Until May 29, 1953 no one had managed to climb to the top of Mount
Everest, a Himalayan peak
29,028 feet above sea level and the highest point on earth. On that historic day, two men
reached Everest's summit. One was Tenzing Norgay. He is a Sherpa, one of the northern
border people living near Mount Everest.
For almost 500 years the Sherpas have lived in the Solukhumbu region of northeastern
They thrived in the high valleys and became accustomed to the altitudes ranging from 8,000
feet to 13,000 feet, becoming excellent mountain climbers.
The Sherpas came from the eastern Tibetan province of Khams during the 16th and 17th
centuries, becoming the most recent immigrants in the population movement from Tibet south to
Although living in a different country, the Sherpas have kept much of the culture of Tibet. Their language is a Tibetan dialect. Much of the clothing they wear is similar to what the Tibetans wear. Even their religion, a form of Buddhism called "Lamaism," is the same as that followed by many people in Tibet.
Lamaism is a combination of Buddhism and Tibetan superstition. Its followers place the
highest value on calm and the lack of human passion, considering this condition to be the
"beginning of wisdom." Also included in this religion are demons, devil dances, mystics,
sorcery (witchcraft, black magic), prayer wheels, charms, and much colorful pageantry.
Believers in Lamaism consider life to be a struggle for enlightenment (unlimited
knowledge). Each tries to get the help of a "Bodhisattva" (one who has reached supreme
enlightenment, then given it up to help others in their search). Methods used to gain this
assistance include various rituals (ceremonies), body movements, repeated spoken
words, and visualization (forming a mental picture of a Bodhisattva).
Once he has that help, a member of this religion hopes to gradually identify himself
with the Bodhisattva and even develop magical powers as he searches for a perfect state of
wisdom and truth.
Buddhist monks (holy men) of this sect are called "lamas." They live in
buildings called monasteries. The Tengpoche Monastery is the Sherpas' leading center of
Buddhism in the Everest region. They believe that living in the mountains helps bring them
closer to religious truth.
The Dalai (High) Lama is recognized as the highest spiritual leader of Lamaism. He is
considered to be the "living Buddha."
In addition to Tibet and Nepal, Lamaism is also found in India, Mongolia, and in areas
China (including Manchuria).
Sherpa is pronounced "SHUR-pah." It came from a word "sherwa." (The
Tibetan spelling is
"sharpa.") Translated into English, it means "people from the east" or "eastern ones."
For hundreds of years Sherpas followed the practice of field-crop agriculture,
in the lower valleys. Their main crop was potatoes, but they raised barley, wheat, and
corn, too. Animals were also a part of Sherpa farming activity. They had herds of cows and
Yaks are a long-haired oxen that thrive in high altitudes. Sherpas use them for cloth,
meat, milk, and transportation. Their hair is used for tents, and their hide can be turned
into leather for shoes and boots.
The Sherpas also conducted an active trade across the Himalayas into Tibet and China.
Yaks played an important part in this commerce since foot travel is the only way to ship
goods in much of Nepal.
Most Sherpas cannot read or write. Since the 1960s, they have built new schools in a
of villages. As a result, some children have attended high school, and a few have even made
it to college.
Midway through the 20th century a big change occurred in the lives of the Sherpa
Farming became secondary to tourism as a way to earn a living. An increasing number of
tourists came to Nepal to take part in mountain climbing expeditions in the Himalayas.
Sherpas serve as guides for these groups. Both men and women act as porters, carrying
heavy loads of equipment and supplies to high altitudes. They also cook meals for the
climbers. Mountaineers have come to depend on them more and more as they traveled higher andhigher.
At first the Sherpas were not paid well, in spite of the essential role they played and
their importance to climbers at high altitudes. Frequently they found themselves
in situations of maximum danger. Some of them were killed while performing their duties.
Eventually the government put strict regulations into effect. Today Sherpas must
be paid more, improved safety equipment is a requirement, and insurance is provided for
their protection in case of injury or death.
Approximately 150,000 tourists come to Nepal every year, bringing income to the area.
of this has been used to build hotels and restaurants to serve tourists.
The Sherpas consider Mount Everest to be a sacred (holy) place. Before they set foot on
it, or stay in a camp on its slopes, there are religious rituals that must be completed.
Local monks perform a blessing ceremony for every expedition. Campsites must be protected
by a sprinkling of holy water and flowers.
During the 1920s British expeditions made several attempts to reach the top of Mount
Everest. Seven Sherpas were killed in an avalanche during one of these trips.
Between 1933 and 1939 four major attempts to conquer Everest failed. Expeditions tried
1951 and 1952, but none of the climbers was able to reach the summit.
In 1953, however, the final result was different. Led by Colonel John Hunt, a team of
British and New Zealand climbers was assembled in Nepal. Sherpas, as usual, provided support
at high altitudes; their leader was an experienced climber named Tenzing Norgay. He
and Edmund Hillary from New Zealand together made the successful push to the top of Mount
Everest on May 29, becoming the first men to reach it.