Everest Anniversary and the Sherpas

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Everest, Fifty Years Later

In May 2003, the Kingdom of Nepal marked the 50th anniversary of the "conquest" of Everest, the world's highest peak.  But the son of Tenzing Norgay who, on May 29, 1953 is generally believed to be first in the world to reach the summit along with Sir Edmund Hillary, says the mountain has "lost its spirit of adventure." 

Jamling Tenzing, who climbed Everest in 1996 to understand his late father's experience, thinks his father would be shocked to know that tourists routinely reach the 29, 028 ft (8, 848-metre) summit of the peak actually called Jomolungma.  "There are people going up there who have no idea how to put on crampons. They are climbing because they have paid someone $65, 000 (40, 000)." He added: "It is being very selfish. It endangers the lives of others." 

And Peter Habeler, the Austrian who, in 1978 with Reinhold Messner, reached the summit without relying on bottled oxygen, said current climbs have "nothing to do with real adventure."  He added, "Alpinists don't think very highly of them. ... .  It's peanuts, climbing surrounded by Sherpas and using oxygen. You cheat the mountain. People are now racing to be the fattest, the thinnest, the youngest, the oldest up Everest. This has nothing to do with alpinism any more."  He thinks the Nepalese government ought to promote lesser-known Himalayan peaks instead.

  • Evidence that Mallory and Irvine were successful in summiting in 1924.  Site has Q&A, and link to photo of Mallory's remains.

From Tashi Tenzing's "For Sherpas, a Steep Climb" (Editorial, The New York Times, May 29/03) 

"In the 50 years since my grandfather and Sir Edmund made their climb, Everest mountaineering has become a popular adventure sport about 10,000 people have tried to reach the top and a booming business. This has been a mixed blessing for us Sherpas. On the one hand, it has helped usher in a better standard of living than we could have ever imagined. In addition to the money brought in by tourism, outsiders drawn to Mount Everest, including Sir Edmund, have invested in education and health care for my people. Infant mortality rates have decreased (only 6 of 14 children in my father's family survived infancy), while literacy rates have climbed.

But life for Sherpas has become increasingly complicated. Many of our young people are understandably tired of the hardship the freezing winters and scarce food and are no longer satisfied grazing yaks or growing potatoes in difficult terrain at high altitudes. The influx of Western tourists to Everest has exposed Sherpas to a new lifestyle, leading many to seek an easier, more cosmopolitan existence in the cities and abroad. Few people, especially working-age men, stay in the mountains. Indeed, I myself do not wish to make my livelihood plowing high-altitude fields of barley. Indigenous crafts are dying out, and many Sherpa villages are now home only to the frail and elderly and the few relatives who remain to take care of them.

For the Sherpas who work in expeditions, however, Everest has provided a lucrative source of income. Most expeditions include three or four climbing Sherpas (about one per climber) and 20 to 30 Sherpas to carry loads to the base camps. A Sherpa guide can earn about $2,000 during a two-month climbing season, far more than he would for most other jobs.

But this work is also dangerous: at least 175 climbers have been killed trying to reach the top of Everest. Sherpas join expeditions without life insurance, which is expensive and difficult to get, knowing that if they do not return there will be little for those left behind beyond the good will of their community. Most Sherpa guides, however, are philosophical about the risks. When I asked my friend Ang Dorje how much longer he would climb on Everest with big expeditions, he did a quick calculation on his fingers and said, "Four more times," the amount it would require to build his home and educate his children.

I don't think my grandfather would be disheartened by the path we Sherpas have followed, however. He used to say that he climbed so that his children would not have to. Indeed, though my mother and a few of the elder members of my family remain in the area, the rest of us have moved far away, many going into law and medicine and other professions. Still, the draw of mountaineering is with us: four of us have climbed Everest.

My grandfather might have wished, though, that foreigners behaved with more respect and awe for our mountain. Reaching the top of Everest, once a symbol of humankind's triumph over nature, has become for so many simply a sport, an experience that (for a hefty sum, as much as $65,000 per climber) can be bought. The foreign climbers go home with photographs of themselves on the summit, then leave their litter behind and forget the Sherpas who have contributed so much to their successes.

Commercial mountaineering has created a quandary: it is a great boon for us financially, but in our hearts we worry about the safety of amateur climbers and the sanctity of our beloved mountains.

Still, I have been lucky. I have managed to hold on to both worlds. I have reached the summit of Everest twice but have never had to carry 75-pound porter loads as my grandfather and so many other Sherpas did. In fact, in 1993, I was the first Sherpa to lead an international climbing team (an expedition in which Western climbers carried their own loads).

I am happy that my grandfather's climb paved the way for modernization among the Sherpas. My people now have greater opportunities to learn to read and write, have a voice in the affairs of their region and are building a brighter future for themselves. I only hope that their increasing wisdom and empowerment can spread to the mountaineering world, where they are still so often viewed as mere load-carriers and nameless catalysts to Western success."

