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Conquest of Everest: Role of the Sherpa - 2003-05-28


In the 50 years since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first to climb Mount Everest, about 1,200 people have followed them to world's highest point. One third of those climbers have been Sherpas, ethnic Nepalis who have lived in the shadow of Mount Everest for centuries. Many Sherpas say their contribution the trek up the mountain has never been fully recognized.

Although Edmund Hillary has said he was the first to step on the summit of Mount Everest, ahead of his Sherpa partner, Tenzing Norgay, he says who was first does not matter. He says neither man would have reached the top without the other's help.

Jamling Norgay, Mr. Tenzing's son, says the partnership between Mr. Hillary and his father was a rare one. He says most climbers these days rarely mention the contribution made by the Sherpas who help them climb Everest. "You see a lot of books by Westerners about climbing Everest and doing all these things, but you might see a mention of five Sherpas," he says. "I think with respect they should at least write down the name and where they are from, you know give a little more details."

Mr. Jamling says Sherpas are the "unsung heroes" of Mount Everest and with the advent of large commercial climbing expeditions their job has gotten more dangerous. "The Sherpas risk their lives more than anyone else. On an average climb, a member of the team would go to the South Col, which is the last camp at 2,600 feet (8,600 meters)," he says. "The average Sherpa would make about eight trips to the South Col to drop supplies, so their risk is a lot higher."

Sherpas are uniquely suited to climbing the world's highest peak. Most Sherpas grow up at altitudes of four to five-thousand meters - so they are well conditioned to virtually sprint up the slopes of Everest. In the days leading up to the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest, Sherpa climbers broke long-held records for the fastest ascent up the mountain.

There are about 70,000 Sherpas in northeastern Nepal. The word Sherpa means person from the east, and the first Sherpas are believed to have migrated to the area around Everest in the 16th century from Tibet. In the 19th century, many young Sherpa men migrated to Darjeeling in eastern India. When British mountaineers first thought of climbing Mount Everest, they turned to the Sherpas as guides and porters. Stephen Venables is a veteran of Everest, and the author of two books on the mountain. He says Sherpas have benefited from living in Everest's shadow. "They are free to practice free-market enterprise, which they do very well," he says. "They have always been great traders. They have capitalized very successfully on the Everest phenomenon."

About 15,000 Sherpas work in the mountaineering and trekking industry. Many have become wealthy, running hotels and airlines that cater to Westerners wishing to visit the Everest area. In recent years, however, many Sherpa businesses and mountain guides have suffered economically as tourists have stayed away from Nepal, because of violence from a Maoist insurgency that has left thousands dead.

Jamling Norgay says when he told his father that he too, wanted to climb Everest, his father objected, saying Sherpas climb Everest so their children will not have too. Mr. Jamling says he obeyed his father, getting a university degree and opening a successful trekking business. But the lure of Everest was too strong to resist.

In 1996, Jamling Norgay stood on Everest's summit in an expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society. His climbing partner on the expedition: Peter Hillary, Edmund Hillary's son, also making his first ascent of Mount Everest.

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