Living in Everest's shadow: the Sherpa people of Khumbu (2023)

Living in Everest's shadow: the Sherpa people of Khumbu (1)

The Sherpa people of Nepal’s Khumbu region have a complex relationship with the world’s tallest mountain

Words and photographs by Stuart Butler

One of five beautiful sisters, the Buddhist goddess Miyolangsangma is said to have been something of a demoness in her younger days. Over time, however, she has mellowed and today she’s celebrated for her almost inexhaustible generosity. She’s even said to grant the wishes of those who are most deserving. And perhaps in Nepal’s Khumbu region, nobody is more deserving than the Sherpa people.

Of Tibetan descent, the Sherpas fled their homeland in eastern Tibet around 600 years ago and moved south to the imposing valleys of the Khumbu region in what is today Nepal. It was here, during the 20th century, that Miyolangsangma – who is said to reside in an ice palace atop Chomolungma – rewarded the Sherpas with jewels.

Chomolungma to the Tibetans, Sagarmatha to the Nepalese, Mount Everest to Westerners. A place of magnificence to all. The home of Miyolangsangma was unknown to the Western world until 1852, when it was first sighted by a British surveying team (the mountain is named after Sir George Everest, the surveyor general of India at the time of its ‘discovery’). From that sighting it took a further 101 years – and many failed attempts – before a human being finally planted a flag at the summit.

The story of that first successful ascent of Everest – and the many prior failed attempts – fascinated people around the world. Since then, there have been at least 7,500 successful Everest summit climbs, but our interest in the stories of those who make the attempt has shown no sign of fading. Even today, almost everything we read in the media about Everest and the other 8,000-metre peaks (the 14 highest mountains on Earth), focuses exclusively on the climber and whether they ‘conquered’ their chosen mountain. Such is our interest in the heroic derring-do of the adventurers that we rarely hear about the people who spend their lives in the shadow of these giants.

Living in Everest's shadow: the Sherpa people of Khumbu (2)
Living in Everest's shadow: the Sherpa people of Khumbu (3)

Over the years, I’ve spent long periods of time walking and travelling throughout the Himalaya and Tibet. At first, my reason for travelling to the highest lands on Earth was simply to admire the beauty of the landscapes, but over time I came to realise that more than the scenic wonders, it was the people who called the Himalaya home who stayed with me.

But what, I started to wonder, did they themselves think of Everest and the surrounding peaks? What did they think about the dramatic changes in Sherpa life brought about by tourism and mountaineering? And when it came down to it, what did they think of people standing proudly atop the tallest mountain on Earth? Unable to shake these questions, I went to the Sherpas’ adopted homeland of the Khumbu to ask them.

Living in Everest's shadow: the Sherpa people of Khumbu (4)

Sacred summits – Mingma Phuti

My meeting with Mingma Phuti, a nun living in a small nunnery in the village of Pangboche (3,985 metres) came about by chance. I’d been exploring a web of pathways that spiral around the edge of the village when I came across the nunnery, tucked among stumpy, weathered trees. The door into the main building was locked, but Mingma was busy watering her plants in the small garden outside her home. ‘I was born in Pangboche and have been a nun here for 30 years and I intend to spend the rest of my life as a nun,’ she said with a big smile. ‘I have done many periods of solitary mediation. Sometimes I will spend months at a time mediating and during these periods I see no other people. When I meditate at the nunnery, I sit here and look across the valley to Ama Dablam [a distinctively shaped 6,812-metre mountain]. When I do this, everything I know fades away and the only focus of my mind is the mountain. Everest is just a mountain, but Ama Dablam is a place I have a spiritual connection with. But the gods live on the summits of all the mountains. There’s no spiritual gain from climbing the mountains. People do it only for money. I don’t like that people climb the mountains, but people need to earn money and maybe if you’re poor and have no other way of earning money – like for many of the Sherpa climbers here – then the gods can forgive you. For the foreigners, though, it’s different. I don’t know if the gods forgive them for climbing to the summits.’

