Every year people will pay obscene amounts of money to complete one of the most dangerous climbs in the world; summiting Everest. Each group will have a Sherpa, a local who make their living by guiding climbers to the top. With Sherpas making up a third of all the people who have perished on the mountain, could this be the most dangerous job in the world?
HEKKTA thinks it could be, however a Sherpa will have a very different take on it. The word Sherpa is actually the name of the family of people who lived on Mount Everest initially and then over time it was coined as the name of the guides that took expeditions up to the summit. The mountain is part of their identity, and with no cars or roads, any supplies had to be carried on their backs and if you wanted to get somewhere, you were walking. Also living at such high altitude means their red blood cell count is abnormally high, so they can carry more oxygen in their blood meaning intense exercise on the mountain is far easier for them. They are genetically suited to the mountains.
One of the most legendary Sherpas, Lakpa Rita, has led 253 climbers to the top of Everest. He has summited 23 times! He was also the first Sherpa to complete the Seven Summits, which is summiting the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. He explained to Red Bull some of his experiences of being a Sherpa and how they are born for the job.
“When I was younger, we did not have access to cars, so we had to walk for miles and miles to get supplies. This would then mean carrying heavy loads home on our backs. I would also walk to my school every day, which took four hours each way. All of these have combined throughout the years to build up my physical strength”
“While I was growing up, mountaineering was not as commercialised as it is today, but there are a few well known climbers from my home town of Thame, including Ang Rita who summited 10 times without any O2 supply, Ang Dorjee who summited Everest several times and who also guided Bachendri Pal [the first Indian woman to climb Everest]. Sir Edmund Hillary would visit our school every two to three years. Since then, I have always wanted to climb Everest.”
Avalanches can also be a huge problem, as there is no way of controlling them and such high altitude. Lakpa Rita said he has been buried alive three times, the first time being on his first ever expedition. Pretty poor luck. The danger involved is clear to all the Sherpas that work as guides for expeditions, and the danger is often increased by those attempting to summit. One of the biggest risks on Everest is altitude sickness and if you don’t listen to your body and go back down the mountain, it can be fatal. The massive cost of the expedition combined with the carrot of summiting Everest can make climbers ignore the warning signs and keep going.
Lakpa Rita explains, “It is always tough to guide people up a mountain, no matter who it is you are guiding. The hardest part is that often people will not listen to you. We will tell them that the most important things on a climb are self care, being honest with yourself and your guide, and not pushing so hard that you risk injury. While we are advising all of this, they seem like they’re listening and taking it all in, but often it goes in through one ear and out the other.”
While it is not the most technical climb you can do, the altitude makes it the toughest on your body physically. So hard that you have to use oxygen tanks for the final climb, and despite being acclimatised to the mountain oxygen levels, even Lakpa Rita Sherpa has to use oxygen. Everest is a beast, and it really is remarkable the effort they put in and the risks these Sherpas take daily just to put food on the table.
Last year HEKKTA was lucky enough to do some climbing in the mountains of Nepal and during our time there we became slightly infatuated with the culture of insanity that the mountains breed. There is this buzz around the place (Kathmandu specifically) of people either climbing to base camp (which in itself is 10 days hard walking directly up), or the madmen actually attempting to summit. But when we started to meet more of the locals, we started to see how, for them, it’s just completely ordinary. It is a job for them and the risks are just part of every day life. It’s funny how we view getting to the top as this huge achievement only a select few will ever manage, especially considering the hundreds that have died on Everest, but there are plenty of Sherpas who have summited over 20 times!
When we visisted we did some trekking in the Annapurna range, which is a different mountain range a few hundred miles away in Nepal. We were fortunate enough to meet some of the amazing porters that carry all the supplies right up to the Annapurna Base Camp and all the surrounding villages. One walked past us carrying a fridge on his back! These people, while not Sherpas, are equally as impressive. While trekking around we weren’t allowed to carry our big bags which weighed around 30kg as they knew we couldn’t handle the climb with them on our backs. So a small group of 4 porters would take 3 bags each! That’s almost 90kg! It put us all to shame thinking we were these fit, strong individuals hiking around Nepal! But hopefully soon we can return to the stunning country that is Nepal and hike up to Everest Base Camp to meet some of the incredible Sherpas leading all of the climbs to the top.