Climbing Everest or hiking the Everest Base Camp Trek are great adventures enjoyed by thousands of tourists every year. But in this challenging terrain at the top of the world it’s usually the locas, the Sherpas, who will be carrying your gear, guiding and assisting you on your Everest trip. To help you better understand the background, culture and working life of these hard working folk, in this article we’re going to look at Sherpas and other mountain staff and tips for dealing with these friendly people.
The Sherpa people are an ethnic group who come from the Himalayas and mainly live in these mountainous regions and the east of Nepal, with an estimated population of around 150,000. Like the majority of Nepalese people they are very religious, most are Buddhist and testament to this is the proliferation of lovely shrines, stupas, prayer flags and temples which can be found in the Everest region. They also believe in various deities associated with mountains, and consider the mountains themselves to be sacred. They have a unique and vibrant culture concentrated on community and those who live in the mountains reside in small villages, usually with farming as the main source of food and income.
Tenzing Norgay is the most famous Sherpa
The most famous Sherpa is probably Tenzing Norgay, who accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary on the first successful summit of Mount Everest. Sherpas are often used as trekking and climbing guides and porters at high altitudes thanks to their great resilience and strength at heights in which other people struggle. Various theories exist as to why this is the case, recent studies show that their blood flow performs better at high altitude, and cases are also made for genetical makeup adapting to thrive at these extreme heights.
Although Sherpas make up a proportion of the guides and porters that accompany tourists on Everest treks and climbs, the term “Sherpa” has also become a byword for any Nepalese person doing this kind of work on the mountain. In fact, many of what Westerners call “Sherpas” are not Sherpas in the genetic sense, but instead come from other tribes from elsewhere in Nepal. And large number of porters used on Everest Base Camp treks actually come from the lowlands of Nepal, often to earn extra money for their families. For actual Everest climbs, the ratio of “true” Sherpas still tends to be high. In this article we will use the generic term of Sherpa to talk about those working on the mountain, rather than just the Sherpa ethnic group.
For those people climbing Mount Everest, teams of Sherpas support summit expeditions. They set up and maintain climbing routes, fixing ropes, setting up camp, placing ladders and so on. They may carry climbing and camping gear or act as mountain guides. This kind of work is usually highly paid by Nepalese standards, working for Western clients and companies, but comes with hazardous and deadly risks, even more so than the usual climbing expeditions. Every year Sherpas account for some of the deaths on Mount Everest, often due to accidents whilst supporting or advancing to pave the way for an expedition. Large scale disaster has struck Sherpas from avalanches, most notably in 2014 at the Khumbu Icefall which killed 16 Sherpas, and 10 Sherpas were killed with 6 other climbers by an avalanche during the 2015 Nepal earthquake.
Sherpa porters carrying heavy loads enroute Everest Base Camp. Photo by Jari
The Everest Base Camp trek, in comparison is much safer work, but still difficult. Sherpas on the Lukla to Base Camp hike find work as guides or porters (or both!) for tourists, carrying trekker’s belongings. Other Sherpas also carry loads but in the form of supplies up to the remote villages in the Himalayas, which can only be reached by walking. The sight of Sherpas carrying bottles of Coke, chickens and gas canisters for days on end up the mountains make you appreciate why prices are so steep in the trekking lodges near the top!
Although ethnic Sherpas deal well with acclimatization, they can still suffer the effects. However it’s the lowlanders who come to work on the mountains that have as many problems as tourists with working at high altitudes, and so altitude sickness causes illness and deaths for some every year. Often this is due to workers climbing too fast to acclimatize properly, either pressured by clients or bosses, or self-inflicted to try and complete a job as quickly as possible.
Two Sherpas on Mount Everest. Photo by LWP
Working as a Sherpa on Everest treks, particularly as a porter, is a very tough job. Often carrying loads in excess of 30kg (usually in bags with the weight taken using a headband), they lug these for 8 hours or more a day in mountainous terrain. Ideally a worker will work all high season, climbing to Base Camp three or four times over a period of months without break. To save money, at night they usually sleep in basic dormitories or rooms whilst their clients enjoy a real bed. Porters need an amazing amount of food every day to support the enormous amount of calories that they burn, but some skimp on meals to save money, many only have two big meals of Dahl Bhat (the local staple; rice and lentil soup) a day. Paying for extras like snacks or tea is money that adds up for them.
