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The Sherpa Problem

With growing attention to Nepal and the Himalaya region, the Sherpa community comes into focus.

When you think of a sherpa, what comes to mind? You might picture him on a snowy mountainside, wrapped in a down jacket, braving the cold winds of the Himalaya, complete with a dizzying display of ropes and metal tools slung from his harness.

All of these images aren’t inaccurate. Sherpas, the ethnic group from the mountainous Khumbu (Everest) region of Nepal, have become known to Western audiences for their skill in the mountains. The region has lent many people the opportunity to work in the Himalaya, such as with climbing outfitters. Most of them take jobs as guides, porters, cooks, and others. So it’s not surprising that the term “sherpa” has become synonymous with “mountain guide.”

While the depictions of Sherpas in media aren’t untrue, often a tourist-heavy western narrative dominates the voices of the Sherpa themselves, leaving a huge community of Himalaya  – which is essential to climbing in the region – voiceless and misrepresented.

I recently talked with professor Gyan Nyaupane from Arizona State University about sherpas and their relationship to western climbers and tourists.

“They think: As long as we have Everest, people will still come.

“Tourism is their main source of bread and butter,” Professor Nyaupane tells me. Tourism is central to the Sherpa way of life. Many businesses are dependent on tourist traffic, especially backpackers. “Tourism matters to them a lot more compared to the rest of the country.”

Much of the conversation concerned equal pay and opportunities between Nepali guides and Western guides, operating out of Nepal – specifically the Solokhumbu region.

“They do the same job, but why do they get paid less? This is the issue they’re trying to bring up within the Sherpa community.” It’s dangerous work, too.

Professor Nyaupane says that Sherpas aren’t aware of the effects of tourism, because there’s a belief that seems omnipresent within the sherpa community. “They think: As long as we have Everest, people will still come.

To an extent, this belief is true.

This region of the world has only increased in popularity in recent years. Tourism to Nepal took off decades ago with Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air, about Mount Everest, and recent films such as Everest (2015) and Meru (2015) have only made this area more appealing to the adventurous tourist.

Climber and writer Mark Jenkins thinks this recent spotlight on the country will only attract more tourists.

“I suspect there will be a big jump in aspiring Everest climbers entirely because of the recent Hollywood movie,” Jenkins says. “Even though it relatively accurately presents the suffering and struggle, I think it will only bring more people to the mountain.”

They are trained to be sherpas, but not trained in the global impact of tourism.

But all this attention has left Sherpas disillusioned. Sometimes the season can be slow – such as the season right after the April earthquake, that killed nineteen on Everest Basecamp – and much of the community thinks the tourists will always come.

“The sherpas think it’s constant,” Professor Nyaupane suggested. “But they don’t realize that things can fluctuate. They have a narrow vision of how tourism operates.”

“The Sherpas need some awareness. They are trained to be sherpas, but not trained in the global impact of tourism.”

But Sherpas are fairly well off compared to the rest of the country. “It’s good work,” Prof. Nyaupane tells me. He’s referring to the members of the sherpa community that work for expedition companies. “They work for three or four months, make enough money to survive for the rest of the year, and send their kids to Kathmandu for school.”

They’re doing sought-after work, but the Sherpa are largely unaware of the fluctuating amount of tourists. Will tourists and climbers come after seeing what the earthquake has done? The spring season is up in the air. Problems such as the gas crisis and the earthquake recovery process might affect the amount of traffic in the Khumbu region. Like most businesses operating out of the high Himalaya, we’ll have to wait and see.

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