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High Altitude Mountaineering, Cash Economy, and the Sherpa


How sustainable is the tourism industry in Nepal, and how is it influencing the Sherpas of Himalayas?

Sherpas are crucial to anyone who wants or wishes to climb Mt. Everest. They are the greatest resource available to climbers. But the life of a Sherpa is a hard one. Climbing any mountain carries its own risks, especially Everest, and a sherpa must do it frequently in order to support themselves and their families.

The landscape of the surrounding area is very barren and has little ability to support agriculture. This forces the locals to focus on raising livestock and more recently makes them rely upon the livelihood that the tourism industry provides.

“Tourism-induced demands for accommodation have not only resulted in significant housing constructions, but traditional family dwellings have been converted into modern tourist accommodations as well.” The economy of settlements near Mt. Everest are now almost completely geared towards serving the incoming tourists.

Sherpas have been climbing Mt. Everest for a century, and they have an essential role in the economy and culture of Nepal.

The issue is very significant to the people of Nepal. The sherpa’s homeland cannot be damaged any further.

In response to this issue, people who do not live in the region, but wish to work there could be brought to fill opened positions. A training program could be instated to train people in order to reduce death from inexperience. Subsequently, the people trained by the program could form teams, along with volunteers, to clean the trash off of the mountain.

In conclusion, sherpas lead dangerous lives, sometimes cut short by influences they can’t control. Nepal as a country has a majority of its population in relative poverty, sherpas making above the average, but at large risk. The influx of tourists is severely damaging and devaluing the landscape, but the money that they bring to the local communities is vital to the continuation of the sherpa way of life.

Sherpas lead a utilitarian existence, with many surviving through trade and subsistence farming. Wheat and potatoes are the leading crops, and some raise yaks as well. With both farming and herding, Sherpas often move between multiple small stone huts in the highlands and lowlands, depending on the season. They can then trade these goods for other necessities.

As we’ll discuss in more detail later, tourism is the most lucrative economic trend for the Sherpas. While a majority of Sherpas do not work with trekking and expedition companies, those specifically in the elevated Khumbu valley have profited the most from it.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Sherpa life is the absence of wheels. Because of the treacherous landscape, almost no wheeled transportation exists in the Solu-Khumbu region, not even wheelbarrows.

Instead of roads and automobiles, Sherpas get from place to place on foot paths. That means that whenever they need to transport anything — such as firewood, produce or building materials — it goes on their yaks or their backs. Many Sherpas, especially poorer ones, become accustomed to bearing heavy loads from a young age, hauling their families’ cargo or working as porters for wealthier people.

Some Sherpas also earn extra money as porters on mountain climbs, sometimes carrying more than 100 pounds (45.3 kilograms) up the trails. Wide mouth baskets with a strap called a trumpline that goes across the forehead contain the cargo. The trumpline takes some of the load weight from the back, transferring it to the neck. Walking sticks also help ease the burden.

The Sherpa’s ability to perform such strenuous labor in higher altitudes with less oxygen has been a perplexing phenomenon for scientists. While most visitors to the region would suffer from altitude sickness, or hypoxia, due to lack of oxygen delivered to tissues, Sherpas’ bodies are acclimated to it.

In fact, some Sherpa have summited Mount Everest without the additional supply of oxygen that is standard issue on most climbs. Although the precise reason why they are better adapted has not been pinned down, studies have revealed that some Sherpas may have slightly more hemoglobin in their blood that transports oxygen to the tissues to fuel metabolism compared with people who live at sea level. Evidence also suggests that Sherpas’ bodies absorb oxygen into their blood more efficiently as well. To learn more about high-altitude survival, read How do Tibetans avoid altitude sickness?.

Sherpas speak a Tibetan dialect rather than the national Nepali language and have no written language. Until the 1960s and the funding, from Edmund Hillary’s foundation, little to no formalized education existed in the area. Hillary’s Himalayan Fund charity built 30 schools in the Solu-Khumbu region.

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