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The Sherpa: Buddhist Herders and Guides of the Himalayas

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Asia Life

The Sherpa: Buddhist Herders and Guides of the Himalayas

A brawl between guides and climbers on Mt. Everest raises the question: Who are the Sherpa people?

On April 27, three superstar European climbers were assaulted by a throng of Sherpa guides 24,000 feet up Mt. Everest in what The Telegraph described as “the world’s highest altitude brawl.”

The climbers – Simone Moro of Italy, Ueli Steck of Switzerland and photographer Jonathan Griffith of the UK – told international media that one of the Sherpa guides threatened them with an ice axe, while a “mob” of more than 100 others kicked them and pelted them with rocks as they fled to a camp lower down the mountain.

“They came to us with the aim to kills us,” Moro told National Geographic. “They told us, ‘Now we kill you. Now we kill you.’ One of them threw a big stone into Ueli Steck’s face, and he started to bleed. Then they were punching my face, and then kicks and punches and kicks and punches.”

The livid guides claimed the climbers had knocked loose ice that fell in the direction of a fellow Sherpa guide. When one Sherpa waved an ice axe, one of the Europeans shouted a profanity their way, making the guides even more irate. American climber Melissa Arnot, the only woman to reach the summit of Everest four times, was credited with helping to save the three mountaineers by calming the guides, along with the help of another friendly Sherpa, Pan Nuru.

Although the incident was resolved with a signed two-paragraph agreement, some coverage leaves the impression – perhaps unintentionally – that the Sherpa are an angry people who are fed up with privileged Western climbers expecting five-star comfort on the world’s highest mountain. Whether or not that is true, the clash highlights the growing financial gulf between Sherpa and their Western clients.

“Everest attracts money,” Griffith told The Telegraph. He goes on to blame the wealth gap for simmering tensions. “A lot of these Western clients don’t even know what the names of their Sherpas are,” he said. “They carry up their sleeping bags and by the time they get there a cup of tea, sleeping bag and tent are already waiting.”

Although they have become known as guides for wealthy mountaineers, who are the Sherpa really? This question is where we left off yesterday.

On the level of geography and ethnicity, they are a largely Buddhist ethnic group (“Sherpa” means “easterner” in Tibetan) who live in the heart of Nepal’s wild mountainous east. They speak a dialect that belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language family, yet remains unintelligible to Lhasa-speaking Tibetans.

Historically, the Sherpa entered the Western consciousness when Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first team to reach Everest’s summit in 1953. Hillary had immense respect for Sherpa Tenzing and clearly emphasized theirs was a team effort, giving his Nepalese partner due credit for his prowess on the mountain.

“Sherpas do have a ‘built-in’ high altitude advantage that allows them to function better at extreme altitudes,” Richard Salisbury, Everest veteran and coauthor with Elizabeth Hawley of The Himalaya by the Numbers, told The Diplomat. “Very few Sherpa fatalities are due to altitude issues as compared to foreign climbers.

In addition, “They can work comfortably in thin air and don’t need oxygen supplement in higher altitudes,” Bishnu Bhattarai of the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal told The Diplomat. “As they live on the foothills of mountain peaks, it is only natural that they are involved in mountaineering.”

According to Bhattarai, Sherpa work in a wide variety of jobs: mountain guide, cook, porter. “While the men are away with expedition teams, women run lodges and guest houses along the trekking routes,” he said, adding that many Sherpa also own some of the Himalaya’s leading expedition organizers, and are involved in the hospitality and aviation businesses.

For better or worse, the role Sherpa are most associated with in the popular imagination is porter. American writer Peter Matthiessen describes the porters – most of them Sherpa – who would accompany him on his journey in his 1978 Himalayan travel classic The Snow Leopard: “Mostly barefoot, in ragged shorts or the big-seated, jodhpur-legged pants of India, wearing all manner of old vests and shawls and headgear, the porters pick over the tall wicker baskets.”

Flickr (ilker) The passage continues: “In addition to their own food and blankets, they must carry a load of up to eighty pounds that is braced on their bent backs by a tump line around the forehead, and there is much hefting and denunciation of the loads, together with shrill bargaining, before any journey in these mountains can begin… their toil is hard and wretchedly rewarded—about one dollar a day.”

Thankfully, things have improved, at least somewhat, since then. “Sherpas get a daily minimum wage of 2,000 Nepalese Rupees (U.S. $23) per day,” said Bhattarai, who added that the clothing and gear they use today is on a par with Western standards. “They get salary from the day they are hired to the day they return from the expedition teams. Expedition organizers have to bear food, transportation, insurance and other costs.”

Salisbury added, “Sherpas are compensated both on a salary basis and a tipping basis – much like restaurant waiters who receive a base salary – but rely heavily on their tips.”

According to Eric Simonson of International Mountain Guides, “Sherpas often are (also) paid an ‘equipment allowance’ that is not calculated on a per day basis, but is paid as a lump sum. Additionally, Sherpas get bonuses based on their carries. So, for example, each carry to Camp 2 or Camp 4 or whatever has a set monetary bonus value, which is added.”

Salisbury added that modern Sherpas are much more technically adept than the ones who were working when Hillary or even Matthiessen made their Himalayan journeys. One hopes their increased skills will lead to increased pay as well as renewed respect for the important role they have played in exploring the Himalayas.

On balance, Sherpa are certainly not known for violence. If anything, the Buddhist herders and Himalayan guides have the opposite reputation. “I have not heard of any such incident before,” said Elizabeth Hawley, a legendary Kathmandu-based historian and journalist who has documented Everest since arriving in Nepal in 1960.

For Moro, who has made trips to Everest for 21 years, built a school for Sherpa children with his own money and even funded the educations of three Sherpa children, the recent violence on Everest is baffling.

“Ninety-nine percent of all Sherpas are wonderful, peaceful, strong persons,” he said. “But a few bad apples cause those tragic events.”