The term Sherpa comes from two different words Shar ‘’east’’ and waa ‘’people’’. So together Sherpa means ‘people from the east’ according to the ethnic Sherpa language. Contrary to popular usage, a Sherpa is a member of an ethnic group from the mountainous region of Nepal, the Himalayas — not necessarily a high-altitude porter or climber. However, in trekking and expedition area, ‘’Sherpa’’ is commonly used to describe high altitude guides and porters. They take great pride in their mountaineering heritage, just as another famous people of Nepal, the Gurkhas, who take pride in their warrior skills.

Sherpa simply means ‘Person from the East’. Starting in the early 16th century, the ancestors of today’s Sherpas began migrating over the high passes into Nepal, most probably from the easterly Tibetan province of Kham. They settled in the Everest region (Solu Khumbu) and, from the 1800s, in the Rolwaing area of northern Dolakha to the west. Their language is similar to Tibetan and they practice Buddhism of the Nyingma-pa (Red Hat) sect. The language of Sherpa is similar to Tibetan and is considered a branch of Tibeto-Burman language. They practice Buddhism of the Nyingma-pa (Oldest Buddhist sect). An important aspect of Sherpa religion is monastery or gompa.
Before mountain climbing became a popular pastime in the Himalayas, Sherpa was just an ethnic group residing in the Himalayas of Nepal. It was the first ascent of Mt. Everest in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa that changes the whole perspective about SHERPA. The duo was the first to climb the Everest and after that climbing Everest slowly turned into a commercial guiding business (the 1980s and 1990s). People from around the world flock to the Everest region and other mountains in the Himalayas with a conquering dream. With tourist arriving in different parts of Himalayas, employment opportunity arose and the local people who were residing in the Himalayas found a work (Porter/Assitant guide) to gain an extra income to support their families. With the mountain climbing industry growing rapidly the side work of catering tourists in the mountains turned into the main profession of Sherpa people.

The word “Sherpa” has also become a job description on a formal climbing and trekking crew, but it is not necessarily filled by ethnic Sherpas. Spring (March to May) and Autumn (Sept to Nov) are the busiest seasons in Nepal for tourists as its the time when tourists come to Nepal for climbing and trekking. Most of the 8000m peaks including Everest are climbed during Spring/Pre Monsoon season due to the lesser wind and Autumn/Post monsoon season invites people for trekking and climbing 6000m peaks as the monsoon (June to Aug) sweeps away the clouds and provides clearer weather. Spring and Autumn are the only time in a year where they can earn and support their families for the rest of the year. Poverty and lack of access to education are what led the early generation of Sherpa to climb, despite the obvious risks.

During the Spring season, the Sherpas are away from home for almost 3 months. Their work begins long before the clients arrive in Nepal. Sherpas are assigned the task to establish the base camp and higher camps, load ferry to upper parts of the mountain, route fixing and etc before the clients arrive at base camp. Once the logistical part is finished, they then guide and assist the clients to the summit. Each Sherpa is assigned a client during the final summit push and he needs to liaise with his client, support him/her along the route and is responsible for his/her meals at higher camps and also helps to carry the spare bottled oxygen required for the summit days.

Today majority of Sherpa people work in tourism, guiding people in the Himalaya. Sherpa has gained world renown for their high-altitude skills and well as for their warmth and friendliness, their happy, relaxed attitude to life and similar traits that continue to endear them to trekkers and mountaineers. Sherpa people are regarded as an elite mountaineer, serving as the guides at the extreme altitudes, particularly for high altitude expeditions. Sherpa acts as a guide and porter, and do everything from setting up the base camp to establishing and carrying up the loads to higher camps. Today, many Sherpa guides work nationally and internationally guiding people to the summit of peaks in different parts of the world. Some Sherpa guides are even an IFMGA/UIAGM certified mountain guides.

According to the 2001 census, the Sherpa population numbers nearly 1,55,000. Most Sherpa work in tourism, trade and agriculture. They mainly live in the Solukhumbu region and inhabits the valleys of Dudh Koshi and Rolwaling region. A large number of Sherpa have moved to the capital city, Kathmandu for the better life of their and their children. A Sherpa will earn USD 5000 on average for 3months-long hard work on bigger expeditions during Spring season by carrying loads, establishing camps and for guiding people to the summit. Autumn season also provides an income opportunity but unlike Spring they earn less at this time of year.

In 2014, 16 Sherpas died in Khumbu Icefall when a hanging serac fell as the Sherpas were waiting for a ladder to be replaced over a crevasse as they were ferrying loads to the higher camps. It was one of the biggest Everest tragedy and since then April 18 has been marked as a black day for the climbing community. Khumbu Icefall is the most notorious part of the Everest climb which lays between the base camp and Camp I of Mt. Everest. It’s the only way to go up if you are climbing from the Nepal side. Sherpa needs to go through Khumbu Icefall at least 20 times in a single season ferrying loads (Tents, Foods, Oxygen, Gears Etc) to higher camps (Camp I, Camp II, Camp III and Camp IV) while the client goes through the Icefall just 3–4 times during the acclimatization rotations. One-third of the 225 people who have died while trying to conquer Mount Everest were Sherpas.

How does the family feel when he is away from home for 3 months?
Everest Sherpas have higher death rates than all other careers.
In my family, it was my father and uncles who were into the climbing industry from the mid-1980s. Like all other Sherpas, my father and uncles did the same work of guiding and assisting clients in the mountains(Both of them are now retired from climbing). During Spring season, in any of the Sherpa community or village, you will see only Women as all the Men will leave for work in the mountains, leaving behind their families. While the men do the hard work in the mountains; the family pray, visit monasteries, light butter lamps and make offerings to God; all for the safe passage of their family member in the mountain. When the climbing season is over, everyone returns back to their home with their families; united and lives a normal life until the next climbing season begins. And every year some perish in the mountain while helping others to pursue and attain their goals.

In a country like Nepal, where the per capita income is around 1000 USD, Sherpa earns 5000 USD on average on a big mountain expedition. The hard-earned money provides support for the families for the rest of the year.

Will Everest and other Himalayan peaks run out of Sherpa guides in future? Ask any Sherpa whether he will let his own children become a mountaineering guide?

The answer is simply NO. If you ask any Sherpa who has been in this climbing community whether he will allow his children to follow the same path, they will simply deny it. Every parent will want their children only the best and it's obvious that no one would want their children to go through the struggles and risk their lives. In early days, they didn’t have access to proper education, other employment opportunities, knowledge and its all due to this they choose the career of SHERPA GUIDE.


“ After giving kids an education we shouldn’t be putting them through this danger.”
“ Climbing is like going on a battle; you don’t know whether you’ll return alive.”
“ Mountain climbing and being a Sherpa is a livelihood for illiterate people.”
“ We didn’t have access to proper education, other employment opportunities, knowledge; due to which we chose this career”

Author's Bio: 

Highland Expeditions is a high altitude adventure company based in Kathmandu, Nepal specializing in high altitude expeditions, peak climbing and trekking in the Himalayas. Highland Expeditions is a sherpa owned company with over 30 years of experience.