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(Video) Everest Sherpas: 'They're not heroes. They're rockstars'
Living in Everest's shadow: the Sherpa people of Khumbu (5)

A climbing monk – Tashi Sherpa

Later that same day, I visited the Pangboche monastery. The oldest monastery in the Khumbu region, it was founded by Lama Sange Dorje, who is also credited with bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the Khumbu region during the 17th century. As the main door creaked open, I was hit by the sweet, strong aroma of juniper, which is commonly burnt as an incense. Directly in front of me stood a cacophony of religious statues and icons, at the centre of which was the blissfully smiling face of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche). To his left was the Green Tara and to his right was Lama Sange Dorje. Facing these, in silent contemplation, was Tashi Sherpa, a monk in his 20s who is also the monastery’s guardian. ‘I became a monk because of the happiness that I got from the monastery,’ he said. ‘I always felt very calm when I was here. It’s not just me who feels like this though. The monastery, and religion, is still of great importance to everyone who lives in this region.’

As we spoke, the conversation drifted toward the giant mountains that surround the monastery and, of course, to Everest. ‘For me, the most important mountain of all is Everest,’ he told me. ‘This mountain can give people money. A poor person can get a job and make very good money by climbing the mountain. That money can support their family and it can help to support the monasteries.’ I asked Tashi if he had ever felt the desire to climb Everest himself and he burst into laughter. ‘I have climbed it. Twice. Once in 2018 and once in 2019. Since then I have been busy here at the monastery, but when I have time then I will climb Everest again. When I first reached the summit of Everest I felt so proud.’

I was surprised to discover that a monk had dared anger the gods by climbing Everest and so I asked him what he had to say in response to the comments made by Mingma Phuti about the mountains being sacred. He agreed wholeheartedly. ‘If people are economically secure then they shouldn’t climb to the summits,’ he said. ‘But if they have no other financial option then the gods will accept it.’ Was it not dangerous for a religious person such as he to risk the wrath of the gods by climbing? ‘People have died climbing Everest because they have not respected the sacred nature of the mountain. They have done things like eat meat while on the mountain, which you should not do, and they have not respected the other religious rules.’

Living in Everest's shadow: the Sherpa people of Khumbu (6)
Living in Everest's shadow: the Sherpa people of Khumbu (7)

The art of Everest – Pasang Tshering Sherpa

Some days later, having climbed up to the breathtakingly high Everest Base Camp (at 5,364 metres it’s the goal of many trekkers in the Khumbu region) and then crossed over the glacial Cho La pass (5,420 metres), I found myself beside the turquoise Gokyo Lakes (4,790 metres). There, I met Pasang Tshering Sherpa, a talented young artist from Khumjung village, a couple of days walk away, and the owner of what’s claimed to be the world’s highest art gallery. Many of Pasang’s paintings have a religious angle and this combination of religion and art made me curious about his opinion of climbing Everest.

‘Everest is just a nickname,’ he said. ‘The real name is Chomolungma, which means the Mother Goddess of the World. The mountain can be depicted in art as a woman. In one of her hands, Chomolungma is shown holding fruit, which represents wealth.’ He paused for a moment and stared out of the window of his art gallery at the glowing lake beyond. ‘Even today, when people wake up they will pray to Chomolungma, because if you respect Chomolungma then you will have no problems with money or food.’

The way he looked out at the view made me wonder if the stunning scenery influenced him as an artist. ‘There are so many artistic locations in Nepal but being up here in the mountains, that’s really inspiring,’ he said. He went on to tell me how he’d first discovered his artistic talent. ‘My interest in art started when I was in school at Khumjung village. At the age of about 14 or 15, I won a regional art competition, but I never imagined that I’d one day open an art gallery. That idea actually came from Sir Edmund Hillary [along with Tenzing Norgay, Hillary was the first person to climb Everest back in 1953]. He visited our school and my teacher showed him some of my art. He suggested that I become an artist and open the world’s highest art gallery. I was then given a scholarship through the American Himalayan Foundation to study art. I went to Kathmandu and specialised in thangka art [religious art widely used in Buddhist monasteries]. Today, I also paint mandalas [a complex, spiritual representation of the universe], but very modern ones that have the influences of the landscape coming into them. When I’m painting a mandala, it’s like a form of mediation for me.’