Worker wages for porters by Nepalese standards are decent, but hardly make them wealthy. Many porters do this to supplement additional income from farming or other means as trekking seasons only support a certain number of treks a year (if you can get the work). The money from portering goes towards supporting their family, children’s education, and so on. To put things into perspective, a 13 day trek might bring in around $50 for a porter, hardly a fortune for very hard physical work.
Local guides are paid better than porters (and usually carry less) - but deservedly so, requiring training and a guide license to be official. They usually speak English and sometimes other languages and should also give tourists some insight into mountain culture, as well as deal with any problems their clients have. Most Sherpas work for agencies who take a big cut of what the client pays for their services leaving a fraction for the actual Sherpa to live off. Hence, this is why so many Sherpas try to save money where-ever possible, even at the cost of their own health and welfare.
If you are planning to trek or climb Everest as a tour, then check in advance with companies about the welfare of the supporting staff - what they get for accommodation, meals provided, is their clothing and equipment adequate for the conditions, how much weight do they carry? Also check that the company has adequate insurance to cover any mishaps or health issues that a Sherpa may have during the trek - it’s standard for there to be some kind of worker insurance but its quality varies.
Support the Sherpas Photo by Trey
If you are arranging a porter or guide yourself, be aware that by law you are held responsible for the welfare of your support staff. Check about insurance, meals, accommodation and that your staff have appropriate clothing and equipment. Clearly define what you are and are not paying for in advance, and set ground rules for accommodation choices as some workers will get commission for taking you to certain places - no bad thing as this helps them out - but be sure to outline what is fine and not for you. Make sure your porter/s aren’t carrying too much weight (15-20Kg of your own gear per person maximum - bear in mind they have to carry their own stuff too!).
There are plenty of good organizations and charities which look out for Sherpa/porter welfare, not only on Everest but in other Nepalese trekking regions and beyond. You can support them and read more about how to aid in supporting Sherpas at these sites:
To improve safety on the Everest Base Camp trek, the Nepalese government made it compulsory for you to do the trek accompanied by a guide. However this law seems to have been relaxed making it possible to do unaccompanied. Indeed the trail is clear and pretty obvious, with settlements dotted along the route. So, do you really need a guide or porter?
Well, it’s definitely recommended. A guide or porter/guide (who will carry your stuff and guide as well) gives you a number of benefits. They act as a translator and point of contact between you and the locals. They will stop you from getting lost (yes, it happens). Properly trained guides will know how to plan the route, classic or any of the alternatives , and stops to take into account altitude acclimatization for you and them. And they should give you some interesting insight into Nepalese life and the mountains.
You’ll also very likely want someone else to carry your belongings for you. At these high altitudes it’s a real struggle to carry heavy backpacks whilst also continuously climbing up and down - and for many days at a time, don’t forget. Porters do this with apparent ease and after the first day you will definitely appreciate the help, as even a day bag can be a burden given the demanding trek. The cost of hiring a porter or a porter/guide soon pays for itself in your own comfort!
This useful thread on TripAdvisor gives some advice about the realities of travelling without a guide/porter, and organising an Everest Base Camp trek yourself. We would always recommend that you travel with at least one qualified mountain worker for safety and support on your trek.
It’s customary to tip your Sherpas at the end of a trek/climb, and client tips provide a direct and vital boost to their earnings, often providing a substantial chunk of their low income. Whilst it’s not demanded of you, it’s usually expected. As you would with any tip, give as generously as you like. Most people use the rough guideline of splitting tips based on around 10% of the overall cost of your Everest trek, of course if you are really happy with their performance, show it by tipping as much as you like - remember that your money goes a long way in Nepal and can make a real difference. The Nepalese are very kind and thankful people and their gratitude will be genuine. Make sure you give money to staff personally, to ensure no-one else gets a cut of it - in an envelope or similar if you can acquire something suitable, although there is no defined precedent in tipping rituals. If you are travelling on an Everest tour, check with your operator before the trek about their tipping guidelines and advice.
We hope this has been a useful and interesting look at the working life of the Sherpas on Everest and you can look forward to an Everest climb or trek with the knowledge that these hard workers will be supporting you all the way. They deserve all the rewards they can get for their tough work and rightly earn their place as kings of the mountain!
Here’s some good articles where you can learn more about the Sherpas of Mount Everest.