Heores of the Himalayas
The Sherpa: Mountaineering and Trekking Guides
We hear stories about mountaineers achieving incredible feats and overcoming the most challenging circumstances. However, none of this would be possible if it were not for the Sherpas, the Himalayan people living on the borders of Nepal and Tibet with superior mountaineering and trekking skills. These silent heroes serve as guides working behind the scenes to make the ascents of the Himalayan mountains possible. While climbing one of the lower Himalayas, Island Peak, Ron John Ostlund sat down with his climbing team leader and senior Sherpa to find out more about these world-class mountaineers.
TJ: I understand you are an expedition leader with 50 high-level Sherpas below you. Can you tell us a little more about yourself?
SHERPA: Mingma Temba Sherpa is my full name. Mingma is “Tuesday” from the Sherpa language, the Tibetan language. I don’t know exactly the meaning for Temba but it’s my middle name. Sherpa is my family name for the caste of Sherpa. We came from Tibet six centuries ago. I work at Snowy Horizon as a clinbing team leader. I am a Sardar — the senior of other Sherpas. I lead a big team with many staff for the base camp. I started as a porter when I was only 13 years old — one day was like 90 rupees. We carried about 35 kilograms all day. After that, I was an assistant guide, an assistant cook, and then a cook. I became a guide 11 years ago. I have led many thousand-meter expeditions.
TJ: Were you still in school when you started? Did you learn English in school?
SHERPA: I learned English during trekking expeditions with clients. I only went to school for five years. Both of my parents died and we have a big family. I have a younger sister and three younger brothers, so I stopped school. My brothers are now all guides.
TJ: How many times have you climbed Mount Everest?
SHERPA: 10 times, but the summit only eight.
TJ: Where were you during the avalanche in 2014?
SHERPA: At that time I had gone to base camp to acclimatize for Island Peak. Some of my Sherpas had started very early from base camp, but they had passed the ava-lanche.
TJ: You mentioned to me before that you knew all the Sherpas. How many died?
SHERPA: 18. But they did not find three of the dead bodies. One was a close relative, and another was a neighbor of mine.
TJ: Where were you during the 2015 earthquake?
SHERPA: At that time I was on an expedition from Tibet. We had just arrived in Advanced Base Camp and I was taking part in a Buddhist ceremony to be blessed before I climbed. After the earthquake, I called the Everest Base Camp many times. I was so worried because three of my brothers were there. I heard the news on the BBC and on Chinese television — something like 300 people were missing. I tried calling my agency and I was told that all of our team was safe. Many Sherpas had problems. We were very saddened.
TJ: Have these incidents affected the industry? Has the pay increased for the Sherpas?
SHERPA: There has been about a 75% reduction in people coming here. Last year, for this national park, there were about 300 people. Now, only 100 or 75. Our pay is similar but the insurance is much better. Before the avalanche, our insurance was only about US$6,000, but now it is about US$15,000. The law changed a little bit, because most Sherpas work for the government.
TJ: Do clients always follow your guidance?
SHERPA: It is sometimes very difficult for us to lead clients because they don’t understand their limits. They push beyond their energy and it’s very dangerous.
TJ: Is it true that the Sherpas climb at night to set all the ropes for the clients to climb in the morning?
SHERPA: Yes, it is true. We look to see which day has a good weather forecast first. We lead and we fix the ropes one or two days before... but on some mountains we do it on the same day also.
TJ: Do you have children? Will they follow in your footsteps?
SHERPA: Yes. I have two sons. One is nine and the other is seven. I don’t think they are enthusiastic about doing this. I’d like them to get a good education and a job, but not climbing. I do take them on mountains for the experience, though.
TJ: Do you still enjoy climbing or do you see it just as a job? Do you prefer climbing or trekking these days?
SHERPA: This is a job that I enjoy. I like climbing but I don’t like climbing above 8,000 meters anymore. I prefer climbing because the money is better, and I have more experience. I’d like to visit other countries for climbing, but not for work [laughs]... because I don’t have an education to work.
TJ: What advice would you give to first-time visitors to Nepal for trekking or climbing?
SHERPA: Getting in a good physical condition is the most important thing. Also, read some books about this region and learn what kind of equipment you will need. tj
The complete article can be found in Issue #278 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.