Living in Everest's shadow: the Sherpa people of Khumbu (8)

Preserving the past – Tsheten Dorje Sherpa

Pasang’s Buddhist art might have a modern outlook but as I discovered some days later when I arrived in the Sherpa ‘capital’ of Namche Bazaar, some people in the Khumbu region are more intent on preserving the past. This small town, set in a spectacular mountain bowl, is almost totally reliant on mountain tourism. Standing a little away from the main town, on the eastern ridge of the bowl, is the Sherpa Cultural Museum and it was here that I got talking to Tsheten Dorje Sherpa, the son of the museum’s founder.

(Video) Everest Tourism Changed Sherpa Lives | National Geographic

‘The museum was established in 2003,’ he told me. ‘Much of the content was donated by local families –things that they’d had for years, but had stopped using because more modern and convenient alternatives had come along. Much of it would have just been thrown out if it hadn’t been given to the museum. Sherpa culture is changing. It’s dying. Many Sherpa people now live elsewhere – in Kathmandu, in America, in Europe. My father’s idea when he established the museum was to try to preserve Sherpa culture. Of course, you can’t control or stop the loss of our culture, and we shouldn’t try to stop it. But it’s good to try to preserve our past in the museum so that future generations can learn something about where we, the Sherpa people, came from and what our lives were once like.’

I wondered if the call of distant places and other opportunities outside of the Khumbu appealed to Tsheten. ‘I love Namche Bazaar and the Khumbu Valley,’ he said. ‘It’s where I’m from. A few years ago, I was living in Kathmandu. I returned to Namche Bazaar when the Covid lockdowns began and now I have no desire to go anywhere else.’ When I asked him about climbing Everest, his answer was similar to that of others I spoke to who make a living from the mountain. ‘Everest is the reason this area exists at all. The whole financial existence of the valley depends on Everest and the other big mountains. For me, Everest doesn’t have any spiritual significance, but it does have financial and business significance.’

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(Video) Sherpas of Nepal: The First People to Climb The Everest | Disappearing World | TRACKS
Living in Everest's shadow: the Sherpa people of Khumbu (9)

Spiritual Bliss – Lakpa Dolma Sherpa

The financial benefit of Everest and the other big mountains was a refrain I had heard again and again during the three weeks I spent hiking around the Khumbu region. But I suspected there would be more people who view it only with spiritual eyes. I discovered them when I went to the village of Thame in the remote Bhote Kosi Valley. Unlike the rest of the Khumbu region, there are no soaring 8,000-metre peaks near this valley and consequently it has been largely overlooked by mountain and trekking tourism. Although this puts the valley at an economic disadvantage, it does mean that life here remains more traditional than elsewhere. In fact, the valley is considered something of a spiritual heartland for the Sherpa people and there are numerous ancient monasteries and chapels throughout the valley.

One of the oldest and most important of these is the Laudo Gompa, which is located high up on the densely forested northern slopes of the valley. It was while trying to find the correct trail to this gompa that I inadvertently stumbled upon the Ginepa Monastery – although perhaps calling it a monastery is overstating things a little. This tiny building, half burrowed into the cliff face, is more of a miniature chapel than a full-blown monastery and it turned out that just one elderly couple lived there.

Originally from the Rolwaling Valley, Lakpa Dolma Sherpa moved into the Ginepa Monastery when she married her husband 45 years ago. ‘Most of our time is spent meditating,’ she said. ‘This guarantees a peaceful life. We are very happy staying here and rarely leave.’

