National Geographic News
A photo of a trekker at the Tenzing Memorial.

A trekker at the Everest Base Camp memorial for Tenzing Norgay, history's most famous Sherpa mountaineer.


Broughton Coburn

for National Geographic

Published April 21, 2014

As a community, Sherpas have always paid a high price on Mount Everest.

During the past century of climbing on the mountain, 99 Sherpas and Nepali have been killed—about 40 percent of the total climbing deaths. Yet Sherpas continue to work on the mountain, many because it's the highest-paying job available—and a ticket to greater opportunities. (See "Mount Everest's Deadliest Day Puts Focus on Sherpas.")

In hindsight, life appeared simpler a century ago. As farmers and herders, the Sherpas in the valleys below Everest enjoyed ample land and resources, and subsisted in a rugged yet relaxed barter economy. Many saw the outside world only on trading journeys to Tibet, following yak trains over a 19,050-foot (5,806-meter) pass, the Nangpa La.

Today, among younger Sherpas especially, high-altitude guiding and load carrying could be compared with crab fishing in Alaska: Do it while you're young, get in and get out quickly, pocket some fairly serious coin—and then invest in a business or trekking lodge, send your children to private school, and take advantage of the numerous opportunities that the lowlands, and the rest of the world, have in store. (Related: "Sherpas Killed on Everest Cremated as Survivors Call for Boycott.")

Everest is a means to an end.

A photo of a Buddhist monk performing rituals next to the casket of a victim of the Mount Everest avalanche.
A Buddhist monk performs rituals next to a casket containing the dead body of Nepali mountaineer Ang Kaji Sherpa, killed in Friday's avalanche.

Family Business

Sange Sherpa knows personally the high cost of working on the mountain. Two years ago, his son Namgyal Tsering died on the mountain while crossing a ladder over a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall. His son, a veteran climber who had been to the summit four times, apparently neglected to clip into a safety line, and fell. (Related: "Climbing Finished for Season on Everest After Deadly Avalanche?")

Last week, tragedy struck Sange's family again when an avalanche claimed the lives of 16 Nepali mountaineers, including several distant relatives.

As a young man growing up in the village of Khumjung, Sange, too, had carried loads for Everest climbers. His grandfather, Dawa Tenzing, a revered sirdar, or lead guide, had been a veteran of the 1924 and 1953 British expeditions. But as Sange grew older, his life took a different path.

After guiding the U.K.'s Prince Charles on a decidedly safer jaunt in the Himalayan foothills in the early 1980s, Sange gravitated toward a career in tourism. Today, at 54, he lives in Victor, Idaho, where he owns a restaurant and several other businesses, including one that imports coffee from Nepal.

Despite lingering heartache over his son, Sange still believes in the importance of mountaineering to the livelihood of Nepali Sherpas.

"I don't have an issue with anyone," he said. "My son made a mistake. The avalanched Sherpas were unlucky. These events can be explained partly by misalignment of the planets, but also partly by taking risks. Ultimately, it's like the army: The danger level is high at times, but you do it to make money and support your family."

A photo of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary.
Sir Edmund Hillary, right, and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay smile after their legendary ascent of Mount Everest in 1953.

Means to an End

For the most famous Sherpa mountaineer, Tenzing Norgay, it was that and more. In the challenge of climbing, he discovered a way to explore a larger world.

When he was a teenager in 1932, word reached his village in the Khumbu region that an expedition to Everest was planned for the following year. In the middle of the night, he ran away from home and made the two-week trek to Darjeeling, India, hoping to join up. "I was not made to be a farmer or a herder," he wrote in his autobiography.

The light-hearted Tenzing quickly proved himself to be strong and diligent. He was hired on to several expeditions, including Everest in 1947, with quixotic solo climber Earl Denman; 1951, for the British Everest reconnaissance from the south; the spring and fall of 1952, with the Swiss; and 1953, with the British, when he summited with Edmund Hillary. (See "Pictures: Climbing Everest Through History.")

Well aware of Everest's danger, Tenzing told his sons that he climbed the mountain so that his children wouldn't have to. Yet many Sherpas, and some of Tenzing's descendants, are still drawn to mountaineering, despite the Buddhist injunction against willingly placing one's life—one's precious human rebirth—at risk.

They have an excuse, however, one that is blessed and endorsed by the village lamas: They are climbing to support their families.

