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Who Actually Are Sherpa People?
Hawrry Bhattarai comment 13 Comments access_time 10 min read

What is the Identity and History of the Sherpa People?

Sherpa (Nepali: शेर्पा) or Sherpas are one of the indigenous tribes of Nepal found mostly in the Northeastern regions of Nepal & India. Belonging to a Tibetan origin, they settled in Nepal thousands of years ago. These mountaineers have been climbing mountains and supporting traders who go to the Everest region for hundreds of years. They were rewarded for their hard work by carrying the traders’ goods over the Nepali Himalaya. In the 19th century Sherpa people became famous for their exceptional ability to carry loads over very high mountains. They were excellent porters and it is said that the reason why many Sherpa people are so strong is that they normally carry heavy loads to and from the base camp.

In the Tibetan language, Shar Pa means “people who live in the east,” and over time this descriptive term has come to identify the Sherpa community.

They may only number 150,000 – 200, 000 in Nepal, but being one of the most well-known clans, they have established themselves as an integral part of the society.

A recent study released by the University of California realized more than 30 genetic enhancements among the people living in high-altitude regions of Nepal & Tibet, and one of those enhancements, EPAS1, or the ‘Super-Athlete Gene’ is particularly prevalent in parts of the Sherpa community.

Sherpa History

Formerly a nomadic tribe, they are believed to have settled in Nepal thousands of years ago. They were driven out from the Kham district of eastern Tibet during the 14th – 15th century by the warlike community, which made them Gypsies. They settled in the Tingri region of Tibet, however, due to external conflict they later migrated to the current Solukhumbu region of Nepal. They belong to a Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism.

Before they became widely recognized for their physical strength and climbing abilities, Sherpas were primarily involved in cattle herding and farming. Post-1953, many Everest expeditions used Sherpas as full time porters during Himalayan climbing expeditions. Following the Nepal government’s decision to allow business owners to receive permits for commercial mountain climbs, Sherpas began playing a much larger role in preparations for these climbs as well – keeping detailed records about routes taken by other climbers. Today, many Sherpas choose to lead mountain climbs as guides or assistants, likely because of their reputation in the community as being some of the finest climbers in the world!

5 Misconceptions about Sherpa

misconceptions on sherpa

1. Sherpa represents only the climbing community

Sherpa is a Nepalese ethnic group. The word Sherpa came from Tibetan and means “people who live in the east,” a reference to the Tibetan Plateau of their ancestral origin. Central to the history of all Sherpas is mountaineering, as this has been integral to their society both as a religious activity and as a livelihood strategy. Today, in addition to being frequent tourists, they are known for their work ethic and service economy roles such as porters or climbing guides, among other professions.

2. Sherpa are illiterate and ignorant

Before schooling became a common occurrence in Sherpa villages, many Sherpa people were uneducated. Today, education is widely available for all who choose it.

3. Sherpa belong to nomadic tribes

They used to belong to a nomadic tribe which traveled from Tibet to Nepal, however,  Like mountains in Nepal,sherpas have lived in Nepal for generations & don’t migrate anymore

4. Sherpas are known only for outdoor activities

The portrayal of the Sherpa community is a bit stereotypical. The Sherpa community is often perceived as guides. Some of them are employed by outdoor agencies while others have opted to take up another occupation altogether – making it harder than it already might be to earn a living as a Sherpa given the nature of how tourism has risen in popularity in Nepal.

5. Guaranteed Everest summit

When preparing for an expedition to Mount Everest, it is important to know that a Sherpa alone cannot ensure a successful summit. A team of climbers, in addition to the Sherpas, is needed because each climber brings unique skills that are necessary for the team as a whole in order to have a great chance at reaching the top. Different climbers bring different strengths to the table; some with climbing experience and others with technical expertise necessary for crafting gear intended specifically for Himalayan climbing. Additionally, not all of your team has to make it back in order or anyone else’s if they are unable or unwilling to continue toward the summit. Everyone on the mountain must be able and willing to make their own decision about whether or not they can go on – at any given moment while climbing toward the summit – as trying conditions may force them off course or cause other unforeseen issues during their ascent.

Know these Invincible Sherpas

Tenzing Sherpa

Tenzing sherpa
1953: Sherpa Tensing, Tenzing Norkay or Tenzing Norgay (1914 – 1986), Nepalese mountain climber of the Sherpa tribe, conqueror of Mount Everest. (Photo by Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Tenzing Sherpa was one of the first people in the history of mankind to summit Mount Everest. He was appointed as a porter by Eric Shipton during an Everest expedition in 1935 and went on to become a mountain climber. A Nepalese Sherpa, Tenzing was known for his strength, friendliness, maturity, and willingness to help others reach the top of Everest along with pride and admiration from his teammates. During his journey, he rescued Hillary from a crevasse fall during a 1953’s expedition while they were scaling Mount Everest together and they remained best friends since then. 

