Sherpas are a Tibetan Buddhist people that are essentially Tibetans who have lived in Nepal long enough to develop some of their own unique traits and characteristics. They are quite different from Hindu Nepalese. The Sherpas of the Khumbu valley near Mt. Everest are famous mountaineers and guides. They have been nicknamed the "Tigers of the Snow." They are so famous that term Sherpa has grown into a generic term for loyal helper and guide. [Sources: T.R. Reid, National Geographic, May 2003; Desmond Doig, National Geographic, October 1966 ~; Robert A. Paul, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

There are about 75,000 to 120,000 Sherpas, depending on how they are counted. They live mostly in eastern Nepal but are also found in India. About 10,000 live in the Solu-Khumbu Valley region below Mt. Everest. In Nepal, Sherpas are classified as Tibeto-Nepalese or Bhote (Bhotia), the Tibetan-related ethnic groups that inhabit the high valleys of northeastern Nepal. The Sherpas language is a Tibetan dialect that has no writing system. Sherpas generally speak Nepali and can read and write in Nepali. They often have one name or use Sherpa as their last name.

Sherpa — Sharwa in their own language, shar pa in the Tibetan language — literally means “People of the East”, a reference to their origin in the eastern Tibetan region of Kham. They first arrived in Nepal about 500 years ago and have a close affinity with Tibetans in terms of their language, culture and religion. The main Sherpa occupations are agriculture, animal husbandry, trade and portering. They are famous for their mountaineering and Mt. Everest climbing skills. Many make a living in the trekking and mountaineering businesses. They follow Tibetan Buddhism. [Source: ]

Robert A. Paul wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Sherpas practice the Nying ma pa, or "old" version of Tibetan Buddhism. The main present homeland of the Sherpas is Solu-Khumbu in the northern part of the Sagarmatha District in eastern Nepal. The main valleys settled by Sherpas are the Khumbu, Pharak, Shorong (Nepali Solu), Arun, and Rolwaling. There are also permanent Sherpa settlements in Kathmandu, and in the Indian hill towns of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Siliguri, and others. Most Sherpa villages in Nepal are at elevations between 2,400 and 3,600 meters, on the southern slopes of the Himalayan range, concentrated around the base of the Everest massif. They constitute less than 1 percent of the total population of Nepal. It appears that population in Solu-Khumbu is remaining stable or, if anything, declining, partly due to out-migration to the towns. [Source: Robert A. Paul, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Book: “Life and Death on Mt. Everest, Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering” by Sherry Ortner (Princeton University Press). The title of the book is a little misleading. It is more about Sherpas than mountaineering.

Sherpa History

Sherpas means “person of the east” as we said before. They believed to be have arrived in the Everest area in the 1500s from the Kham region of Tibet (now mostly in Sichuan Province of China) about 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) northeast of Mt. Everest by migrating across the Tibetan plateau and crossing 5,716-meter (18,753-foot) -high Nangpa La into the Everest area. The first group of migrants is believed to have been small and lead by a great lama.

The valleys the Sherpas occupied appeared to have been sparsely populated when they arrived. They settled first in the Khumbu and Pharak Valleys and canyons of the Bhote Kosi and the Duhd Kose River and gradually spread to the valleys south of Khumbu and Pharak, where the conditions are more conducive to farming. In the early days they subsisted mainly in barley and milk.

Sherpas took advantage of their nearness to Nangpa La, or “Inside pass” between Tibet and Nepal to earn income as intermediaries along trade and caravan routes between China and India. They used yaks as caravan animals and were specialists in long distance trade.

Three events had a profound influence of the development of the Sherpas: 1)The introduction of the potato in 19th century, which grew well at high elevation and allowed the Sherpas to become more settled; 2) the first Mt. Everest expedition in 1953, and mountaineering and trekking windfall that followed; and 3) the introduction of modern medicine which helped eliminate problems like goiter and small pox. Small wooden carts used for picking up stones were the only wheeled vehicles that many people saw in the Khumbu valley until the arrival of foreigners. The airstrip for the Lukla airstrip was graded by a heavy log pulled by two dozen men.~

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “During the nineteenth century, under the aegis of the British Raj in India and the Rana dynasty in Nepal, some Sherpas took advantage of their location near the Nana pa La, or "Inside Pass" Between Tibet and Nepal, to establish themselves as intermediaries in trade routes linking China and the Indian subcontinent, using the yak as a transport animal ideally suited to alpine caravans. The introduction of the Irish potato into the region in the middle of the nineteenth century added prosperity to the region: this allowed for denser settlements in the high villages of Khumbu above the tree line but near the pass and the yak pastures. The potato is now the main staple crop of the Sherpas. [Source: Robert A. Paul, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Sherpa Religion

Sherpas are devout Buddhists. The belong to the Nyingya (“old”) sect of the Tibetan form of Mahayana. Buddhism. The Thunderbolt Vehicle is universally observed. In the old days many boys became monks but this no longer the case.

