• Last Updated on Apr 1, 2023

The Sherpa is an extraordinary ethnic group living in Nepal's high mountains Himalayas areas of Nepal. They are well-known for their hard work and bravery in guiding Westerners who climb Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world. The Sherpa culture is hardworking, peaceful, and remarkable. Unfortunately, communication with the rest of the world has drastically modified the culture of the Sherpa.

The Sherpa migrated to Nepal approximately 500 years ago from eastern Tibet. Before contact with the Western world in the twentieth century, the Sherpa did not partake in mountain climbing. This is so because they were Nyingma Buddhists who believed the peaks of the Himalayas were homes of the gods and were, therefore, off-limits. As a result, the Sherpa eked out a living utilizing high-altitude farming, cattle raising, and spinning and weaving wool.

The British had begun assembling mountain climbing expeditions and hired the Sherpa for portering. It was not until the 1920s that the Sherpa became involved in mountain climbing. In 1953, Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay's name became famous. He was one of the first two men, Sir Edmund Hillary, to make it to Mount Everest for the first time. 

Since then, the number of Sherpas has increased to roughly 150,000 people. As the hardy locals, many praise Sherpas for their climbing skills and extreme strength and stamina at such high altitudes. Furthermore, the Sherpa is also incredibly valuable for its local expertise if you are a tourist visiting the area. 

The Sherpa is an incredible Nepalese ethnic group whose skills and culture have been celebrated since their partnership with the British in the 1920s. They are renowned for their climbing abilities and strength in climbing mountains. So, they are also invaluable for tourists due to their local expertise. Unfortunately, contact with the Western world has caused drastic changes to the Sherpa culture, but the impact of the Sherpa on the climbing world will never be forgotten. 

The Sherpa are an incredible Nepalese ethnic group renowned for their rich culture and skills in mountaineering. The impact of the Sherpa on mountaineering culture has been immense; for centuries. Sherpas have been portrayed as brave and hardworking, being the first to conquer the highest peaks in the world. They often take on the role of guide and porter for Westerners. Sherpa is also incredibly valuable for its local expertise to tourists.    

However, contact with Westerners has had a drastic and devastating effect on the Sherpa culture. Western climbers have taken advantage of Sherpas in the past, and modern mountaineering has brought economic differences among the Sherpa. Furthermore, developments in facilities and infrastructure around the Himalayas have disrupted traditional Sherpa livelihoods, and some activities and customs are likely to be lost to Tourism-related changes.

Despite these changes, many Sherpa's lives are true to their culture and traditions. Numbers of Sherpa speak different dialects and languages, so their culture is incredibly diverse and vast. The Sherpa recognition in the Western world cannot be underestimated. Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were two incredibly famous Sherpas who conquered the summit of Mount Everest in 1953; this feat, amongst other incredible deeds by various Sherpa, has taken them from brave and hardworking people to real-life heroes. They used Jiri to Everest base camp route to make history.

To this day, the contributions of the Sherpa to the climbing world are remembered and respected. Their achievements have become a metaphor for courage and determination, and modern mountaineers strive for the same levels of courage and exploration the Sherpa are known for. 

The Sherpa is a remarkable Nepalese ethnic group whose skills, culture, and bravery have been celebrated since their involvement with mountaineering in the 1920s. Even with increasing contact with Westerners, their valuable local expertise and strong presence in the mountaineering world are a massive contribution and essential in helping travelers reach new heights. 

Despite the recognition that the Sherpa have received from the Western world, contact with outsiders has impacted the Sherpa's traditional culture, customs, and livelihoods for both good and bad. For centuries the Sherpa have been taken advantage of by Western climbers, and this has led to economic differences among the Sherpa and the displacement of traditional practices. Furthermore, developments in facilities, infrastructure, and tourism-related changes negatively affect the Sherpa's culture, customs, and traditions. 

Nevertheless, many Sherpa still lives true to their culture and traditions. 

