By Valentina Gasbarri
KATHMANDU, Nepal, Jan 31 2020 – Since I was a kid, I grew up with adventures and stories of famous characters of the books of Jack London: White Fang, Make a Fire… and the incredible ode to perseverance of Martin Eden.
I was absolutely fascinated by the fact that human beings could establish a deep link with the environment, even in the remote, high-altitude, coldest and hardest places of our Planet. This was the first contact I had with the theoretical concept of sustainability.
But when theory meets curiosity, the result is clear: always looking for stories to be told to document successful models of living where Human-Nature result in creating a perfect balance.
Majestic landscape of mountains, deep valleys and glaciers are dominated by Mt. Everest (Sagarmatha in Nepalese, which means “forehead in the sky” and Chomolungma in Tibetan, meaning “goddess mother of mountains”) at 8,848m above the sea level.
This mountain of many names has always attracted pilgrims, whether Tibetans honoring a peak they believe is abode of a deity, or climbers or trekkers fascinated by the highest point on Earth.
Since the first successful ascent on 29 May 1953 by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir. Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand mountaineer, explorer and philantropist, a pivotal change is taking place but local mountain Sherpas show resilience and are committed to protect high mountain ecosystem, plants and wildlife from the valley to the icy summits, where they have lived for more than 400 years.
“It is our hope that the people who are coming to the Sagarmatha Park and the Khumbu valley will agree that the Sherpa people and landscapes in our land have exhibited an overall stability and resiliency which can provide important insights and lessons-learned for mountain people around the globe” said Sherpa Paisang during our journey to the Everest Base Camp (8.364m).
The term Sherpa or sherwa derives from the Sherpa language words Shyar (“East”) and Pa (“People”), which refer to their geographical origin of Eastern Nepal.
“It’s hard to become a Sherpa guide, there’s a 1 year course to attend and an exam to pass on subject related to mountain and case-studies to be solved. Majority of Sherpas are porters. They can usually carry on their shoulders max 130kg from Lukla airport to Namche Bazar or up to the other villages. They get around $8 per kg. They got a little salary for a huge effort” said Paisang, a young guide with a long experience in trekking in the Himalays.
The 2011 Nepal census recorded 312,946 Sherpas within its borders.
Changes in the Sherpa livelihoods from tradition across the Himalaya to Global Tourism
As a population, the Sherpas have historically responded and adapted to changes brought by the outside world. In the mid-1800s, the King of Nepal granted the Sherpas a trade monopoly by prohibiting anyone but a Khumbu Sherpa from crossing the Nangpa La, the high-altitude pass to Tibet.
Many Sherpa families benefited to some degree from the bartering that took place in either Tibet or border towns of India.
Namche Bazar, 3,450m above the sea level, is the starting point for expeditions to Mt. Everest and other Himalayan peaks in the area. It has been the main trading centre since 1905. Prior to that, it was simply a place where traders from Khumjung stored their trading goods between the seasons when they could travel to the lowlands. The trade to Tibet was drastically reduced after it was taken over by the People’s Republic of China in the late 1950s.
At present only a few Tibetan and Sherpa traders crossed the pass in both directions. They could be seen at the weekly market with lowland in Nepal traders. The weekly market is not a Sherpa tradition, it was started in the mid-1960s by an army officer stationed in Namche to meet the needs of the growing population of Nepali civil servants.
Since the Nepali government first allowed Westerners to visit the Kingdom in 1950s, tourism has grown to be now the main source of livelihood for the Sherpas. Until the beginning of the 21st Century, the number of explorers coming to the SNP annually grown from 1,400 ( ‘70s) to over 25,000. According to the last figures more than 40,000 people per year make the trek from Lukla airport to the Everest Base Camp.
The growing prosperity brought also opportunities for new lifestyles. The Sherpas have constantly balanced outside influences with their own culture, which has valuable spiritual and cultural aspects to share with the world.
Before Western explorers, adventurers and climbers, Sherpas’ economy was based primarly on agriculture (potato and buckwheat farms) yak herding, and trade of salt, wool, rice, yaks and cows from Nepal to Tibet and viceversa. But in the valleys of Khumbu, the summer monsoon lasts from June to September. During the quiet but productive season people carry out their chores of hearding and farming. But… farming is not easy.
Most fields for cultivating food crops are at relatively lower elevtions of about 3,300 meters near the main Sherpa villages. During the cold winter, herds of yak or nak ( female) are grazed on nearby hillsides; when the summer comes, the yaks or nak are taken up to high valleys wher the rains changed the dry mountinsides to rich, green pastures.
Periche, Lobouche and Dingboche were established as their summer huts and hay fields. The shaggy bovines provide dairy products ( yak milk, butter and meat), wool and transportation.
But, nowadays we are witnessing a crucial shift for Sherpa culture, and in particular for the sub-culture of Sherpa guide, climbing and porters community. When the interest for adventurous explorations grew gradually over the decades, Sherpas were firstly hired away from their farms to carry loads, as porters, to become guides and climbers.
In some ways, Sherpas have benefited from this commercialization fo the Mt. Everest more that any ethnic group, earning money from trekkers or climbers. The job of “sherpa” has been progressively formalized and now they own hotels, trekking companies, airlines.
Paradoxically, Khumbu Sherpas are nowadays among the wealthies of Nepal’s dozens of ethnic groups.
***This story is a first of a series based on my experience on the Mt. Everest Base Camp Trekking Route with the aim to discover and understand more the spirit of the mountaneers and communities in a close relationship with the surrounding Nature