Apa Sherpa

Apa Sherpa - Lhakpa Tenzing Sherpa - photo: Mogens Engelund
Apa Sherpa – Lhakpa Tenzing Sherpa – photo: Mogens Engelund

Apa Sherpa, also known as “Super Sherpa,” has become a world-class mountain climber. He is acclaimed for climbing Mount Everest 22 times as of 2011. Apa Sherpa is an excellent example of someone who had a dream. But his early career was hardly a bed of roses. He started working on expeditions and large climbing groups in the Himalayas in 1985 (he worked as a kitchen boy and porter). It was not until 1990 that he made his first ascent of Mount Everest.  In 2011, Apa made that promise to his wife that he wouldn’t climb again after ’22’. He had first summited the tallest peak on earth back in 1990 and his last time to the summit was in 2011. 

Pasang Lhamu Sherpa

pasang lhamu sherpa

Pasang Lhamu Sherpa is the first Nepalese woman to summit Mount Everest. She has been recognized for the many achievements she accomplished as a mountaineer by an array of governmental and non-governmental agencies for being the first Nepalese woman to scale Mt. Everest, among other notable feats.

Kami Rita Sherpa

kami rita sherpa
Image source: thegazette.com

Kami Rita is a Nepali mountain climber who has been reaching the summit of Mount Everest multiple times. Since May 2018, he holds the world record for most successful ascents to the top of this 29,029 ft. peak. His career began in 1991 and since then he has scaled up Everest more than two dozen times! Interestingly, his father was a Sherpa guide alongside many other Sherpa men back in the 90s when Everest opened its doors to foreign mountain climbers. His younger brother, also a mountain climber, has reached the summit of Everest 17 times just like him!

In 2017, Kami Rita became the third person to ascend to the summit of Everest 21 times, matching Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi’s record. Both Apa and Phurba subsequently retired from this pursuit.

Phurba Tashi Sherpa

phurba tashi sherpa
Image source: alpinist.com

Phurba Tashi (born 1971) lives in Khumjung, Nepal with his family. Phurba’s father birthed him into the footsteps of being an expedition cook boy and has achieved more than anyone else in the world with more than 3 record summits of Mt. Everest (21). In 2014, Phurba Tashi surpassed his own record after achieving 11 summit peaks climbing Mt. Everest an astounding 8 times by April 15th during spring summit season alone! He holds these records because he began mountain climbing at a very early age and never stopped until now – which has earned him over 30 attempts on eight-thousander peak mountains all over the world!

He is a very strong sherpa who is often referred to as the “Everest yak” due to his knowledge of his expertise at high altitudes and logistical skills.

Mingma Gyabu Sherpa

Mingma Gyabu Sherpa
Image source: Wikipedia

Mingma Gyabu Sherpa (born 16 May 1989), often known as Mingma David, is a Nepalese mountaineer and rescue climber. He set a record when he climbed Mount Everest at the age of 16 years, 10 months and 19 days.  When he was 18 years old, he set the Guinness World Record for “Fastest time to climb Everest and K2”, which he did within 61 days.

Temba Tsheri Sherpa

Temba Tsheri Sherpa

Temba Tsheri Sherpa, who was at the time 16 years old, became the youngest person to climb Mt Everest on May 23, 2001. Since then, he has led many successful expeditions. On June 26th, 2015, during one of them he and fellow climber Chhiring Dorje Sherpa lost five fingers each while they were climbing Denali in Alaska. The duo made it to within 43 meters of the summit where they were forced down due to fatigue and cold weather conditions.

Fast Facts on Sherpas

  • Sherpa is the name of an ethnic group living in the regions of Nepal. Their origins trace back to Tibet where they have migrated from over hundreds of years ago
  • Sherpa is used as a last name
  • Their first name is usually the day of the week in which they were born

Nyima – Sunday

Dawa – Monday

Mingma – Tuesday

Lhakpa – Wednesday

Phurba – Thursday

Pasang – Friday

Pemba – Saturday

  • Sherpas are mountain guides hired by climbers to go on expeditions. They often help the climbers with their equipment and safety, as well as carrying necessities such as tents and cooking utensils to higher camps
  • The Sherpa people have been in the business of mountain climbing for a long time. First, it was to support their families by getting food and other resources from outside villages back home
  • Sherpas can get altitude sickness, just like anyone. But they are stronger at high altitudes, because they’ve grown up there.
  • Sherpas feel it is disrespectful to stand literally on the tippy top as this is where Miyolangsangma, the Tibetan Goddess of Mountains lives.


Further Readings

Culture and Etiquette in Nepal
Chapter II Newars : Continuing The Rich Heritage
The Newārs (Chapter I): The Genesis

sherpa people

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