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From Left : Pembageljgen Sherpa, M.B. Tamang, Kami Tshiring Sherpa, Danuru Sherpa and Mingmawange Sherpa

Sherpas have been described as the workhorse of any modern Western Himalayan mountaineering expedition. A better tribute to them will be this statement “No Western team will be able to climb Mt Everest without the assistance of Sherpas”. Even Sir Edmund Hilary climbed with a Sherpa too – Tenzing Norgay.

However, there are some Western expeditions who climbs without sherpas assistance – but it is a lot harder on them.

Sherpas are of Tibetian origin, and nearly all of them are devout Buddhists. They made their way to present day Nepal about 20,000 years ago. Nearly all “mountain grade” sherpas come from the area around Namche Bazar – the sherpa capital of Nepal (and of the world). The area is about 4,000m above sea level and is the headway into Mt Everest National Park (Nepal side).

Physically, the sherpas are short people (most of them are about 5 feet to 5 feet 6 inches), have extremely strong leg and back muscles. This characteristics allow them to carry heavy weights over mountainous terrain. I have actually witnessed a sherpa carry down an injured Western climber well over twice the sherpa’s size and weight from Jannu (Kangchenjunga region).

They also have a “medical mystery” – which allows them to ascend to great heights without ill-effects (acute mountain sickness – AMS). A study conducted by a Western team of researchers based in Labuche (Everest region) some years ago showed that there is “no medically identifiable element in Sherpas that could explain why they are not suspectible to AMS”. But, it is an undisputable fact that sherpas are the only people who could carry 30 kg, ascend from 6,200m (Camp 2 (ABC) – Nepal side) to South Col (7,900m),? dump their loads there, and descend to ABC within a single day. Within a course of a normal expedition, they will head this way at least 10 times or more. Most Western teams could only do that trip in 2 days or more!

Sherpas are also very hard working people – on big mountains like Mt Everest, they are the workhorse, ferrying loads from lower to higher camps, assisting climbers of lesser abilities, and taking on chores that most people would find it very exhausting (due to high altitudes). They are also very humble people – despite their well known ability to excel at great heights (a Nepali sherpa holds the world’s record in climbing Mt Everest), they don’t boast of their ability generally.

Although some Sherpas have technical climbing skills equal to that of a modern Western climber – they still believe in their religious teachings. However, most of them don’t have proper technical climbing training – and rely on their great strength and stamina to overcome obstacles. Because of their Buddhist beliefs, a “Punja” ceremony is of great importance to them (they believe they have to please their mountain Gods before climbing it). Usually, a head of the nearby monastery will be invited to head this ceremony. Chantings and other relevant sayings would be made before a “punja” pole. Even technical climbing equipment will be blessed too. Finally, a rice ‘feast’ terminates this mandatory ceremony before a climb can proceed.
Ting Sern

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