Nepal’s Himalayas: the Sherpa factor

Picture the scene: You awaken as the first rays of the sun strike your tent, quickly raising the temperature to the point where it gets too hot in your sleeping bag. As you rub the sleep from your eyes and consider the prospect of emerging into the open, there’s a rustling motion at the tent flap and a man with a tanned, leathery face peers in.

“Good morning, Sir!”, the man says cheerfully and hands you a steaming mug of tea. When you stumble out of your tent, you find yourself surrounded by a bleak landscape dominated by impossibly tall, jagged peaks on all sides. Breathless from the exertion of standing up, you wash your face in a bowl of hot water that awaits you. Breakfast, too, is ready as soon as you step into the bigger tent where you and your team eat your meals.

Island Peak Base Camp, Khumbu Himalayas, Nepal

Our base camp at Island Peak, just above 5,000 m/16,400 ft. There’s absolutely no chance I’d have made it this far without Sherpa porters.

All this, it seems, was accomplished by the three slight, graceful men who are now busying themselves packing up your tent and loading your belongings onto a yak – and onto their own backs. He seems to be taking care of all your daily needs without any effort.

Where are we, you ask? The country, of course, is Nepal; we are in the Himalayas, the highest mountain range on Earth, and the men are of the Sherpa people. In fact, what I describe above was part of my daily routine as I climbed Island Peak in the Khumbu Valley, where Mount Everest reigns supreme over endless rows of mountains. But once our porters had prepared breakfast, washed up and packed up their gear and our tents, their day was far from over.

Above Namche Bazaar, Khumbu Himalayas, Nepal

A stupa above Namche Bazaar, the main settlement of the Sherpa people. It is nestled in Sagarmatha National Park, home to several of the highest peaks on Earth.

I vividly remember the vast silence of the Himalayan autumn, broken only by the scuffle of my boots. Fully absorbed in the spectacular scenery surrounding me and focused on getting enough air into my lungs, there are no distractions here.

Except…

A soft jingle reaches my ears, seemingly from far away. It gradually grows louder and eventually resolves into a tinny rendition of a Nepalese pop song played on an ancient (very much non-smart) mobile phone. Our porters, who left camp at least an hour later than us and are carrying at least 40 kilos each, have caught up with us – and it’s not even lunchtime yet. By the time we arrive at our destination for the day in the early afternoon, they will have set up our tents, prepared lunch and had some time to see to tasks around camp or to relax.

Sherpa porter, Khumbu Himalayas, Nepal

A porter taking a rest – from behind, he’s invisible behind his enormous load. Note the wooden stick at the bottom – they use these as a walking aid, but mostly to prop up the huge baskets when they’re taking a break standing up…

Carrying their enormous loads on straps around their foreheads, they walk past me on the rock-strewn path in their ragged flip-flops and acknowledge me with a wave. Their completely unsuitable footwear and heavy baggage mean that they have to switchback across the steepest sections of the path, but they walk at a steady pace and are not even out of breath.

The strength, tenacity, magnanimity and work ethic of every single Sherpa we came across was one of the most impressive aspects of Nepal – and that’s saying something. Their importance cannot be overstated in Himalayan mountaineering – without help from large numbers of Sherpa, ascents on the world’s tallest mountains would be all but impossible.

Island Peak High Camp, Khumbu Himalaya, Nepal

Island Peak High Camp at 5,500m/18,000 ft. Two 14-year old cook boys accompanied us here – never was the warmth of a fresh bowl of porridge more welcome! Picture by Steve Wait.

But as my story shows, they do work even at lower elevations that few others would be capable of doing. Bulky loads like fridges or large planks of plywood are a common sight, and I saw one man carrying 100 litres of kerosene on his back!

And yet the aftermath of the disastrous avalanche on the slopes of Everest just a few months ago shows how few Westerners care about the incredibly tough lives many Sherpas lead. The Nepalese government isn’t helping matters by doing its utmost to prevent the families of the men that were killed from receiving the measly compensation they are entitled to. I can only hope that tourism in this incredible part of the world will become more sustainable and will come to create better livelihoods for all involved in the industry.

Tengboche Monastery, Khumbu Himalayas, nepal

A more idyllic view of a campsite at Tengboche Monastery, the highest monastery in Nepal at 3,800m/12,500 ft.

Have you been to the Himalayas or the Karakoram? I’d love to hear your experiences – leave a comment below!

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