Their deep understanding of the land and environment and sheer strength and tenacity have proven successful in the harsh environment of the Himalayas. Seeing how mountaineering has become a vital part of Sherpa culture is incredible. Many modern mountaineers strive for the same levels of courage and exploration the Sherpa are renowned for.

The Sherpa people have a special place in the cultures of Nepal and the Western world, and their incredible dedication and achievements have been widely celebrated and respected. Still now, Sherpa is recalled and revered for their huge courage, strength, and strength. This same spirit still resonates amongst mountaineers today. The Sherpa and their culture will forever remain integral to the mountaineering world. We must continue to protect and preserve their valuable traditional practices.

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History of Sherpa People in Nepal

The history of the Sherpa people is vibrant, with a tradition of resilience and adaptability. It has allowed them to survive and thrive in Nepal and Tibet's harsh, isolated mountain terrain. The term "Sherpa" means "people from the east." It refers to the fact that the region's original residents came from the eastern part of Tibet – the Kham region – in the 15th century. According to some Sherpas, their tribe migrated over a thousand years ago. Still, historians believe the migration was more likely sometime between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries AD when Mahayana Buddhism's religious conflict drove them out of their homeland.

Sherpas were originally nomads. But upon their arrival in the Himalayas, they began to settle down and take up occupations. These occupations include selling salt, wool, and rice), herders (yaks and cows), and farmers (growing potatoes, barley, and buckwheat). Four main migrating clans moved from Kham in Tibet to Solu-Khumbu at different times. This created the four major Sherpa groups today: Minyagpa, Thimmi, Sertawa, and Chawa. 

The Jirel people, natives of Jiri, are related to the Sherpas, who have branched off over time. A census in 2001 showed that 154,622 Sherpas inhabit Nepal and India, with most living in the eastern regions of Nepal, Solu, Khumbu, and Pharak. For centuries, the Sherpas respected their gods and goddesses, such as Mount Everest (known as Qomolangma or Chomolangma, meaning "goddess mother" in Tibetan), by going around the mountain rather than climbing it.  Mountaineers began to climb Everest and other mountains in the region. This increased the mutual respect between the Sherpas and the mountaineers. This allowed Sherpas to facilitate expeditions to these locations eventually. Many Sherpas abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and began using their knowledge of the terrain. They began to guide mountaineers to the summit and back safely.

Sherpas have become world-renowned for their alpine skills, endurance, and selflessness. This has earned them huge admiration within the mountaineering community. However, they are not consistently recognized for their valuable role. They risk their lives and carry most of the heavy load, often less compensated than their foreign counterparts.

Nevertheless, the Sherpas remain vital to the success of Himalayan expeditions. Climbing mountains has become a tradition within their culture. Sherpa guides have even become world-famous celebrities, such as Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa.

The remarkable achievements of the Sherpas are evidence of the strength and resilience of their culture and ancestors. They managed to make a new home in a place that seemed so forbidding. Their history is full of courage and faith as they follow the starlit path into a place of new beginnings. Despite the most significant challenges, the Sherpa people have remained brave, determined, and resilient. 

The respect and admiration shown by mountaineers for the Sherpa's invaluable assistance, alpine skills, courage, and selflessness have marked them as an example of true heroism, despite the sometimes-limited recognition they receive. From the religious conflict that caused their migration in the 13th and 14th centuries to their ability to adapt to the land they now call home, the strength and tenacity of the Sherpa culture are evident. Despite the limited recognition they may receive, the Sherpa culture stands as a testimony to the power of resilience, survival, and faith, proving that true heroism continues to thrive in the land of the Gods.

Sherpa Culture, languages Religion and Festival 

The Sherpa language, or Sherpali, is a Tibetan idiom spoken by the Sherpa people of Nepal and Tibet. It has grown from neighboring languages and belongs to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan language household. Although the Sherpa people primarily use the Tibetan script for writing, they also use the Nepali language in interactions with people outside their community.

