Sherpas have been at the heart of climbing Everest from the beginning.The first deaths on Everest, seven humans buried alive in an avalanche on the 1922 Mallory/British expedition, were Sherpas. The first ascent of Everest, in 1953, was accomplished by a Sherpa/Westerner partnership, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. The first American ascent of Everest, 1963, was a similar international team, Nawang Gombu and Jim Whittaker. Admittedly, some of the purist ascents of Everest—Messner’s solo, oxygenless ascent in 1980; Loretan and Troillet’s 43-hour, oxygenless speed ascent in 1986—were done sans Sherpa support, but these are iconic anomalies.
Today, over 95 percent of all expeditions to Everest rely heavily on Sherpas—Sherpas do all the heavy lifting, literally. Sherpas stack the rocks at Base Camp for the tent platforms. Sherpas fix all the lines through the dragon maw of the Icefall. Sherpas chop out the ice to create tent platforms at each camp and haul up the tents from Base Camp and erect them. Sherpas lug up the six miles of rope necessary to fix lines from Camp 2 to the summit, then spend the next two weeks anchoring these ropes to the mountain—up the Lhotse Face to Camp 3, across the Yellow Band and up to Camp 4 on the South Col, then all the way to the summit. Once the mountain is technically prepared, Sherpas hump food and fuel up to all the camps, then carry hundreds of oxygen bottles up to the high camps. Sherpas often pass through the mortal Khumbu Icefall 30 times in a season, whereas “Westies” will slog through this gauntlet only 3 or 4 times. Sherpas, in short, are Everest mercenaries. On the summit push, each climber is typically paired with a Sherpa. That Sherpa then guides the climber to the summit, and back down, or as high as he or she is capable of climbing. That’s Everest in a nutshell, circa 2012.
Sherpas can do all this because they are not wired like most people. Most of humanity evolved at sea level. Sherpas, who are physiologically Tibetans (although they migrated south into Nepal several hundred years ago), evolved at 12,000 feet (3,658 meters). Recent research published in the Journal of Human Genetics reveals that Sherpas/Tibetans have at least three genes that are different than the rest of us on the planet, giving them a unique ability to adapt to hypoxic environments. They don’t have bigger lungs, they don’t breathe harder, they don’t have more oxygen in the bloodstream, they just appear to have a more efficient engine—and oxygen that gets to the muscles is more readily used.
In other words, geography is destiny. It is only because the Indian plate began slamming into the Eurasian plate 55 million years ago, bulging the Eurasian plate upward to create the Tibetan plateau and pushing an anonymous chunk of rock, eventually named Mount Everest, into the sky that Sherpas can now both carry and guide on Everest.
So why are Sherpas willing to take such enormous risks to help Westies stand on the summit of the world?
“Because I need the money,” explains our own Danuru Sherpa bluntly, 33, a 13-time Everest summiteer. Danuru says that when he was young he was eager to climb and very, very strong. He summited Manaslu—8,163 meters, the eighth highest mountain in the world—when he was 17 years old, and Everest when he was 18. He didn’t have much of a formal education and could barely speak English, so Everest was a way for him to make cash.
Fifteen years later, things have changed, and his mind has changed. Still tall and fit and strong as a yak—with one gold tooth—Danuru is now married and has two daughters, eight and ten, both in school in Kathmandu year-round.
“It’s very expensive,” he says. “Every year I must go on an expedition. I need the money for my children’s education, for my family.”
Unlike in his youth, today Danuru is acutely aware of the dangers of high-altitude mountaineering—he has had close calls and lost close friends on Everest. Last year, guiding on Cho Oyu, an avalanche swept him off the mountain and he fell more than a thousand feet. Somehow he survived. One of the top Everest guides, often called upon to set the ropes to the summit, and a nine-year veteran of Khumbu Climbing Center, Danuru was Conrad’s first choice for a partner on the West Ridge climb, but his wife nixed the idea. “My wife is very scared for me.”
The average elite Sherpa will make $4,000-$5,000 working on Everest for two months, whereas the ordinary Khumbu Valley yak driver or farmer is lucky to make $1,000 for the entire year. Danuru says he would take another job, a safer job, that pays as well. However, since none are available, he’s making plans of his own. He has a small teahouse in the Gokyo district and hopes that it will eventually bring in enough income that he can stop climbing.
“Maybe four, five years more,” says Danuru, with a grin and a wobble of his head. “Then I can quit Everest.”
Would he ever want his own children to become Everest guides?
“No. Never. Too dangerous.”
If Danuru represents the old-school Sherpas, Dawa Yangzum, our bright-eyed, full-faced, 23-year-old Sherpani, may be the future. She is a sponsored adventure athlete for the first Nepali mountain gear company, named “Sherpa” no less, which has provided her with equipment and money for three years. Although she has been a trekking guide for five years, climbed Ama Dablam, graduated from the Khumbu Climbing Center, and completed two 200-mile, 12-day mountain races in Nepal, she has yet to summit Everest. So why does she want to climb Everest?
“Because it’s the highest peak in the world!” she exclaims, giving me a look like I must be stupid. In Dawa’s small hamlet, Beding, Rolwaling, more than 70 people are climbers, “but there is only one female climber from my village,” she says quietly, “me.”
Dawa acknowledges that most Sherpas climb Everest just for the money, but she plans to take a different path. Everest for her will just be part of her mountain resume: “I want to climb other 8,000-meter peaks.” With the full support of her parents, she is training with the Nepal Mountain Association and hopes to become only the second woman ever certified by the NMA.
“Then I can lead expeditions to smaller, safer mountains, 6,000-meter and 7,000-meter peaks near my village,” says Dawa, “and continue to guide trekking, which is more fun and less suffering than mountain climbing.”
And her big dream?
“I’m really happy climbing mountains just for myself, not for the money, but ...” Dawa’s voice lowers almost to a whisper, “someday I want to guide mountains in other countries.”