Funerary Rites

When a Sherpa dies, the surviving family members commission a 49-day Gyöwa ceremony. Monks burn incense, sculpt votive offerings, and chant from texts to guide the deceased through the treacherous realms of the afterlife and (they hope) a favorable reincarnation.

The cost, mainly to feed the gathered monks and villagers, can exceed $8,000. Anniversary ceremonies must follow for three additional years, adding another $6,000.

"How can a widow and her children get back on track financially when the funerary rites alone cost $15,000?" Sange asks.

Until recently, the government required that climbing outfitters insure the lives of their staff only up to $5,000, recently increased to $11,000. Although a tradition-minded elder, Sange feels that the industry should and will change.

To begin with, he says Nepal's government (in response to pressure from international climbing organizations, if needed) should require agencies to carry insurance policies of $50,000. The additional premium would add a fraction of a percent to the cost of staging an expedition. The poorer Sherpas and Nepali would benefit most. It is the cash-strapped Sherpas who typically take on the most dangerous work.

For many, the goal is to earn enough to graduate from climbing altogether. Education, training, professional jobs, and family await. In a sense, Sange threaded the mountaineering gauntlet and made it to the other side. Others, even many in his own family, have not been as lucky.

Respect the Goddess

The goddess who resides on Everest, Miyolangsangma, is depicted carrying a mongoose that spits wish-fulfilling gems, representing the bounty that she provides when respected and worshipped. These precious gems, some Sherpas say, have continued to issue forth in the form of income from the pockets of mountaineers and trekkers.

A photo of prayer flags on the summit of Mount Everest.
Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags fly at the summit of Mount Everest.

Deities can be polluted and defiled, too—even inadvertently—and some Sherpas worry that this can contribute to calamities that befall those traveling on Everest's hem.

"None of us should ever take the mountain, and the blessings she bestows upon us, for granted," Sange Sherpa said. "It is too difficult to predict how and when your karma will ripen, when the unexpected will happen, and when the goddess will become angry."

Broughton Coburn's most recent book is The Vast Unknown: America's First Ascent of Everest. He is also the author or editor of several National Geographic Books titles.

Romeo Gocotano
Romeo Gocotano

I salute the braveness of all Sherpa who give their lives just to prevail the expedition of mount Everest.

Roiikka-Ta P Globetrotter
Roiikka-Ta P Globetrotter

its basically customary .. when i say basically i mean theres much MUCH more to it than that, but, basically in a sense that it is more easy to begin to understand by saying basically ..

Larry Kam
Larry Kam

History and more info on Sherpas. 

Hu Dan
Hu Dan

They are heroes.

Tshering Rumba
Tshering Rumba

we are nepalese born to face the chalenges. Mountains are our home so we will continue to live our life in our home no matter what is the consiquence we will live our life as a mountaineer. WE ARE PROUD TO BE NEPALESE

Ricardo Martins
Ricardo Martins

Mountaineering is culturally embedded in the Nepali and Sherpas. They deserve more credit for being the 'keepers' of the summit. Great article!

c wright
c wright

just like miners, you do what's available no matter how dangerous.

Rudolph Furtado
Rudolph Furtado

Mountaineering is to the Sherpa's what the sea is to sea-farers and fisher-folk, a means and way of living and livelihood.Accidents do happen in dangerous professions and the same is the case of Mountaineering.Good wages and life insurance is normally a incentive for serving in any dangerous vocation or profession.As a former  "Marine-Engineer" with 23 years of sea-sailing experience i have personally  heard of the loss of  some of my colleagues  at sea due to ship-wrecks or accidents and  myself escaped a cyclone storm  narrowly during my sailing career.Its ultimately adventure and decent wages that make people take up dangerous professions as a source of employment.


Popular Stories

  • Lost City Found in Honduras

    Lost City Found in Honduras

    A joint Honduran-American expedition has confirmed the presence of extensive pre-Columbian ruins in Mosquitia in eastern Honduras, a region rumored to contain ruins of a lost "White City" or "City of the Monkey God."

  • Astronomers Find a Galaxy That Shouldn't Exist

    Astronomers Find a Galaxy That Shouldn't Exist

    Small, young galaxies should be free of interstellar dust, but an object called A1689-zD1 is breaking all the rules.

  • Cool Polar Bear Pictures

    Cool Polar Bear Pictures

    Take a peek at polar bears playing, swimming, and sleeping in their changing habitat.

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »