Published: May 2003

The Sherpas


The Sherpas

Tough, amiable, and business savvy, the people of Nepal's Khumbu region have gotten rich from high-altitude tourism, shepherding trekkers through their homeland step by tortuous step. Now some wonder if their success has come at too high a price.

By T. R. Reid
Photograph by Robb Kendrick

For some strange reason, my vivid stories about walking five miles through the snow to get to school never seem to impress my kids, so from now on I’m going to tell them instead about Lhakpa Sherpa, a student at the high school Sir Edmund Hillary founded in Khumjung, Nepal. Lhakpa hopes to go to college and become a doctor. To make sure he gets there, the 16-year-old walks five hours to school on stony mountain trails each week, much of the trip almost straight up. “In the monsoon, I walk in rain. In winter, I walk in snow. It’s always hard.” But then, with a Sherpa’s talent for finding the bright side, he adds that “going back home is downhill, so it only takes three hours.”

Life would be much easier if there were a yellow school bus to take Lhakpa back and forth. But the fundamental fact of life for the Sherpas, an ethnic group of devout Buddhists living in northeastern Nepal, is that there is no bus, no car, no bicycle, and nary an inch of paved road within the 425 square miles that make up the Khumbu valley, the Sherpas’ traditional home beneath Mount Everest. The Sherpas in Khumbu go everywhere on foot, with their property on their backs—or their yaks’ backs, if they are rich enough to own the local beasts of burden. If after arriving via a twin-engine puddle jumper at the tiny airstrip in the nearby village of Lukla, you ask a Sherpa how far it is to the imposing mountain monastery at Tengboche, the answer is given not in distance (it’s 14 miles) or in altitude (it’s 3,300 feet higher up), but rather in time: “Tengboche? You’ll get there on the fourth day.” It takes most Westerners two days to trek to the nearby market town of Namche Bazaar and about six more days to get to Everest Base Camp.

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