When a Sherpa family in Khumbu wants to build a new house, much of the structure—from floorboards to corrugated aluminum roofs—must be carried from the lowlands up the rugged trails on somebody’s back. With the current yen for Western-style amenities, a toilet and a kitchen sink might move up the mountain as well, in a porter’s bamboo basket, sometimes followed by yet another porter lugging a rooftop solar heating tank that will provide the latest fashionable Sherpa luxury: running hot water.
But if walking is the Sherpas’ fate, it has also been their fortune. The first ascent of Mount Everest, 50 years ago this month, sparked a tourism boom that draws more than 20,000 visitors each year to hike amid the planet’s tallest peaks. Strong, congenial, and adept at business, Sherpas play a role in the tourist trade rivaled by few indigenous peoples in the world. They serve not only as high-altitude porters for well-heeled mountaineers but also as guides for the larger number of trekkers who explore the region by hiking at altitudes under 18,000 feet, without any technical equipment. Sherpas own most of the 300-plus lodges and hotels and many of the companies that organize the treks.
Playing out their lives on the world’s highest stage, winning friends with their warm smiles and calm competence, mountain-climbing Sherpas have become famous. Some scientists believe that Sherpas may be blessed with genetic features that help them thrive two miles or more above sea level. Their lifelong adaptation to low-oxygen conditions makes it easier for them to survive in the thin Himalayan air. They breathe faster and thus can take in more air per minute than lowlanders can.
Because of their reputation as climbers, the Sherpas are surely the best known of the 30 or so ethnic groups that make up the Nepalese population. Hardly anyone below 12,000 feet has ever heard of the Sherpas’ neighbors, groups such as the Rais, the Tamangs, or the Magars. But the word “sherpa” is so familiar it has become a generic term for a faithful assistant, a porter, or a guide. Almost every Sherpa in the trekking business has a story about a client who turned to him and asked, “How long have you been a sherpa?” And Sherpa isn’t just an ethnic identification; like other minority groups in Nepal, Sherpas often use their ethnic name as their last name as well.
Most of the 70,000 or so Sherpas in Nepal aren’t involved in the climbing or trekking industries. It’s mainly in the Khumbu region that tourism has transformed Sherpas’ lives in a generation. The influx of Westerners has brought some of the comforts of modern life to the larger villages. In Namche Bazaar, there are pool halls and pizza parlors, CD shops and video rental counters. Tourism has made the Sherpas of Khumbu rich; or at least, considerably richer than most of their neighbors. In Nepal as a whole, where 80 percent of the population are subsistence farmers, per capita income is about $1,400 a year. Sherpas involved in tourism can average five times as much. One result is that Sherpas now do less of the heavy lifting on the trail. A Sherpa will organize and lead the trek, but the bulky gear is usually carried by a less well paid porter from other local groups, especially the Rais, who come from villages a week’s walk to the south.