Man at His Best

First Person: Traversing Everest Again Showed Me Why The Sherpas Matter

Framed by the stunning Himalayan mountains, one native race steadily loses its culture for Nepal to regain its footing.

BY NANDA HAENSEL | Jul 1, 2016 | Travel

The Himalayas are an incredibly diverse region. It is true that some areas are wild and barely populated, but the locale holds a diversity of cultures that have adapted to surviving in a hostile, yet beautiful environment. Going to The Himalayas isn’t just an adventure. It becomes a life-changing tour that is beyond comprehension. Trekking for 11 days along the native villages was a grounding experience. I had the opportunity to sleep in Sherpa houses and monasteries, share a dining table with locals, and witness their humble way of life. It gave me the chance to be regarded as their fellow human being, not just a tourist.

Sherpas of Mount Everest

The Sherpas are a tribe of Tibetan origin who occupy the high valleys around the base of Mount Everest. In the Tibetan language, Sherpa means "people who live in the east”. Most outsiders know little about the role the Sherpas play in Himalayan society. For many years, their economic activities were centred on agriculture and trade. The opening of Nepal in the 50s, and the arrival of large scale trekking and climbing shortly after turned Sherpas to mountaineering as means to attain income. While the real motivation for foreigners to risk their lives in climbing the Himalayas is personal achievement, the Sherpas see the mountaineering as the only chance they have to provide a better life to their families. To the Sherpas, the mountains are sacred, and one should behave with reverence when passing through the holy landscape. Adhering to the religious traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, they often refer to the Everest as the “Mother of the World”. For outside climbers, the mountains represent a challenge to be conquered.

Nepal needs tourists more than ever. Two years of avalanches and a massive earthquake have left much of the country still in ruins. The effect of the earthquake will bear a lasting impact on Nepal’s fragile economy, affecting tourism numbers which are integral to the country’s journey to recovery. Although there are no official figures available, locals say tourist numbers are down by at least a third since 2013.

It’s with mixed feelings, that one acknowledges the need of tourism in the Himalayan kingdom. Serious environmental destruction and intense cultural changes have occurred with the advent of tourism in the region. Through walking, I achieved an intimacy with the landscape, but it also gave me a better understanding of the damage caused every year by thousands of climbers and trekkers. Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has no infrastructure to cope with the pollution generated by tourism. Sherpa culture has arguably become more influenced by Western values than by any other force. The Nepalese government noticed the damage caused to the environment and Sherpa traditions, but little has been done.

On my second day trekking towards EBC I reached the Sherpa village of Namche Bazaar. Located at 3440m above sea level, it’s considered the gateway to Everest Base Camp, and is often used for altitude acclimatization. It was there that I had my first glimpse of the great snowy peak of Mount Everest. It’s also where Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa lives, a conservationist who aims to make Nepal’s culture last for future generations. We met over dinner, at Sherwi Khangba, an ancient lodge and teahouse dedicated to preserving Sherpa heritage. It’s also a historical place, used as a starting point by many Everest expeditions in the 50’s and 60’s, as well as the one lead by Sir Edmund Hillary.

To Lhakpa Sonam, the Sherpa culture is worth protecting, even though it is a culture he can no longer hear. He has been almost completely deaf since he had meningitis in his early 20’s.

“At the moment, Sherpa culture is just alive. But in 30 years, who knows? It’s my culture. It is my interest to protect it”, he says.

Lhakpa is like many Sherpas, and yet unlike any other. He has spent his entire life in the Himalayan Mountains helping his father with western climbers and trekkers. He has worked with numerous Everest expeditions, climbed many of the mountains around his home, and survived a massive avalanche some years ago. But those are stories many Sherpas share. What makes Lhakpa different is his passion for his people.

Below his teahouse, a complex he opened with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1990, is a room dedicated to great Sherpa climbers. Photograph after photograph show Sherpa climbers, almost unknown outside Nepal, yet heroes in their country. Another room is dedicated to Sherpa culture, full of pictures and fact sheets explaining traditions, religion, celebrations and lifestyles. It is visited by thousands of guests every year. Across a small path, intersected by a Buddhist puja and line of prayer wheels, Lhakpa has created a museum where he restored a classic Sherpa home. In a tiny room away from the main teahouse, he set up a slide projector proudly showing visitors a series photographs he took on his own adventures. He loves his culture, and wants to see it live on.

“My father was a very famous Sherpa, and that made me interested in Sherpa climbers”, he says.

The day I experienced the adrenaline of landing on a giant glacier at 5360m above sea level, I met another man who stands apart in the Himalayas - Ang Phula Sherpa. We got introduced to each other in Gorakshep, a small settlement and the final stop before Everest Base Camp. Ang Phula is a senior mountaineering guide who has lead expeditions and summited the world's tallest peaks, including the “Mother of the World”. His latest accomplishment happened in 2015, when he acted in the Hollywood movie “Everest” as a climbing Sherpa from Adventure Consultants.

As he described the story of his life, I pictured the aspirations and ambitions of a typical Sherpa. A young boy might start as a porter and carry heavy loads to the mountains. The next step is working as a kitchen Sherpa in the Base Camp. An ambitious young man might hope to be hired to embark on one or two expeditions, ascending to the rank of “climbing Sherpa” and then “climbing guide”. Ang Phula not only was promoted to become a climbing guide, but also became the managing director and partner of the company where he first worked as a porter. After nearly 30 years, Ang stopped climbing mountains. He just supervises expeditions on Base Camp during the climbing season. Now, he lives in Kathmandu and manages his business from there.

Education is hardly given to any young Sherpa. Many never attend school, and most of them leave well before they can read or write. Some people in the Khumbu Valley, like Lhakpa and Ang Phula, send their children half a world away to Kathmandu to learn. But the less fortunate do what they can. Their children often turn to a tough life of portering, or if lucky, guiding. Career choices in the Himalayas are limited, and many risk their life to earn just enough to eat.

Moving between Sherpa villages on foot completely changed the rhythm of my days. The trail was a constant revelation. In every ascent or descent, there was a new breathtaking view, makeshift altar or deserted monastery that hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. Distances became real, and I reacquired the taste of discovering magic sceneries as well as unique people and cultures. I saw a world as a complex network of rivers, bridges and hills populated by monks and individuals facing a bitter life and learning to live with what they have. I saw smiles. After a devastating earthquake, there lies more reason to celebrate life. The journey was not about conquering poles or making solo expeditions. It was about the people. As I walked, I got embedded in the culture and was overwhelmed as I passed by locals who waved and shouted a friendly and warm “Namaste!”.