Tashi Tenzing, author of Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest, runs an agency in Sydney,Australia, specializing in Himalayan tours.

Big Deal

10, 000 have tried to climb the world's tallest mountain.  Since the first proven successful ascent, about 1,200 climbers have summited, and around 175 people have died on Everest. 

The Nepal Mountaineering Association agrees that there are way too many amateurs trying to climb Everest. Bhumi Lal Lama, its general secretary, quoted Sir Edmund Hillary: " Everest needs a rest." adding, "He's right. But we ... will be missing out on royalties. We can't afford that."

Nepal has one of the world's lowest standards of living, but few of its citizen's derive any direct benefit from mountaineering and its festivities.  

The first corroborated ascent, on the other hand, was momentous not merely because the way was not established, as it is today -- with ladders installed horizontally across chasms, and numerous camps with medical facilities --  but because it was almost the equivalent of a journey into space. And it was low tech, besides. 

As Norgay's son explains, they climbed the mountain wearing ordinary woolen clothes, weighed down by old-fashioned oxygen cylinders that divers used. They had to carry with them heavy logs of wood to use for fuel, and 'They were climbing into the unknown. People didn't even know if you could exist above 29, 000 ft without a pressurized suit.'  Plus: 'They were two people from entirely different worlds. Hillary did not speak Nepali and my father hardly spoke English. They communicated just by signs and by understanding.' " 
So nowadays, what's the big deal?

Beginnings of Himalayan Mountaineering

The Times, May 14, 2003 "When wrathful deities made mountains places of fear:" 

Tibet's relationship with its land has been transformed, says Ed Douglas

George Mallory's famously flippant rejoinder to why he wanted to climb Everest because it's there is countered by the Dalai Lama. He said: I imagine that for most Tibetans Because it is there is a very good reason for not making the attempt. Hillary and Tenzing's triumph was an instance of the human ability to overcome nature, to dominate the world.

The traditional Tibetan attitude to mountains is quite different. They are treated with respect as the abodes of presiding deities. Tibetans would rather salute their mountains, offering juniper incense smoke in their direction than try to conquer their mountains.

The Tibetan myths about mountains are populated with wrathful deities, ghosts or terrible creatures such as the yeti. They are warnings to stay away. The notion of climbing a mountain was utterly foreign to those nomads grazing their animals on the pastures below. Why expose yourself to unnecessary risks when life is already full of them? They didn't have a word for the apex of a mountain; the summit Mallory was trying to reach didn't exist for them.

For the nomads in the Kama Valley and the monks at Rongbuk monastery, the motivation for those attempting Everest was obscure. Nawang Gombu, the first man to climb the mountain twice, was a novitiate monk at Rongbuk in the late 1940s before he ran away to follow his uncle, Tenzing Norgay, into the expedition game. Trulshik Rinpoche was 14 when the last prewar expedition arrived at Rongbuk in 1938. Gombu asked the monks what the English were looking for. They told him that there must be a golden cow there and they wanted to take it home. In a way, they were correct. Several climbers have become millionaires from lecturing and writing about their experiences.

Trulshik Rinpoche became head lama at Rongbuk after the death in 1940 of its founding monk, Dzatrul Rinpoche. In 1921, Dzatrul had been on retreat and did not wish to see the climbers who arrived with their passport from the 13th Dalai Lama. The following year, during the first full attempt on the mountain, Dzatrul received the leader, Brigadier- General Charles Bruce. When the 13th Dalai Lama gave the first permission to climb Chomolungma, he said that they could come as long as they didn't bring guns and kill any of the animals. Before Buddhism, there was an animist tradition in Tibet that is preserved in its remote valleys. An illustration of this is the legend that surrounds Everest itself, the mountain Tibetans call Chomolungma.

The goddess said to inhabit the slopes of Chomolungma is Miyolangsangma.
She is one of five sisters who are associated with mountains, often above sacred lakes, along the Nepal/Tibet frontier. The head of these five sisters is Tashi Tseringma, whose home is Gauri-shankar, a peak to the west that is sacred to Hindus as well, especially in Kathmandu. The Five Sisters of Long Life, as they are known, are only minor deities; the peak Khumbila, for example, is more important to the Sherpas of Khumba as the home of their patron deity Khumbu i Yulha, literally the Home God of the Khumbu. This mountain holds the collective soul of the Sherpas, a repository for their sense of identity.

According to legend, Miyolangsangma was one of a group of wrathful Bon deities, the srungma, who was subdued by the evangelising zeal of Guru Rinpoche to act as a servant of Buddhism. Miyolangsangma's character became that of a generous benefactor. Sherpas on Everest go out of their way to keep on her good side; offensive smells, such as roasting meat or burning garbage, rubbish and morally questionable behaviour, can provoke her wrath. Before every expedition they will hold a puja, building a lhap-so, which is a kind of altar, and stringing up lines of prayer flags to bring good luck.