Regarding religion, the Sherpa people trace their roots to the Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism, the oldest form of Buddhism in Tibet. This form of Buddhism emphasizes mysticism and incorporates elements of the pre-Buddhist Bon religion into its practices. As such, the Sherpa people revere multiple gods and demons believed to inhabit their homeland's rivers, ice caps, forests, and mountain peaks. They also practice veneration of particular mountains as gods that represent protective forces. Mount Everest, for instance, is referred to as “Chomolungma” and is worshipped as the “Mother of the World.” Mount Makalu is revered as a representation of the deity Shiva. 

The primary religious practices of the Sherpa people are primarily looked after by lamas, who are Buddhist spiritual leaders living in Sherpa villages. Some shamans and soothsayers interact with supernatural and spiritual forces to identify witches, diagnose illnesses, and act as the voice of deities. Monasteries are also crucial to Sherpa culture and are respected and supported by local communities.

A notable part of Sherpa's custom is the naming system, which is based on the days of the week. For instance, someone born on a Sunday is named “Nima Sherpa,” and someone born on a Saturday is called “Pemba Sherpa.” 

In addition to its language and religion, Sherpa culture is celebrated through annual festivals. Losar, Dumje, and Mani Rimdu are the major festivals celebrated by the Sherpa people. Losar is a fifteen-day celebration that marks the beginning of the New Year in the Tibetan calendar and includes much feasting, singing, and dancing. Dumje is a seven-day celebration at the end of the agricultural season and provides prayer, feasting, and drinking. At the same time, Mani Rimdu is a nineteen-day festival that ends with masked dancers performing at Tengboche monastery. 

The Sherpas primarily use the Tibetan script for writing. However, they use the Nepali language in their dealings with other people. The Sherpas’ religious background is also rooted in the Nyingmapa sect, the oldest form of Buddhism in Tibet. It emphasizes mysticism and features aspects of the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, such as reverence for multiple gods, demons, and mountains. Mount Everest, for example, is referred to as “Chomolungma” and worshipped as the “Mother of the World.” Mount Makalu is revered as a representation of the deity Shiva. 

The major religious practices of the Sherpa people are led by lamas, Buddhist spiritual leaders living in Sherpa villages. Some shamans and soothsayers interact with supernatural and spiritual forces, identify witches, diagnose illnesses, and act as the voice of deities. Monasteries are also significant to Sherpa culture and are respected and supported by local communities.

Furthermore, the Sherpa naming system is based on the days of the week. For instance, those born on Sunday are named “Nima Sherpa,” and those born on Saturday are called “Pemba Sherpa.” 

Moreover, Sherpa culture is celebrated through various annual festivals. Losar is a fifteen-day celebration that marks the beginning of the New Year in the Tibetan calendar, including singing, dancing, and feasting. Dumje is a seven-day celebration at the end of the agricultural season, and Mani Rimdu is a nineteen-day festival that culminates with masked dancers performing at Tengboche monastery. 

The best way to explore and experience Sherpa culture is to plan a trek in the Khumbu region of the Himalayas. By hiring a Sherpa guide, asking questions, and spending time at Sherpa teahouses, tourists can get to know the people and learn more about their culture, history, language, and religion. 

Sherpa settlement in Nepal

The Sherpa people are an exceptional community living on the slopes of the Himalayas, proximate to some of the world’s tallest mountains. While their location offers many unique challenges, recent studies have shown that the Sherpas can cope with extreme altitudes by increasing the number of red cells in their blood and boosting their oxygen-carrying capacity. An estimated 45,000 individuals live in Nepal, spread along the southern slopes of Mount Everest and the surrounding villages of Khumbu and Solu Khumbu, Kulung, Dudh Kosi, Rolwaling Rivers, and Langtang-Helambu. 

These areas are often covered in snow, and temperatures dip to as low as -14℃. The Sherpas bravely make their settlements between 10,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level. This makes them the highest-altitude residential population in the world.

The Sherpa people are characterized by their distinctive facial features, which come from their Tibetan ancestry; those in the Khumbu area have fair complexions. Throughout the year, seasonal changes influence life in the Sherpa communities. Wintry conditions are characteristically cold, sometimes going as low as -14℃, preventing any outdoor activities. As temperatures slowly rise in the spring and it transitions into summer, many Sherpas return to their villages for special events, such as the New Year festival. During the summer, warmer temperatures and abundant rain bring about the last stretch of fair weather before the fall harvest is gathered. In addition to these temperature changes, villages in the Khumbu areas have an average July temperature of 12℃ and a yearly precipitation of 105 cm.

While the Sherpa people’s culture and environment had been well-adapted to their harsh conditions, the region is not without its threats. By 2050, much of the snow cover and ice in the Himalayan region is predicted to disappear. This will ecologically change the mountains, increase the risk of flooding, decrease water availability, and decrease glacial lake capacity. 

Not only are the Sherpa people’s natural environment threatened, but so are their livelihood and culture. As the visitor population increases, so do the infrastructure, accommodations, and other build-ins necessary to operate the tourist-centered industry. Many Sherpas are turning to tourism and, in some areas, are losing their traditional agricultural practices, resulting in a loss of culture, autonomy, and means for self-sufficiency.

The Sherpa people have made incredible strides in adapting to their unique environment and will continue to do so as it changes with the morphing climate. However, their communities are threatened profoundly by tourism behavior that takes more than it gives. It’s important to understand the importance of preserving cultures while also trying to benefit from its resources. The Sherpa people have managed to handle adversity and challenge for years. Still, people can’t handle it when governments and visitors use resources without benefitting them afterward. 

Are Every Sherpa People Porter?

The Sherpa job is one of great respect, with the Sherpas being seen as the "best friends" of the foreign mountaineers. They take risks and anxieties out of the trekking experience. The job itself requires setting up camp, managing the porters, ensuring the loads are evenly distributed, and being in charge of the safety of the trekking group. Sherpas need to also keep communication open between the trekkers and the client. What's remarkable is that while Sherpas have become increasingly in demand as they are seen as efficient guardians of mountaineers, they are not necessarily all of ethnic Sherpa backgrounds. They may be hired from non-Sherpa ethnic backgrounds to help schlep loads, but only to the base camps. 

The higher-altitude jobs, however, are different. They require more experienced Sherpas who are usually of ethnic Sherpa backgrounds and pay better wages. On average, an elite Sherpa can make between $4,000 to $5,000 in only two months. Unfortunately, very few people mention the risks that Sherpas are exposed to during their job. These risks include falling to their death in crevasses or being deserted by their clients on a mountain - as famously evidenced by the Nazi climbing team on Nangba Parbart in 1939. It is also important to note that while Sherpas may do risky work, they are not guaranteed against death. The Sherpas' job description has a combination of positive and negative aspects. While it is seen as a great job opportunity, with many being hired and getting paid nicely, the risks are immense and are only sometimes noted. In conclusion, while the job of a Sherpa is a noble one, it is also a dangerous job that, unfortunately, not many people discuss. 

The Sherpa job has become a respected profession and is an excellent opportunity for many. The elite Sherpa makes between $4,000 and $5,000 over two months. However, it is to be remembered that this job involves a mixed sense of both opportunities and risks. 

Why do Most Sherpa Prefer Everest and Like Climbing?

The Sherpa people have a unique and long history with Mount Everest. This began centuries ago when they sought the fabled Shangri-la and opportunities to improve their lives. Initially, their view on summiting was one of reverence. But this has now changed due to the inflow of cash that has come with the southern approach to Mount Everest pioneered by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's first summit in 1953. The Sherpas have rapidly adapted to their changing landscape. Many now live abroad as ex-mountaineers and business owners. However, there are still many Sherpas who remain near Mount Everest and who give us an insight into why they stay. 

