Sep 17, 2012

The People You Meet: The Sherpa People of Nepal

I opened my eyes, shuddered and wiggled deeper into the down depths of my -30C sleeping bag. The wind was howling and I could tell by a dark-ridged shadow along the outside of my bright yellow tent that a fresh layer of snow had fallen overnight. Ice condensation lined the inside dome - sparkling in the light coming from my headlamp. Over the sound of the wind I could hear a 'crunch crunch' - it sounded like someone walking over styrofoam. Early morning chatter was heard coming from the tent next to mine and then suddenly there was a rustling at my tent-flap. 

"Heather di-di - Good morning to you..!" sang a cheery voice as my tent was unzipped and a thick-gloved hand lay a tray of biscuits and a cup of warm tea at the foot of my Thermarest. I smiled to myself as I fumbled for the warm thermos, marvelling at the gracious hospitality of the Sherpa culture. I couldn't believe that I was actually getting tea and cookies in bed..! I don't even get this kind of first-class service at sea-level, let alone 6000m..!!

There is something about Everest and its neighboring cultures that intensifies our desire to better understand it. Its profound presence, geography, glaciology, the Sherpa culture, Buddhism, the mighty Yak and even legend of the Yeti seems to draw us deeper into Everest's mystique. The 'social geographer' in me prompts me to include an entry here on the Sherpas culture and the Sherpas themselves - the local people who are employed as guides for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas and who will form an invaluable part of our climbing team on the mountain. They are, for me, an awe-inspiring part of the 'Mountain Experience' -- or the "Nepal" experience for that matter..!  

Sherpas are highly regarded as elite mountaineers and experts in their local terrain, renowned for their hardiness and experience at high altitudes and were of immeasurable value to early explorers of the Himalayan region, serving as guides and porters at the extreme altitudes of the peaks and passes in the Himalayan region.

While the climbers use their base camp as a place to acclimatise, recuperate and make training runs up the mountain, the Sherpas will be busy servicing the camp and looking after the climbers. More importantly, they will constantly conduct essential repairs to the route up the mountain - fixing ropes, breaking trail and conducting crevasse reconnaissance. 

In a single day the Sherpas may make multiple trips up the formidable mountain to fix ropes and the ladder bridges across the crevasses and to maintain the supplies on the higher stages of the climb - with loads significantly heavier than my own and at triple my speed..! It is not a wonder that during the first Everest expedition in 1921, the skill, expertise, honesty and dedication of the Sherpas impressed English climbers such as George Mallory on his early Everest attempt. From that point on, the Sherpas became an integral part of international Himalayan climbing as guides and partners. The affinity of Westerners for the Sherpa/Buddhist civilization eventually grew into an increasingly close sharing, understanding and friendship between these two cultures and today form an integral and vital part of many Himalayan expeditions.

Sherpas moved to the Everest region from Tibet over 500 years ago.  The name "sherpa" literally means "people from the east" because they originally came from the Kham in eastern Tibet and went on to settle in the mountain valleys of northern Nepal. Today approximately 30,000 Sherpas live in Nepal, and around 3,000 of them live in the Khumbu region, the gateway to Everest.  Sherpas are traditionally farmers and traders, raising yaks and growing and trading barley, buckwheat, potatoes, wheat and animal products however since the 1950s, tourism has become the dominant source of employment and income in the area.


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