On April 18, sixteen Nepalese guides, known to us as Sherpas, were swallowed by an avalanche on Mt. Everest that “looked like a big snake coming down the mountain.” All are now presumed dead, making it the single deadliest accident on Everest.
The tragedy has brought to light the complex, dangerous nature of the Sherpas’ livelihood. Outside magazine senior editor Grayson Schaffer recently put it this way: “Sherpas are Everest’s workforce—the literal backbone of the climbing industry there …Without the hard work of the Sherpa porters, it would be largely impossible for Americans and Europeans with slightly above-average physiology, and well above-average disposable income, to scale the world’s tallest mountain.”
Schaffer also notes that: “No service industry in the world so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients.” It was only a matter of time before they demanded better working conditions, fair pay, and insurance in the event of the unthinkable. It turns out, that time is now – and one of the things coming to light is that what it means to be a “Sherpa” is widely misunderstood.
The mythology of the mountaineers
The Sherpa as trusty guide and porter entered the Western imagination when Edmund Hillary became the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest, along with guide Tenzing Norgay, in 1953. But even this relationship was fraught with controversy over who allegedly reached the summit first. (Was it Hillary or Norgay? Who was the mountaineer with more skill?)
After Norgay’s famous ascent, the word “Sherpa” suddenly became synonymous with “porter” or “guide” in the context of climbing Everest. (Many mistakenly assumed that Sherpa was actually Tibetan for “guide.”) In fact, Sherpa comes from the Tibetan word sharpa, which means “inhabitant of an eastern country.” Today, the word refers to “a member of a Himalayan people living on the borders of Nepal and Tibet.”
In other words, Sherpa isn’t an occupation – it’s an ethnic group. And as one Sherpa who went to college in New Zealand poignantly wrote, to be Sherpa means being part of a bizarre model minority in the West (and apparently, being asked how much weight you can carry up a mountain):
“Uncharitably, I imagined them imagining themselves as conquering heroes, assisted by a legion of Sherpa faithful ready – and cheerful – to lay down sweat and lives in service for arduous, but ultimately noble and glorious, personal successes. Still, it is undeniable that, in “post”-colonial democracies where ethnic minorities carry the burden of insidious and vicious prejudices at every turn, Sherpas are fortunate. Everyone loves us, everyone trusts us, and everyone wants their own collectable one of us.”
This image of the cheery, willing and able Sherpa is compounded by the notion that climbing is literally in their blood, which has adapted over time to have an ‘oxygen affinity’ that makes living at higher altitudes possible. As a result, the Sherpa has come to be seen as part of the landscape, or a given part of the Everest experience. This translates to the idea that climbing isn’t just a job – it’s a calling. It’s who they are.
Anytime work is seen this way – as something that a particular group is expected to do because of who they are – it’s immediately undervalued (Why pay them money for something that’s simply part of their identity, right?) Not to mention, it’s pretty problematic to rigidly associate specific jobs with an entire group of people – after a while, this starts to sound uncomfortably like a caste system.
When we view Sherpas as an ethnic group in a poor country performing extremely dangerous work to make a living (rather than as cheerful porters effortlessly scaling mountains), it suddenly makes sense why there is a movement to “Reclaim Sherpa” from the “misappropriation and commodification” of the term by Western brands and companies. (No, kicking ass at marketing does not make you a Sherpa.)
With that in mind, it’s time to separate the word “Sherpa” from a romanticized notion of conquering Everest and create a culture where Sherpas don’t have to choose between their lives or their livelihood.