The Sherpas, Changing Roles

By Royal Mountain Travel May 22, 2014


It is not for nothing that the name ‘Sherpa’ has become a brand name signifying anything and anyone that is brave, hardy, trustworthy, and enduring. It is a reputation that has been earned the hard way, mostly for unbelievable feats high up in the lofty Himalayas. Without doubt, the most famous Sherpa name in history is that of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, who along with Sir Edmund Hillary, became the first to set foot on the highest point on the planet, the summit of Mount Everest (8,848 m) in 1953.

For quite some time, the Sherpas mostly served mountaineering and trekking expeditions as merely porters. In time, they began to gain a more respectable standing as guides, and then later still, as accomplished climbers. They are highly regarded in their roles as dependable guides who can be trusted to take good care of their wards while on the high mountains of Nepal. Ang Norbu Sherpa, who has earned his laurels as an International Mountain Guide, one of the few of a selected group, says, “We must be careful to maintain the high quality of our services, since that is what Nepali guides are admired for by climbers all over the world.”


Sherpas performing puja at Everest Base Camp before the expedition

Sherpa climbers hold numerous world records in mountaineering feats, the latest being that of Mingmar Sherpa and Chhang Dawa Sherpa for being the first two brothers in the world to successfully ascent all the 14 mountains above 8,000 meters. Another is that of Chhurim Sherpa for being the first woman to climb Everest twice within a single season (May 12 and 19, 2012). There are many other amazing feats achieved by the likes of Appa Sherpa (most summits of Everest, 21 times; last climb on May 11, 2011), Pemba Dorje (fastest time for summiting Everest from base camp at  8 hours and 10 minutes, May 21, 2004), Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa who, along with Sano Babu Sunwar, was voted the “People’s Choice Adventurers of the Year 2012” for accomplishing the ‘Ultimate Descent’: (a three-month journey in which they climbed Everest, then paraglided down the mountain, and then kayaked through Nepal and India until they reached the Indian Ocean, April 2011). However, climbing feats are not all that the Sherpas have achieved in recent times.

A feat of a very different nature was achieved by Ang Tshering Sherpa, Immediate Past President of the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), who was elected Honorary Member of Union of International Alpine Association (UIAA) in its general assembly in Amsterdam, Netherlands from Oct 10-13, 2012. A high honor indeed! Zimba Zangbu Sherpa, the current NMA president, wrote in his congratulatory message, “NMA regards this award as the highest evaluation of your continuous efforts in mountain protection and sustainable development, and in raising awareness about the need for balance between commercial and non-commercial mountaineering activities in our country. NMA hopes this award will motivate you to be still more actively involved for the promotion and protection of mountain and mountaineering.” Only six people, including legendary figures like Edmund Hillary and Reinhold Messner, are honorary members of this apex mountaineering organization. Ang Tshering is also a member of the Mountain Protection Committee of UIAA.

All this validates the changing roles of Sherpas from humble but indispensable porters and guides to extraordinary climbers, able administrators, and concerned guardians of the mountain environment. As a matter of interest, Zimba Zangbu Sherpa himself has had a book written after him.  Written by the late Robert Reiffel, the book, titled, ‘Avec Zimba les Sherpa – Randonners au Nepal’, was first published in 1981 and relates the adventures of Reiffel while trekking in 22 different regions with Zimba.


The Sherpas community, which is said to have emigrated from the Kham region of Tibet many centuries ago, is today an international community. Mingma Sherpa believes that New York alone could have thousands of Sherpas who have made it their home today. The large number of Sherpas leaving for foreign shores has him a bit worried that there may soon come a time when Nepal will have a shortage of dependable and experienced guides. He has said in an interview, “Our coming generation is better educated and I don’t think they will have the same motivation as us to climb anymore. Mountaineering is Nepal tourism’s main asset, and people come here to climb not only because of the Himalayas, but also because they know that they will be received by trustworthy Sherpa guides who will look after them well. This is a very important thing about Nepal and something that we might lose in the future.” Speaking for himself, he says, “Although it is easy for people like us to emigrate, I will never ever leave Nepal. No matter how difficult it is, I will always live in Nepal.”

Doubtless, the Sherpas have attained a standing of great pride here and abroad, and it is especially comforting to know about their determination to maintain their high reputation as dependable guides, and also to keep safe the precious assets of the country, the mighty Himalayas and the high mountain region.


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