Every climber has heroes; alpinists either past or present which have pushed the boundaries of climbing, inspiring them. Blazing new routes in the Alps or Rockies, treks to Nepal and the Himalaya, these are the modern-day explorers, making new ascents on improbably technical routes in remote, inaccessible destinations. Messner, Tasker, Cassin, Rouse, Jeff and Alex Lowe, Chouinard, Hillary, Wanda Rutkiewicz and many others are synonymous with the golden age of mountaineering while Steck, Hinkes, Lynn Hill and Viesturs are ‘greats’ of the modern era.
The Sherpa people however, are the true heroes of the Himalaya. Very few have achieved the notoriety of the names listed above, but every first ascent owes a debt of gratitude to their porters, without which success would have been unlikely.
Sherpas have transported expedition equipment from Kathmandu to the base camps of every one of the Himalayan giants. They have also been responsible for transporting equipment between the various camps, regularly crossing dangerous and unpredictable icefields. Collapsing crevasse bridges or seracs are a constant danger and on Everest alone around a third of all fatalities have been Sherpas.
One man who rose above anonymity is Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa climber which stood side by side with Sir Edmund Hillary on top of the world on 29th May, 1953. As one of the first men to summit Everest, his place in history assured, he will always be associated with this great mountain.
The sheer number of times that Sherpas climb on the peaks of the Himalaya or travel back and forth along the routes which service the base camps greatly increases their risk of illness, injury and even death.
Two men Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi have reached the summit of Everest an incredible 21 times, the latter achieved the feat having summited twice in May 2013! The size of this achievement is not to be underestimated, anybody that has trekked in the Himalaya or climbed into the ‘Death Zone’ can attest to the difficulties involved.
The average Sherpa is not involved in high altitude mountaineering but transporting impossibly heavy loads from village to village is an equally arduous way of life. Wiry, leanly muscled men, backs stooped under crippling burdens struggle up steep slopes and rough terrain often wearing nothing but sandals on their feet. Petite women and even children spend many hours everyday with baskets laden with firewood, or solid wood planks balanced on their backs. Supporting the weight of bottled water, and other stock for the shops and teahouses which trekkers rely upon, on their heads with a cloth strap.
In fact probably every expedition is supported by Sherpas, directly or indirectly. Past or present, most expeditions have employed porters directly. However even those that haven’t, including independent trekkers which rely upon the transported stores can thank Sherpas that goods are available to buy and their dining is relatively good.
They are remarkably hardy, physically very strong, their experience is invaluable and it is likely that many more trekkers would fail on treks to Nepal or fulfill more lofty ambitions without their help.
They remind me of another Nepalese caste which I am familiar with, the Gurkhas; the legendary troops that have served the British forces with distinction in several theatres of conflict. Brave and loyal servants of their adopted country that have only in recent years received fair monetary recognition for their service. Fortunately Sherpas are now generally being paid more acceptable wages for the services.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the region on several occasions and every time have been grateful for the companionship and help of these hardy people. They can seem shy at times, but once they open up, they are friendly, honest and enjoy a good laugh, often at the expense of a fellow Sherpa. They have always been courteous, helpful and are even pretty good chefs, at times cooking lunch or evening meal.
It is a privilege anytime that I get to spend time in their company, and look forward to the next opportunity to visit Nepal as I already miss being with the heroes of the Himalaya.
*During the period of my last trek three Sherpas lost their lives from Acute Mountain Sickness related illness.
*All images taken on a Samsung WB250F compact WiFi camera.