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.
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."
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.
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.
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.