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 Bishop—Peter Hillary, Jamling Norgay, and Brent Bishop—are 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.

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