We must first ask the question, do all Sherpas like climbing? Despite the inflow of money that came with the expeditions up the mountain, many Sherpas still abide by their traditional customs, which believe that accidents occur when due respect is not paid to the gods. Before a climbing expedition, a puja is performed, a prayer ceremony with offerings to the gods. The importance of this ceremony was made very clear in Jon Krakauer's 1996 Mount Everest expedition when the lack of respect during the party-like puja ceremony ultimately led to the death of eight people. In this regard, it is more likely that Sherpas are drawn to the area to practice their spirituality and cultural heritage rather than the allure of climbing. 

Another factor that has shaped Sherpa's behavior is the startlingly simple naming system many still adhere to. Children are usually named after the days of the week, such as Pasang being Friday, or they receive virtue names such as Lhamo, meaning "beautiful," or Gyaltshen, meaning "courageous speech ." Consequently, it isn't easy to differentiate among individual Sherpas, leading to a deep sense of community. The comfort and familiarity of their homelands and the entrenchment of their cultural customs are two of the most logical reasons why Sherpas are rooted in the area. 

The Sherpas are highly adaptable and friendly, with many traveling abroad, participating in business and educational endeavors, and living in countries such as New York, Australia, England, and Germany. However, those close to Mount Everest still adhere to their spiritual customs and entrenchment of their cultural naming system and seek comfort and familiarity in their homelands. Therefore, the desire to stay rooted in the area for the reasons above is likely a critical factor in why Sherpas stick around Everest. 

What challenges do Sherpas face in Nepal?

Life in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal can be complicated for its native people, the Sherpas. Many of their challenges are physical but also mental and spiritual burdens to consider. In the words of one guide, "Death and injury are part of our lives now. We have lost many of our people to the mountain." This statement points to one of the Sherpas' main difficulties. The dangers they face while climbing and trekking through the treacherous peaks and valleys of the Himalayas. 

  1. The dangers Sherpas face in the mountains of Nepal are perhaps the most pressing of their challenges. Every year, six climbers die due to unexpected states in the Himalayas. Likewise, many more experience severe injury or illness. 
  2. The risk of Death can be worsened by avalanches, crevasses, and even the sudden change in weather. This can leave climbers without the protection and supplies needed for survival. 
  3. The lack of modern amenities and access to medical services means the consequences of missteps in the Himalayas can be deadly. 
  4. This threat to life and limb, combined with the potential for debilitating injury, has put a lot of stress, anxiety, and fear on the Sherpas who brave the mountain yearly.
  5. The physical health of Nepal's Sherpa population is also constantly in jeopardy. High altitudes, extreme climates, and unpredictable weather can all cause severe health issues. These issues include hypothermia, altitude sickness, and frostbite. Failed harvests, inadequate diets, and limited access to healthcare led to suffering from extreme poverty and malnutrition. Living in such harsh environments also means a shorter life expectancy, with the average lifespan of a Sherpa in Nepal being significantly lower than the nation's overall average.
  6. The spiritual uplifting of Sherpas is another challenge they face. Many elderly Sherpas migrate to the temples of Kathmandu Valley to take a break from their arduous life on the mountain. Despite the efforts, many still feel the loss of their culture and traditional way of living. 
  7. The traditional way of life of the Sherpas is being threatened by modern industry. With the rise of commercialized mountain tourism, Sherpas face increased competition for jobs as guides.
  8.  The Nepali government's commitment to creating jobs for Sherpas needs to be more consistent and reliable, and thus difficult for them to make a living wage.

The challenges faced by Nepal's Sherpas are vast and ever-evolving. From the constant physical risks of climbing the dangerous mountain terrain to the mental and spiritual detriments posed by modernizing industry, the Sherpas face daunting obstacles daily. But despite these challenges, their courage and determined spirit remain. 

Shiksha Pokhrel

Shiksha Pokhrel

She starts working as an operation manager and now she is our tour guide.  She has a long of experience in trekking and tours. She exam to get a Tour guide license from the Nepalese Government.  She strongly continued her profession and study together (Master's Degree), and she has devoted herself as a tour guide and Start content writing.