As the Khumbu Valley warmed on the morning of Friday 18th April, 2014, high in the crisp thin air above Everest's Western Cwm, an ice cliff, or serac, suddenly shed tons of ice. As often happens here, the fall triggered a lethal avalanche of snow and ice, sweeping down from the roof of the world onto the Khumbu Icefall below, this time engulfing 16 Sherpas working on the mountain. Even as their community mourns its devastating loss, the tragedy has sparked its own emotional landslide amongst the Sherpa, and their anger could yet define the future for these legendary mountain people and their unique way of life.
The people from the East
Long ago, nomadic people from eastern Tibet journeyed through Himalayan passes to settle in the Khumbu Valley in Nepal. This tribal group, perhaps fleeing from troubles in their homeland, became known in the Tibetan language as the Sher-pa (the east-people). Settling in the very highest mountain valleys far from the world, and speaking their own Tibetan dialect, the Sherpas adopted simple farming practices to sustain their simple way of life.
According to tradition, these Tibetan migrants sought 'beyul' (Shangri-La), and, being Nyingmapa Buddhists – an ancient Tibetan Buddhist sect – their beliefs were grounded in mysticism. Consequently, they developed strong associations with spirits dwelling in their own local community, evolving a Sherpa pantheon of devils, demons, and deities inhabiting their remote sacred valleys. With early sacred texts describing Buddhist paradise as 'a green valley, surrounded by snow-covered peaks', it is easy to understand why the Sherpa became attached to this land. Most of all, they revered and respected Chomolungma – 'Mother of the World' – their Khumbu-Valley mountain peak the world would later name Mount Everest after Sir George Everest, Surveyor-General of India.
Special Himalayan Highlanders
Living a Sherpa life at high altitudes is not for everyone, but down the ages Sherpas have acquired a special set of genetic advantages enabling them to adapt perfectly to their harsh mountain environment. In little over 3,000 years, Sherpas, many of whom live permanently 3,800-4,000 metres above sea level, have adapted their circulation and respiratory systems to cope with living in thin air. A typical Sherpa has a larger lung-capacity, and breathes much more frequently than lowlanders. As a result, more air is taken in with every breath, enabling Sherpas to maintain a satisfactory oxygen supply even in poor air. Blood running through Sherpa veins also contains around twice the amount of nitric acid normally expected. This tends to dilate blood vessels, enhancing Sherpa blood-circulation – another useful cold-climate adaptation.
The dawn of the 20th century brought an expansion of climbing as a sport. With most of the highest European peaks conquered, climbers began to look towards the 'Greater Ranges', with the Himalayas an awe-inspiring challenge, and Everest – estimated as 29,002 feet (8,840 metres) – the final frontier. When the Dalai Lama opened Tibet's border in 1920, mountaineers began organised attempts to reach Everest's summit. Many tried and failed, including the British Mallory/Bullock expedition of 1921 which managed an ascent of 23,000 feet to the North Col. By this time, the tactic of employing local Sherpas to guide and work alongside visiting mountaineers was becoming established. Sadly, so too was the often-tragic consequence: Mallory's expedition a year later, for example, resulted in seven Sherpa deaths.
Ascent of the 'Snow Tigers'
During the 1950s, the Himalayan 'expeditionary period' started to gather steam, boosted, in 1953, by the world-famous ascent of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary, accompanied by his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay. Unknown outside of the world's climbing elite, Tenzing Norgay's mountaineering triumph – a summit of Sherpa achievement – introduced these hardy 'snow tigers' of the Khumbu Valley to the world. From that time on, Sherpa guides became indispensable 'guardian angels' to a constantly-increasing flow of climbers attempting Himalayan peaks. Soon, no expedition could function properly without Sherpas, who fixed ladders and rope lines, shuttled supplies, prepared food, and escorted eager paying-customers to the summit, often whilst carrying 40-kg packs.
By the 1990s, the commercial exploitation of Everest was under way. Soon it would be possible for westerners to book an Everest trek online with a credit card, and though the summit still attracted the world's best, crowded expeditions were often populated by thrill-seekers and mountain tourists.
Still deeply-religious and proud of their cultural inheritance, most Khumbu-Valley Sherpas now work mainly on the mountain. Whereas, before 1959, most were subsistence farmers living on a few cold-weather crops and dairy produce, modern Sherpas collect around £4,800 a season – ten times more than the pay of an average Nepali worker. For this, they work the popular spring season from April to early June, and the more dangerous October-December autumn season, when Everest, clad in fresh monsoon snow, is at its most treacherous.
Climbing Everest can cost as much as £36,000 per climber, with most of this money going to adventure companies and Nepal's government. Expeditions often hire professional western guides too, who receive about four times the pay of Sherpas. Consequently, Sherpas feel they take all the risks whilst most of the rewards go elsewhere.
Including the 2013 season, 174 Sherpas have died since Himalayan climbing began, and the perils faced by the famous 'Icefall Doctors' who lay miles of rope through the dangerous Khumbu Icefall, risking their lives at every moment to build a 'yellow-brick road to the summit', are typical. Being a high-altitude specialist climber is no guarantee of survival, and those who survive can still suffer horrific climbing injuries.
The mountain slopes are silent now. Climbing has stopped for the season as a mark of respect for the sixteen entombed in the Khumbu Icefall; and the adventure companies, unable to function without Sherpa guides, have gone away. A darker mood has spread amongst the Sherpa, who are now questioning the burden of exploitation they suffer, secretly fearing climate change is at last making their mountain unclimbable, and wondering if the 'Mother of the World' is turning against them.