

@St. Moon @suzi colman I have lived in Khumbu 10 years (full time year round). Most Sherpas are friendly but also keen business men and women.

A "mob"is not a person, persons attempt murder. That being said, if the guy's life was threatened, he was smart to heed the warning. 

Sherpas are from Tibetan stock. Historically warriors before subdued with Buddhism.

Some years ago a helicopter pilot bringing in airstrip construction materials in Khumbu got beat up by locals who opposed it.

People have to let go of their shangrila fantasies about Sherpas (and Tibetans); but the definitive authority on Nepali Everest are the Sherpas, and if foreigners can't accept that self-evident fact, they shouldn't be there.

Madeline B.
Madeline B. 1 Like

@St. MoonI could be wrong but it doesn't sound like that was at all the point @Bhikshuni Lozang was trying to make. "Most Sherpas are friendly but also keen business men and women...People have to let go of their shangrila fantasies about Sherpas (and Tibetans); but the definitive authority on Nepali Everest are the Sherpas, and if foreigners can't accept that self-evident fact, they shouldn't be there" As with any culture, generalizations can be made but are dangerous. To an extent, the Sherpas are likely romanticized as many local non-Western cultures often are but as they are, in fact, the local culture they do have a deeper and much different understanding of their land than any foreigner would no matter how long they may live there. Of course both perspectives now shape the actual circumstances of the region and the relationship between sherpas and "sahibs" is necessarily codependent though perhaps not reciprocal. At the same time though it is best to respect and work with local knowledge rather than take a superior stance and think that either party owes the other anything. The opportunity to climb Everest largely exists because of this knowledge and Sherpas have found they can capitalize on this fact and at times take advantage of it.

That doesn't mean its right or that a foreigner should "comply with whatever a local commands" but think of how most visitors are treated in the Western world. At least in New England there aren't many communities that would let a visiting foreigner decide what's best for them (ie
schools, hospitals, airports, monasteries and hydroelectricity plants)

St. Moon
St. Moon

@Bhikshuni Lozang @St. Moon @suzi colman 
miss lozang, are you arguing that the locals know everything and that foreigners should comply with whatever a local commands? and if not face violence or leave immediately?
do you think the locals will mind if those leaving take with them the schools, hospitals, airports,monasteries  and hydroelectricity plants that they had donated/constructed over the years?

Rijan Shrestha
Rijan Shrestha 1 Like

@St. Moon "...most people are hospitable, friendly and caring when  being paid to be, aren't they? " -- That's a very narcissistic point of view. And perhaps that's the difference between the west and the east. Just my opinion.

St. Moon
St. Moon

@Rijan Shrestha @St. Moon Yes, Rijan, that is the whole point...people believe it is about them and not the money transaction. if the brief home stay was a financial opportunity, then of course the people providing services are friendly and caring above and beyond what they would be if you showed up at the door begging. not sure why it has to be east versus west. in nepal as elsewhere, if you are living on the street people shun you whereas if you are karna shakya people fall all over themselves to please you. human nature, narcissistic or not. 

Munna Sherpa
Munna Sherpa 1 Like

Whatever happened up there may not be known ever. But any one coming to Mount Everest region to explore must respect the local culture. Sherpa way of living with mountain may not have scientific ground but it has strong spiritual relationship with the mountain. It is their honour to sacrifice their life for the clients but "Mountain Ethics" must be respected!

Ang Sherpa
Ang Sherpa 4 Like

Ang Jangbu Sherpa I can only imagine those two European climbers must have exceeded tolerance level of humble Sherpas. It is justifiable to use proportionate force in self-defence. No one should tolerate arrogance and abuse, Sherpas has the same rights. Thanks to those Sherpas for restricting bodily harm to arrogant Morno and party.Climbing Everest has lost traditional values ,it has become place of competition,record breaking by any means and infested with greed. It is time to give Everest a rest for a while,let purify by forbidding arrogant climbers and let enjoy the rest of the climbers who love just the nature and climb without the glory and fame. It is time for the authorities and associations to act now. Money can not buy everything. May nature take its course!