As she told me this, her husband disappeared into the shadows of the monastery interior, returning a few minutes later with an old manuscript that shows that his family have been the guardians of this monastery for six generations. Now, however, change is coming. The couple’s children have all fled the mountains. ‘After my father-in-law, who was an important lama, died, he was reincarnated as our youngest son,’ said Lakpa Dolma. ‘Because of this, our son is now a monk in Kathmandu and one day he will take over here at the monastery. Our other children have left Nepal. One lives in Norway, one in the USA and one in Switzerland. They come back to Nepal to visit, but they don’t want to stay here at the monastery. They live abroad just to earn money. Money is more important to them than Buddhism. Our youngest son, though, he is more like us. Money is not important to him and that’s why he is a monk.’

Living in Everest's shadow: the Sherpa people of Khumbu (10)

Climate change – Kaji Vista

There are changes that nobody in the Himalaya can avoid. To explore them, I went to talk to Kaji Vista, who runs the Ev-K2-CNR Scientific Research Centre (5,070 metres). The name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, so this futuristic, pyramid-shaped building, covered in solar panels, is known locally as the Italian Pyramid. ‘The research centre was established in 1990 as a joint Italian-Nepalese scientific research station,’ Kaji Vista told me. ‘In its heyday, the scientists here were studying the impact of climate change, black dust on the ice and the weather. We used to have a weather station actually on the South Col of Everest, but in the end we had to shut that down because the weather was so extreme and the winds so strong that every year the equipment was destroyed and it just became too hard for us to maintain it.

‘Our other nearby weather stations take automatic recordings every ten minutes and from these we have seen a notable increase in temperatures over the past 30 years,’ he continued. ‘For example, we have seen an average rise of 3°C–4°C (depending on the location of the connected weather stations) in minimum winter temperatures. On average, we are seeing the overall temperature rise by 1°C every ten years. The average snowfall has also fallen, as has the number of days of snow. We now get much more rain than snow. We’re also seeing a change in the vegetation. There are new plants appearing at this altitude, which you would normally get much lower down. And now, around this research centre, we get flies. This is something that’s started happening in just the past couple of years. I’d never seen them up this high before.’

He shook his head in disbelief and finished with a chilling thought. ‘I worry for the future. I worry what will become of the Khumbu, of the Himalaya, of Everest. I think that for our generation, we are okay, but for the coming generations, things will be difficult. Everest is the top of the world. Everest gives us money, but money is not everything. We are exploiting Everest for financial gain. We show no respect to the mountain but we must never forget that Everest is Chomolungma, the home of Miyolangsangma. It’s the mother goddess of the world and we are killing it.’

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(Video) Sherpas | Documentary on The True Heroes of Mount Everest
The writer travelled to Nepal and the Khumbu region with Kathmandu-based trekking experts Third Rock Adventures. In Kathmandu, he stayed at the Hotel Ganesh Himal

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Living in Everest's shadow: the Sherpa people of Khumbu (11)
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FAQs

Where did Sherpa people mostly live? ›

Most Sherpa people live in the eastern regions of Nepal and Tingri County, though some live farther west in the Rolwaling Valley , Bigu and in the Helambu region north of Kathmandu, Nepal. Sherpas establish gompas where they practice their religious traditions. Tengboche was the first celibate monastery in Solu-Khumbu.

How much do Sherpas get paid? ›

Sherpas make at least $2,000 per climbing season, considerably more than the median income of Nepal, which comes in at around $540 per year. Elite Sherpas can make as much as $4,000 – $5,000 in just two months. By comparison, Western guides make as much as $50,000, plus tips.

Are Sherpas friendly? ›

In the early years of climbing, western climbers noted again and again that Sherpa male climbers were friendly and liked to joke around. Even after a hard day's work carrying loads on steep, dangerous mountainsides, they smiled and cheerfully attacked challenging tasks.