In the past her role as the deity of Chomolungma was purely symbolic: a wealth-giver. There are legends of how the people around Everest suffered because they failed to pay her due attention. Now, Everest is a workplace offering employment to the Sherpas and income to the tourist businesses. From being a symbol of wealth, Chomolungma has become the real source of that wealth, replacing the trade and agriculture that sustained the Sherpas before the Chinese invaded Tibet and curtailed activity across the border.

Religion in this part of the Himalayas has grown organically, blending the old and the new, mixing the practices of competing traditions and faiths as the wheel of history turns. The tourist dollar, like the barley crop or the yak herds, is just one more resource for which Sherpas are grateful, and it is Miyolangsangma herself who has given them this. Chomolungma is often translated as Mother Goddess of the Earth, which isn't correct; it is more a translation of what we expect from the world's highest mountain. But however Chomolungma is translated, the important issue is not what it means but the thing to which it refers because within that difference we see just how fundamental the divide is between Western attitudes to Everest and the role of Chomolungma in the lives of those Tibetans and Sherpas who live on the slopes.

What's a Sherpa ?

Climbers from all over the world rely on the strength, endurance, knowledge, skill and bravery of Nepalese Sherpas. These people of Tibetan origin crossed over the Himalayan passes less than 400 years ago, to settle in the foothills.  But these hills are amongst the world's highest, and many Sherpas are born and raised at heights of over 4, 000 metres (13, 000 feet.) Some live at 16, 5000 feet.  

"Most of [them] spend their childhood grazing their cattle or yaks at high altitudes, routinely climbing to heights of between 5, 500 and 5, 800 metres (18, 000 to 19, 000 feet) without jackets or mountaineering gear," explains Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA.)  Therefore, besides being physically adapted over generations to living at a high altitude, their seasonal treks in search of pasture at even higher terrain, and their intimate knowledge of these rugged mountains, makes them eminently able to assist mountaineering expeditions.  

"... Sherpas serve as the backbone of all the expeditions, doing jobs such as fixing the ropes on the rocks, paving the route on the steep climb and clearing the icefall and the Hillary step," said 38-year old Jamling Norgay, who followed in his father's footsteps as a member of the Everest IMAX Filming Expedition in 1996.

In the past half-century, many Sherpas climb for a livelihood, but they certainly do not do it for pleasure like the wealthy  mountaineering tourists. About 15, 000 currently work at mountaineering where, besides acting as high-altitude guides and  porters, they also act as cooks and kitchen help, and other camp staff.  And it is the Sherpas who rescue mountaineers when there is trouble, often at the risk of their own lives.  Indeed, 99 percent of all Everest expeditions could not succeed without the help of Sherpas, and of the more than 360 who have climbed Chomolungma since 1953, 57 have died there.

"But there is not much recognition of them in the world, and they are not brought appropriately into the limelight."  In fact,  Ang Phurba Sherpa and Ramesh Raj Kunwar write, in Nepalese Climbers on Everest of the negligent way foreign mountaineers treat their guides: "Sherpas have become only the vehicles for taking them to the summit of Mount Everest." and "They have only got oral appreciation and negligible tips. They are just hired for fulfilling one's goal. They have been treated as a commodity and are put on sale."

Today, the term "sherpa" is often used for any Nepalese engaged in trekking or mountaineering, as in "While guiding climbers or carrying loads to the mountains many Sherpas every year get frostbitten and lose their toes and fingers, or get killed in accidental falls," ( NMA executive, Hari Prasad Shrestha) but in the Everest region, the job of "sherpa" is done exclusively by members of that ethnic community.

Regulation and Records

In view of the risk that Sherpas face in working in "the mountain industry," in 2002, the Nepalese government  raised insurance premiums from 100, 000 rupees (12, 970 dollars US) to 500, 000 rupees (6, 458 dollars) for the variously-ranked Sherpas.

Today, anyone younger than 16 is forbidden to work on Everest and the other high Himalayas. This has the added effect of protecting the "youngest" record set by Temba Chheri, who in 2001, scaled Everest from Tibet at age 15 years 18 days.

The record for "greatest number of ascents" is 12 held by Apa Sherpa, and the "fastest ascent from Base Camp" is 16 hrs 56 min. held by the late Babu Chhiri.


Tenzing Norgay:  The most famous of Sherpas, he was the first to summit Everest on May 29, 1953, along with New Zealand beekeeper Edmund Hillary. He was unique as a guide in that he put fame before fortune and according to Nepalese geographer, Harkha Bahadur Gurung, he wanted to be the first to scale Mount Everest, no matter the personal cost.  He died in 1986 in Darjeeling, India.  

Jomolungma: Short for Jomo Miyolang-sangma.  See Everest.


Luke Harding.  "Rich tourists blamed for Everest's decline," The Guardian, May 17, 2003

Kedar Man-Singh. "Gifted Sherpas key to success on Everest," AFP, May 16, 2003.


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