19Dec2012

How Many Sherpas Have Summited Everest?

Everest from Kala Patthar

How Many Sherpas Have Summited Everest?

Everest Base Camp the Lazy Way, Day 7: Dole

“So, how many Sherpas HAVE summited Everest?” I ask, casually.

We’re in Dole, a village that’s annoyingly not quite high enough, at 4200m, to be the highest place we have visited, or even the highest place we have slept, en route up the Gokyo Valley, discussing the Everest Marathon.

This is a brutal affair, the length of a full marathon (or over 40km), that runs down from Gorak Shep, by Everest Base Camp (5140m – just shy of 17,000 feet), to Namche Bazar (3440m – just over 11,000 feet) over paths that most of us would not really consider runnable, and some of us even struggle to walk down.

My interlocutor’s brother placed fourth last year, with a time of just over four hours.

“When I worked at Base Camp,” my Sherpa friend says (he’s somewhere in his 20s, and he’s already been a monk, a climber and a base camp cook), “There were 330 expeditions there. Each expedition had around 40 Sherpas. And of those Sherpas, about half would go to the summit.”

“Wow,” I say, running the maths, and noting that sherpa (small ‘s’) is a job title as well as a designation of one specific Nepali ethnicity (big ‘S’), and that Sherpas (big ‘s’) are not the only mountain people in this neck of the woods. “So you’ve kind of stopped counting?”

“Yes,” he says, with a note of mild disgust. “A lot of the tourists, the Sherpas carry them to the top.”

“Short-rope them?” I ask, miming it (it was this practice of towing a climber on a short rope that earned poor Sandy Pitman such contempt in the wake of the 1996 Everest disaster and John Krakauer’s book-turned-film).

“No,” he says. “Carry them.”

“You mean…” I say, miming putting someone over one’s shoulder in a fireman’s carry.

“Yes,” he says. The other guys around the table laugh. The vulnerability of the vast majority of the Westerners we call “climbers” and they call just “tourists” is well known around here.

Zac’s jaw hits the floor.

“At over 8000m?” I say. This is the death zone, and carrying anything, let alone a substantial Westerner (or, for that matter, a clutch of 4kg oxygen bottles to sustain them), is quite phenomenally difficult.

“Yes,” he says. “To the summit.”

And, all of a sudden, a lot of our Western Everest “records” spring into radical perspective – our disabled climbers, our blind climbers, our very young climbers, our very old climbers. One and all of us, tourists, dragged bodily to the top, or even carried, by Sherpas.

Like me and Zac, nervously anticipating crossing the Cho-La pass, a high pass that’s, well, just a walk to the shop for these guys, with poor Nir carrying rising 20kg of our stuff.

We laugh. “And then,” says Zac. “They’re all like, ‘Yay! I climbed Everest! All on my own!’”

It is, I figure, still rather colonial, the attitude to Sherpas (and sherpas). If anything, in fact, it has gone downhill since colonial times.

When Tenzing Norgay summited with Edmund Hillary he got a decent hit of credit in the 1950s media. Although, given he had accompanied most climbers who got anywhere near the summit for the previous 20 years, that is only right and proper.

But who records the names of the three Sherpas who got the 13-year-old boy to the top of Everest, with his father? Or even how many Sherpas it took to get the first MS sufferer to the top of Everest?

The triumph is for the “tourist”. For these born climbers, it’s just a day’s work.


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4 Comments

  1. Katrina says:

    After visiting Tanzania with the intent to climb Kilimanjaro (derailed by food poisoning), I had been wondering this. The guides and porters on Kili go up there all the time, though admittedly many of the porters are not properly acclimated and often experience health problems (even death) like the tourists. This colonial attitude is so insidious. Thank you for writing this – and for being so clear about the big ‘S’ and little ‘s’.

    • Theodora says:

      I’m thinking of doing Kili next year, actually — but the problems of lowland porters racing up to high altitude occur in Nepal too. (And the Kili ascent is very fast — met people who’ve had serious AMS doing it, because they really belt up there.)

  2. Yvette says:

    I heard about this when I was in the area too. My conclusion was if you really felt like you had the urge to be carried up the highest mountain in the world then you’re a bit of a moron.

    Well that and the parents of the 13 year old have to be shunned even if their kid was carried up, God only knows what his loss of brain cells in the Death Zone will do to his development!

    • Theodora says:

      The 13-year-old is a difficult one, I think. Probably rather Everest than a lower and more technically demanding peak done with less support — but all the same it’s a hugely high risk activity for any under-16, I think. I found the teen sailor easier to comprehend than the teen on Everest.

      And, yes, “bit of a moron” would cover it. Also “more money than sense”…

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