What nationality are Sherpas? ›

Sherpas are a Nepalese ethnic group numbering around 150,000. They are renowned for their climbing skills and superior strength and endurance at high altitudes. Perhaps the most famous Sherpa was Tenzing Norgay, who in 1953 was one of the first two men — Edmund Hillary was the other — to climb Mount Everest.

What do Sherpa people do for a living? ›

The term Sherpa refers to a variety of ethnic groups that have exhibited excellent mountaineering and trekking skills. The Sherpa's job is to set up the camp, manage the porters, and guide the trekkers to safety. The word “Sherpa” has become synonymous with those working as mountain guides.

Are Sherpa rich? ›

The income provided by this Everest industry has made the Sherpa one of the richest ethnicities in Nepal, making about seven times the per capita income of all Nepalese.

Do Sherpas need oxygen on Everest? ›

Sherpas are among the most unfathomably fit athletes around. Even the most experienced climbers require additional oxygen when they trek 8,848m (that's 29,029 feet) above sea level to Mount Everest's peak.

How much do you tip a Sherpa? ›

Sherpas are tipped $10/day from the group. Porters are tipped $5/day from the group.

Do Sherpas go to the top of Everest? ›

Kami Rita Sherpa climbed the world's highest peak for a record 25th time. As hundreds of foreign climbers acclimatize and prepare to follow fixed ropes to the top of the world's highest mountain, news has come in that 12 Sherpas have become the first to reach the summit of Everest in 2021.

What language do Sherpas speak? ›

Sherpas are of Tibetan culture and descent and speak a language called Sherpa, which is closely related to the form of Tibetan spoken in Tibet. Sherpa is predominately a spoken language, although it is occasionally written in the Tibetan or Devanagari script.

What clothing do Sherpas wear? ›

Sherpa dress is similar to that worn by Tibetans. Both men and women wear a long inner shirt over a pant-like garment, both made out of wool. Over this, they wear a thick, coarse, wraparound robe (bakhu) that reaches to below the knees and fastens at the side. A sash is belted around the waist.

What religion are Sherpas? ›

The Sherpas are Tibetan Buddhists of the Nyingmapa sect, and have drawn much of their religious tradition from the Rongphu monastery, located at 16,000 feet on the north side of Mount Everest.

Are Sherpas genetically different? ›

This raises the possibility that they have evolved to adapt to the extreme environment. This is supported by recent DNA studies, which have found clear genetic differences between Sherpa and Tibetan populations on the one hand and lowlanders on the other.

Are Sherpas well paid? ›

While Western Guides make around 50,000 dollars each climbing season, Sherpa Guides make a mere 4,000, barely enough to support their families. Although this is more money than the average person in Nepal makes, their earnings do come at a cost – Sherpas risk their lives with every climb.

Do Sherpas have bigger lungs? ›

Francis: Sherpas produce 30% more power than lowlanders at altitude. They have more capillaries per square centimeter of muscle than lowland climbers. They have bigger chests, greater lung capacity, as well as higher measures of all lung physiology, like peak flow.

Are all Sherpas last name Sherpa? ›

Sherpa is a Tibetan term meaning eastern people (Sher = east and pa = people). The use of the word Sherpa as a surname is but an outcome of a mistake of the census people who did not know that these people do not have any surname and they use only one name.

What is another word for Sherpa? ›

Sherpa Synonyms - WordHippo Thesaurus.
...
What is another word for sherpa?
tourist guidechaperon
escortguide
tour guideoutfitter
1 more row

Why do Sherpas risk their lives? ›

The avalanched Sherpas were unlucky. These events can be explained partly by misalignment of the planets, but also partly by taking risks. Ultimately, it's like the army: The danger level is high at times, but you do it to make money and support your family."

Why are all Sherpas named Sherpa? ›

But the word "Sherpa" originally meant "people from the East" and is pronounced "shar-wa" by the Sherpa themselves. Before mountain climbing became a popular pastime in the Himalayas, the word Sherpa simply denoted a group of people who migrated to Nepal from Eastern Tibet.

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