Sherpas are renowned in the international climbing and mountaineering community for their hardiness, expertise, and experience at high altitudes. Sherpas’ climbing ability is the result of a genetic adaptation to living in high altitudes.
Sherpa men first worked as high altitude porters on British attempts to scale the great peaks of Sikkim in 1907, and have worked on every major Himalayan mountaineering expedition since then. Eric Shipton was a British trekker and climber in the Himalayas between 1930 and 1950. He described the fortitude, friendliness, dependability and humour of his Sherpa companions thus :”It is the temperament and character of the Sherpas that have justified their renown and won them such a large place in the hearts of the Western travelers and explorers who have known them.”
“You cannot be a good mountaineer, however great your ability, unless you are cheerful and have the spirit of comradeship. Friends are as important as achievement. Another is that teamwork is the one key to success and that selfishness only makes a man small. Still another is that no man, on a mountain or elsewhere, gets more out of anything than he puts into it.” —Tenzing Norgay
The life blood of industry and commerce in the Himalayas is the traffic of porters and beasts of burden. They carry all the food, building material, and camping gear across the rugged trails to reach the villages at high elevations. In most cases there is no way to establish developed roadways in those regions, but there are still many villages high up, and the scenery and hiking challenges are very popular with tourists. The costs of airlifting in supplies via helicopter are extremely high, and inaccessible to other motorized transportation methods. The porters, who are usually lowland Sherpas, and the yaks and dzos carry everything on their backs with great strength and stamina.
Sherpa women have an important role in daily life, caring for the children and performing a large share of any farming or yak herding the family does. If a woman’s husband is a porter or guide, she will take over as head of the household during expeditions.
“When we were young, my friends and I were in awe of Pasang Lhamu. I remember talking about how it would be great to get a chance to go to Everest. Some friends said women couldn’t do it. I insisted that women could.”
Nepali climbing legend Pasang Lhamu (photo: Pasang Lhamu Mountaineering Foundation)
Before Pasang Lhamu scaled Everest in 1993, 16 other women from around the world — beginning with Junko Tabei of Japan in 1975 — had already earned their place among an elite group of climbers to summit Mount Everest. But Pasang Llamu’s success as the first Nepali and Sherpa woman to make it to Mount Everest’s top holds great significance among Nepalis. Born into a society that often relegates women to domestic life, Pasang Lhamu broke the cultural myth that women couldn’t stand atop Chomolongma (the Sherpa name for Mount Everest, which means “Mother Goddess of the Universe”).
“When a Sherpa climbs Everest … for us, it is a journey into the lap of God,” says Norbu Tenzing, son of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who made history in 1953 when he helped guide New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary to the first summitting of Mount Everest. “Pasang Lhamu became a symbol of hope, as my father was to millions of Asians in his time. She was a metaphor for being able to do what you want to do. Any Sherpa woman who climbs now looks to her as the trailblazer.”