It was during a trip to Bhutan when I first saw—and subsequently fell in love with—the Himalayas. You see, those giant mountains mean different things to different people. To some, it represents a chance to meet with and conquer a real-life giant, something every mountaineer finds irresistible. To others, it is a region to be feared, respected, and admired from a distance. But to me, it was a sort of mystery, waiting to be unravelled. The five days I spent in Bhutan were clearly not enough. I wanted more. I had to travel deeper into the region and walk amongst these giants to fully grasp their magic.
A year later, I found myself in Nepal, the kingdom in the clouds and home to eight of the world’s tallest mountains, including the remarkable Everest. It is one of the most recognisable geographic superlatives on the planet, unique in stature and renown. The dramatic landscape was what prompted me to trek through the Khumbu Valley towards the Everest Base camp. However, the journey became much more than just trekking in the presence of the most spectacular scenery in the world. It became my personal journey into the lives of the Sherpas, a culture of people fast disappearing with the cold Himalayan wind.
It is true that some areas in the Himalayas are wild and barely populated, but the locale also holds a diversity of cultures that have adapted to survive in a hostile yet beautiful environment. Going to the Himalayas isn’t just an adventure of a lifetime; it is also life-changing. Trekking for 11 days along the native villages, 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. The experience was incredibly humbling.
The Sherpas are a tribe of Tibetan origin that occupies 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 centered on agriculture and trade. The opening of Nepal in the 1950s—and the arrival of large-scale trekking and climbing shortly after—made mountaineering the major source of income for the Sherpas.
While the real motivation for foreigners to risk their lives in climbing the Himalayas is a personal achievement, the Sherpas see mountaineering as the only chance they have to provide a better life to their families. To the Sherpas, the mountains are sacred, a holy landscape reserved for reverence. 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. Years of avalanches and earthquakes have left much of the country still in ruins, despite receiving US$4.1 billion from international donors. Sluggish economic growth and a chaotic bureaucracy have had a chilling effect on tourist numbers, which spells disaster for Sherpa porters and guides whose livelihoods depend on visiting mountaineers. In the Everest region, mountaineering represents more than just employment; often times, it is a Sherpa’s only chance for social ascension in the Himalayan society.
It’s with mixed feelings that one acknowledges the need of tourism in the Himalayan kingdom. Severe environmental destruction and profound 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 tolls of 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 3440 metres above sea level, it’s considered the gateway to Everest Base Camp and is often used for altitude acclimatisation. 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 for many Everest expeditions in the 1950s and 1960s, 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 deaf since he had meningitis in his early 20s. “At the moment, Sherpa culture is just alive. But in 30 years, who knows? It’s my culture. It is in 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 the great Sherpa climbers. Photograph after photograph show Sherpa climbers almost unknown outside Nepal, yet heroes in their country. Another room is devoted 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 typical Sherpa home. And in a tiny room away from the main teahouse, he has set up a slide projector, proudly showing visitors a series of his pictures taken during his adventures. He loves his culture and wants to see it live on. “My father was a very famous Sherpa, and that made me get an interest in Sherpa climbers,” he says.
The day I experienced the adrenaline of landing on a giant glacier at 5360 metres 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 led expeditions and summited the world’s tallest peaks, including the “Mother of the World.” His latest accomplishment was when he acted in the Hollywood movie Everest as a climbing Sherpa from Adventure Consultants back in 2015.
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 up, after working at this level on one or two expeditions, to the rank of “climbing Sherpa” and then “climbing guide.” Ang Phula not only was promoted to climbing guide, but also became the managing director and partner of the company where he first worked as a porter. After almost 30 years, Ang doesn’t climb mountains anymore. He supervises expeditions on Base Camp during the climbing season. Nowadays, 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 lives 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 magical sceneries as well as unique people and cultures. I saw the world as a complex network of rivers, bridges, and hills populated by individuals learning to live with what they have. I saw smiles. As I walked, I passed by locals who waved and shouted a friendly and warm “Namaste!”
The journey was not about conquering poles or making solo expeditions. It was about the people.