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Watching the old women dig potatoes in the snow epitomized for us the harsh reality of Sherpa life at higher elevations. The ever increasing demands of trekkers have led to traditional summer villages becoming year round settlements, and eking a livelihood out of such terrain was clearly at the limits of the possible. Lower down, the fields were green with ripening wheat, but here the April ground was frozen and brown.

We were attracted to the Khumbu region in part by the reputation of the Sherpas themselves. Ever since Tenzing stood on the summit of Everest with Edmund Hillary, Sherpas have been renowned the world over for their hardiness. Such a reputation has to be won, though, and the details are often far from romantic. Children sent out to collect yak dung for fuel, old women digging potatoes in the snow, men and women struggling up steep hills under huge loads, memorials to the many Sherpas who have died on mountaineering expeditions – these and other such sights gave us pause.

Essentials, such as rice, cooking oil, ghetto blasters and pool tables, must be carried into the 70% of Nepal’s area not served by road. Those in need of medical attention must be carried out. Foreign trekkers & mountaineers are carried out by helicopter, but the locals, who cannot afford the $1000 per flying hour fee, are carried down on the backs of ponies, yaks or, as we saw, porters. Portering is a respectable, though certainly not prestigious, livelihood. Officially, a porter load is 30 kilos, but it is not unusual for porters to take twice that to earn extra money. In Tenzing’s 1954 autobiography, he writes of the changes that have come over Katmandu in the 40 years since he was first there. On his return, there were even cars on the streets – cars that had been carried over the mountains from India on men’s backs.

Female porters are also common, which can be a little uncomfortable to western eyes. This reflects the very equal position women have always held in Sherpa society. Farming, cooking, child-rearing and load-carrying are all undertaken by men and women. Perhaps rigidly defined gender roles are a luxury that cannot be afforded when trying to survive in the harsh Khumbu conditions. Whatever the reason, women are vastly more visible and confident than elsewhere in Nepal.

Despite the harshness of life at such extremes, the region is prosperous. Trekkers bring in a steady income, sustaining porters, guides, shops & guesthouses along all the main routes. Mountaineering expeditions can bring in exceptional incomes for those with the right skills – up to $3000 in a two-month season when the per capita income in Nepal is $200 - but the risk is also exceptional. Around 40% of the Everest fatalities have been Sherpas, and yet there are only around 120,000 Sherpas in total.

Nepal is 90% Hindu, but the Sherpas are Buddhist, and fluttering prayer flags, carved mani stones and chortens dominate the trails and villages in the Khumbu region. Buddhism is an intrinsic part of daily life, and all along the trail you see new prayer stones being carved & chortens erected. No Everest expedition sets off from Base Camp until the puja has been held & the blessing of the lama obtained. The Hindu majority assigned places in the caste system to all of Nepal’s ethnic groups, but aside from slapping on the understandably unpopular label of Bhotia (enslavable alcohol drinker), the impact on Khumbu region Sherpas seems to have been negligible.

The impact of a single charity has been more tangible. The Hillary Trust was established by Sir Edmund Hillary to support Sherpa projects, and the hydroelectricity generators, water purification projects and local hospitals have transformed Sherpa life. The dramatic reduction in infant mortality brought about by clean water and access to medical care has led a to huge take up in birth control from Sherpa women.

The impact of the trekking and mountaineering business on the Sherpa way of life is also undeniable. By and large the Sherpas welcome these changes, which provide lucrative employment opportunities, funds for ongoing development and generally lead to a more comfortable lifestyle. While the visiting tourist may prefer these villages to remain unchanged to preserve their unspoilt holiday experience, I tend to attach more importance to the views of the Sherpas who actually live there. I find myself on less comfortable ground, though, when the locals campaign against certain developments. Projects to extend roads further into the mountains have been blocked by communities who live along the potentially obsolete stretches of trail. While this benefits the trekkers, porters and guesthouse owners in the short term, the long-term preservation of a menial way of life is more questionable.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture Sherpani in her kitchen, Everest Nepal travelogues
Picture of Barbara with Sherpa children Everest Nepal travelogues
Sherpani in her kitchen

Barbara & Sherpa girls

picture of a mani wall Everest Nepal travelogues
photograph of a sherpa porter Everest Nepal travelogues
Mani Wall in Sherpa Village

Heavy Load
Photograph of a prayer stone Everest Nepal travelogues
Prayer Stone