The Sherpas of Mount Everest
By Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
|May 10, 2002|
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The National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition commemorates the first ascent of the world's highest mountain, by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in May 1953. It also honors the first Americans to stand on the top of the world, including Barry Bishop, in 1963.
The sons of Everest pioneers Hillary, Norgay, and BishopPeter Hillary, Jamling Norgay, and Brent Bishopare helping make a documentary that will air on the National Geographic Channel in the United States and internationally in 2003.
The National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition is made possible in part by the generous support of American International Group, Inc.
The cheerful smiles and legendary strength of the Sherpas have been an integral part of Everest climbing expeditions from the very beginning. Indeed, very few significant successes have been achieved without them.
When Western mountaineers first set their sights on the world's highest peak, they found in the Sherpas a people ideally suited to the rigors of high-altitude climbing; unfailingly positive, stout at altitude, and seemingly resistant to cold.
Sherpas did not venture into the high peaks until European mountaineers began arriving to climb in the world's greatest mountain range. Mount Everest, known as Chomolungma or "Goddess Mother of the Land" to Tibetan language speakers like the Sherpas, was long revered as an abode of the gods. Its slopes were considered off-limits to humans.
Although Everest now sees many a human footprint, the Sherpas still regard the mountain as a holy place. All modern expeditions begin with a Puja ceremony in which Sherpas and other team members leave offerings and pay homage to the gods of the mountain, hoping to remain in their good graces throughout the climb.
The Earliest Years
A Himalayan veteran in the early 1920s, Alexander Kellas is generally regarded as the first person to recognize the natural aptitude of the Sherpa people for hard work and climbing at high altitude. In his time, Kellas was perhaps the world's leading expert on mountain sickness and the effects of high altitude. He recognized that Sherpas did not feel these effects in the same way as others, though it remains unclear what combination of genetics and an upbringing at high altitude allows the Sherpas to deal physiologically with altitude better than others.
Sherpas were first employed as porters, tasked with carrying large amounts of equipment to supply the military-style expeditions of the day. The British climbers were amazed at the strength of these people, from the fittest of mature men to the young and elderly. Arthur Wakefield described the team of porters on one early expedition as "a motley throng of old men, women, boys and girls." Yet their accomplishments astonished him. At 18,000 feet, how the Sherpas carried their loads "completely puzzles me," he wrote. "Some were 80 pounds!" In addition to their loads, some of the women carried along their babies. The whole troop slept outside, using only rocks for shelter, as temperatures dropped well below freezing.
Stronger Sherpas soon graduated from porter status and began to undertake challenging climbing and work high on the mountain. Those who distinguished themselves high on the mountain were awarded the Tiger Medal, and many aspired to this honor and the higher pay rate it afforded.
Everest legend George Mallory reported to a joint meeting of the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club that the greatest lesson learned from the 1922 expedition was that the Sherpas' power far exceeded expectations. They carried loads to 25,500 feet, and some of them could repeat this incredible feat three days in a row and show little fatigue. It was only this remarkable ability that made possible the high-camp method of climbing Everest that prevails to this day.
Unfortunately, Sherpas were also the first to suffer the consequences that can come from climbing high on Everest. A North Col avalanche killed seven Sherpa porters on the 1922 expedition, the first recorded climbing fatalities on the mountain. Even after the disaster, however, the Sherpa people remained enthusiastic about taking part in Everest expeditions, which even then were becoming an important source of revenue for a poor mountain folk.
The Era of Everest Successes
Successive seasons have seen Everest activity grow by leaps and bounds, and seen the Sherpas achieve some of the mountain's greatest achievements.
It was Sherpa Tenzing Norgay who first reached the summit with Sir Edmund Hillary 1n 1953, and Tenzing who plants the flag in the famous photo of triumph. It was only fitting that a Sherpa be part of the first pair to finally reach a summit that had long seemed unattainable.
On the 1963 expedition that put the first American climbers on the summit of Everest, Sherpas played a heroic role.
After a successful summit, climbers Willi Unsoeld, Lute Jerstad, and Barry C. Bishop were debilitated by frostbite and unable to descend from Base Camp. Sherpas came to the rescue, with a team of four carrying each climber on a two-day journey to Namche Bazaar where they could be evacuated by helicopter.
Bishop described in National Geographic magazine the typical good humor with which they set to even this grueling task: "By the end of the first day, a fierce rivalry springs up between the four carrying me and the four carrying Willi. Every suitable stretch of trail inspires a foot race."
At expedition's end, President John F. Kennedy presented each member of the expedition, including the Sherpa team, with the National Geographic Society's Hubbard Medal.
In the modern age of Everest climbing, Sherpas are among the most accomplished mountaineers. They often serve as guides to foreign climbers, and the names of their own great mountaineers hold a high place in Everest lore.
Ang Rita Sherpa, the well-known climbing Sherpa, amassed an amazing ten Everest summitsall without oxygen. In 1999 Babu Chiri Sherpa spent 20 hours on the summit of Everest, an unheard-of feat. Babu Chiri also raced up the mountain in a record ascent of 16 hours and 56 minutes. In 1995 he ascended Everest twice within two weeks. He dedicated his Everest achievements to raising international awareness and funds for the education of Sherpa children.
Such feats, along with their continued roles in carrying loads, fixing ropes, setting camps, and generally tending to climbing teams have earned the Sherpa people a place of unequalled respect. They've also helped to create a climbing and trekking industry that has brought the world to Nepal's once-isolated Solo Khumbu region. In the Sherpas' home, Everest has become not only a spiritual center but a financial one as well.
Of course, success or failure on Everest comes with a price, and the Sherpas have always paid dearly for their association with the mountain. Since the first seven Sherpa fatalities in 1922, many others have lost their lives on Everest. Of the first 100 recorded Everest fatalities, for example, 41 were Sherpas. In April 2001 Babu Chiri Sherpa fell to his death into a crevasse near Camp Two, a tragic end to an Everest legend.
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