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Dawa Tashi, a Nepali Sherpa injured during an avalanche, is treated at a hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 18.


Mount Everest's Deadliest Day Puts Focus on Sherpas

Sherpas play a complex, evolving role on the increasingly popular peak.

In the deadliest day in Mount Everest's history, a Friday avalanche has killed 13 Sherpa guides and left three missing. Another six people have been injured, according to news reports.

Mostly Nepali, the Sherpas were carrying equipment and preparing for the upcoming mountain climbing season when disaster hit at more than 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) on the Himalayan peak.

Although the term "Sherpa" has long been a part of the popular lexicon, outsiders generally know little about the role they play in Himalayan climbing. (Related: "The Sherpas of Mount Everest.")

The Sherpas are a small ethnic group that share many cultural, racial, and linguistic features with Tibetans, who live to their immediate north. About 3,000 Sherpas reside in the drainage areas immediately below Everest; a population of 20,000 or more live in villages to the south.

Until the early 1950s, no high Himalaya peak in Nepal had ever been climbed—at least by mortals, the Sherpas say. Then, as now, they saw the Himalayan peaks and foothills as the realm of a cavorting pantheon of gods. (See "Mount Everest Fight Raises Questions About Sherpas.")

Presciently, a prominent Sherpa Buddhist lama predicted about 80 years ago that much attention would come to be focused on Everest, and that people would "suffer hardship as a result of negative deeds generated in her vicinity." (Read dispatches from National Geographic's 2012 Mount Everest expedition.)

The Buddhist lamas, the spiritual leaders of the Sherpa community, say that one's motivation in climbing Everest and the nearby peaks is of key importance.

Foreign climbers, when asked why they climb mountains, offer a range of responses: Testing one's limits. Personal achievement. Companionship in a shared challenge. Escape. Fun. Spiritual understanding. One Everest climber admitted that he merely wanted a bullet point on his resume.

Mountain Livelihood

By comparison, Sherpas share a rather straightforward motivation: Mountaineering is their livelihood, and they do it to support their families. It's tough, seasonal work—similar to the role of commercial fishing in Alaska for enterprising college students. They approach the task with good cheer, and the pay is exceptional by Nepal's standards (high-altitude Sherpas earn several times the prime minister's monthly salary).

Nonetheless, wives of Sherpas—it's a mostly male endeavor—are known to hike to Base Camp to persuade their husbands to give up expedition work.

"Climbing is exciting, but dangerous," a young Sherpa named Lhakpa said in a past interview. "It's best left to young, single men." Like many high-altitude Sherpas, Lhakpa plans to retire early, build a lodge, and invest in the "bigness"—business—end of climbing and trekking.

And as the Incarnate Lama of the Tengboche Monastery pointed out, "You can't eat climbing awards, or numbers of summits." (See pictures of Mount Everest in National Geographic magazine.)

Besides, Buddhists feel that casually placing one's precious human body at mortal risk is irresponsible, especially for a frivolous, recreational pursuit such as climbing. The Tengboche Lama has admitted that he doesn't always feel comfortable offering traditional blessings to foreign expeditions, saying that he's tempted to counsel them to take up other pursuits instead.

But most Sherpas, for their part, need the work and the money. As everywhere, pay and profit tend to prevail over religious pursuits, though the latter are a close second.

The Sherpas and the sahibs—the Sherpas' generic, not necessarily deferential, moniker for foreign climbers—share an extremely close relationship. And it's an unusual one, in cross-cultural terms, given that they originate in such different worlds. They have found a near perfect symbiosis on the side of Mount Everest. Each provides for the other what they lack: manpower for the sahibs, money for the Sherpas.

But the dynamic goes beyond this. They each embody the romantic human ideal that each is striving for: The sahibs see the Sherpas as spiritual, grounded, resourceful, self-effacing, and light-hearted.

To the Sherpas, the well-educated sahibs have an enviable command of technology and organization. In many ways, they want to become more like each other.

For Sherpas and foreign guides, the job of establishing and fixing a route up Everest can be described as a tense work situation. They toil long hours together or beside each other.

The stakes are high. They need to establish a safe route over difficult terrain for hundreds of climbers and guided clients. (Watch a video from Everest's summit.)

The south side of Everest is regarded as a béyül—one of several "hidden valleys" of refuge designated by Padmasambhava, the ninth-century "lotus-born" Buddhist saint, revered by the Sherpas as Guru Rinpoche.

And a full-on deity resides on Mount Everest herself: Miyolangsangma, the "Goddess of Inexhaustible Giving." The mountain is her palace and playground, and Sherpas view climbers and themselves as only partially welcome guests, all of them having arrived without invitation. It is this goddess's power, one Sherpa Buddhist monk said, that has delivered to the Sherpas great bounty—in the form of climbing expeditions and foreign travelers, to begin with.

Thus, Everest and her flanks are blessed with spiritual energy, and the Sherpas say that one should behave with reverence when passing through this sacred landscape. Here, the karmic effects of one's actions are magnified, and even impure thoughts are best avoided. When climbing, opportunities for fateful mishaps abound.  (See "50 Years on Everest.")

Kings of the Mountain

So, in the years to come, who will wind up as kings of the mountain: sahibs or Sherpas? Don't be surprised if the Sherpas abandon the race to the summit altogether, and cede Everest to the designs of the recreation-obsessed sahibs.

The Sherpas have demonstrated a remarkable ability to learn, adapt, and excel. In less than two generations, they have traversed a staggering socio-economic arc. Many have targeted careers as doctors, airline pilots, scientists, and professionals.

Along the way, they have seen the world and found it to be a big place, where there's room for everyone—and no need for fixed ropes.

Broughton Coburn contributed a chapter to National Geographic Books' The Call of Everest, released in 2013, and is the author of The Vast Unknown: America's First Ascent of Everest.