Salman Gurung
Salman Gurung

@Ang Sherpa I Agree, Ang, however, one cannot blame the climbers without clear evidence. Mistakes may have been committed in both the sides. As you do understand and agree, violence is not the solution for anything, moreover, not at all in the holy place like Everest! n' yes! the commercialization of climbing has made Everest into a Money making machine. It's time we all act for the greater benefit of all!

St. Moon
St. Moon

@Salman Gurung @Ang SherpaIf their is local resentment at foreigners, then it would be better directed at the agencies in Kathmandu taking a cut of the unearned climbing pie as well as the Nepal Mountaineering Assoc. officials and state bureaucrats (ie, their own countrymen rather than against the foreigners who have paid a heavy price tag that gets pilfered, leaving less funds for the people doing the actual work in brave and demanding situations, less money creates resentment and tension in those who are their solely for the work and not the love of climbing).

St. Moon
St. Moon

@Bhikshuni Lozang @St. Moon @Salman Gurung  is there now culture related to 'rope fixing ' and even if so, how was it disrespected? 
keep in mind, these were independent climbers not using ropes and not employing people to set up fixed ropes. they were neither paying to be escorted up the mountain, nor were they being paid to escort anyone up the mountain. they were climbing without ropes and without oxygen on their own, alpine style. again they were not part of the large expeditions using ropes, oxygen and people to carry gear, cook food and set up tents.
if they are not using ropes and not employing rope fixers, how did they disrespect "the culture of the sherpas who fix the ropes up everest."

Bhikshuni Lozang
Bhikshuni Lozang 1 Like

@St. Moon @Salman Gurung @Ang Sherpa I have not ever seen local resentment of foreigners in Khumbu. The climbers abused their permission to be in nepal and on everest, by ignoring or failing to respect local culture, i.e., the culture of the sherpas who fix the ropes up everest. it is as simple as that.

Pemba Sherpa
Pemba Sherpa 4 Like

@Vishal Dar Swami. it is really ignorant and inhumane of you to simply say that someone should be killed for no reason. As a son of sherpa mountain guide, i myself know how hard of a job it is.  My dad continuously climbs every year, all around the world and i barely see him. he does this job so as to help me and my family, not for fame nor greed. He does it so that his kids will be able to achieve better education and not have to risk ones life for living. And to further clarify some misunderstanding, His Holiness Dalai Lama never provoke for greed in people, he simply said that we as human being should help each other, be compassionate toward each other and be kind. "Be kind whenever possible, it is always possible" ---His Holiness Dalai Lama

This comment has been deleted

Munna Sherpa
Munna Sherpa

Thanks for exposing your cheap mentality Mr Vishal, literally meaning 'The Great'. Do not forget the fact that it is "the dog" that barks not us to seek cheep publicity! Whatever religion you belong to please review your understanding of your own religion and comment. If you have any doubts please feel free to ask Dr. zakir Naik, one of the best person to answer your question!

Ang Sherpa
Ang Sherpa 1 Like

Which planet are you living? Your words does not reflect your name as Swami.You accuse Sherpas greedy ? show me one who is not greedy, are you not? What right do you have to lineup innocent people and shoot.

Urshula Bajracharya
Urshula Bajracharya

@Vishal Dar SwamiPeople like you are so desperate to try and get attention that you would write or do anything to get it. I feel sorry for you. I hope your life will  get better. 

Dorji Tsering Sherpa
Dorji Tsering Sherpa 3 Like

Mr. Coburn, thank you for correctly explaining the inane character and the culture of the sherpa people. My father Late Mr. Pasang Futar Sherpa was with Tenzing and Hillary in the 1953 expedition. Many great Bara Sahibs like Sir Edmund had played vital role in the development of the sherpa. you are right, many new generation of sherpa have embarked on a path towards much greater than the Everest. I am a student of Vipassana meditation and am above all these squabbles and hope to introduce this wonderful technique (keeping your minds in balance) to my community brothers and sisters at the Beyul -Khumb region. Metta to you - a great Sahib friend of the Sherpa's...

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