Religion is a daily, if not hourly practice, for the Sherpas. They earn religious merit by their gentle thoughts, by practicing nonviolence , doing good deeds, spinning prayer wheels and offering gifts to lamas. Sherpas are not allowed to kill animals. To eat meat they must hire a non-Buddhist to slaughter their animals. On days of the full moon and new moons Sherpas are expected not to work and devote their time to reading and chanting Buddhist scripture.

Sherpas regard many mountains as sacred. Mt. Everest is regarded as less sacred than others. (See Places). Before embarking on a climb Sherpas often make an offering of rice and incense to the mountain deity. They often encourage their foreign clients to do the same. Sherpas also believe in a large pantheon of gods, spirits and demons that influence health and daily life.

Village religious activities are presided over by married lamas. Monks and nuns are usually based at monasteries or some other religious facility. They generally don’t beg like monks in Southeast Asia nor are they supported by the state like monks in Tibet, Many rely on family inheritance. Their community duties are generally limited to reading sacred texts at funerals and the blessing of new buildings.

Sherpas believe the marks on the moon were created by a monk who loved the Khumbu valley so much he wanted to be able to see it at night. One night he reached up and pulled the moon closer to the earth. What look like craters are actually the finger marks he left behind. [Source: Desmond Doig, National Geographic, October 1966]

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: “ In past centuries, religion was organized on a village and clan level; since the turn of the 20th century, celibate monasticism, imported from Tibet, has flourished in the Sherpa region. The Sherpa pantheon is vast, ranging from the great Buddhist divinities connected with the quest for enlightenment and salvation to local gods, spirits, and demons influencing health, luck, and day-to-day concern. The former are the object of temple and monastic worship, the latter of exorcisms, commensal feasts, purification rites, and curing rites performed by married lamas and shamans.

“Monks and nuns take lifetime vows of celibacy and live in institutions isolated from daily life. Their interaction with the community is mainly limited to the reading of sacred texts at funerals and annual monastic rituals to which the public is invited. The monks' and nuns' pursuit of merit in turn brings merit to the entire Community. Outstanding religious figures may be reincarnated, and the highest ecclesiastical offices at the Present time are held by reincarnations of earlier religious figures. In addition, shamans perform exorcisms and cures, though this is now less prevalent than previously. [Source: Robert A. Paul, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

After a Sherpa dies his body is kept for two or three days in the house. The funeral is long and elaborate. The deceased is cremated. Rebirth is believed to take place 49 days after death. Ideally. the entire period is filled with rituals and ceremonies that are often require the chanting Buddhist texts.

Sherpa Marriage, Family, Men and Women

These days many Sherpa men work in the mountaineering and trekking industry while the women work the fields, raise children and take car of household chores. The Sherpa sense of family is much different than our own. Sherpa men think nothing of spending six to eight months away from their families and when they return their wives often look up from what they are doing, say "hi," then return to their task. Sherpa men and women have a history of spending long period of time apart. Even before the mountaineering and trekking industry took hold many Sherpas spent months away from home on long distance trade missions.

Marriage is generally monogamous. Polyandry is practiced. Polygamy is rare. Sherpas generally get married in stages. The marriage process is long and involves the exchange of gifts and labor. Women receive a dowry. Sons often receive their share of inheritance and often a house when they get married. When the couple have children or the dowry is paid off they live together. Before that time their time together is often in the form of periodic visits. Divorce is common, in some cases occurring in a 30 percent of all marriages.

Nuclear families often live together in a single houses. Extended families often share agriculture duties. Childrearing is generally done by women and older sisters. Young men often leave home at an early age to participate in trekking work. Sometimes old people live alone because their children have moved to Kathmandu or died in climbing or trekking accidents.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The treatment of children could be described as being on the indulgent-to-negligent side, though it varies by Individual temperament. Girls are incorporated into the Household economy earlier than boys, as child-care helpers and kitchen workers, while boys play in multiage groups. [Source: Robert A. Paul, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 ]

Sherpa Character and Customs

Sherpa success can be attributed as much to their upbeat and calm demeanor as their mountaineering and entrepreneurial skills. Hillary once said that he admires Sherpas for their “hardiness, cheerfulness and freedom from our civilized curse of self-pity.”

Sherpas have a steady, uncomplaining way of gong about their work. They have almost no history of warfare or homicide and few have become Gurkhas. There has traditionally been a strong emphasis on egalitarianism and individual autonomy.

As Tibetans do, Sherpas place white scarfs around the neck of guests as a welcoming gesture. They have a habit of saying “yes” even when the want to say “no.” Sherpas enjoy stopping on the tea houses to gossip and exchange information and news. Coming and going guides, porters and assistants provide a communication network in a land that until fairly recently has few phones. Journalist Tom Carrier was being guided by a Sherpa who forgot his toothbrush. Word had reached his wife and on the trail the next day tooth brush appeared from people going in the opposite direction. [Source: Jim Carrier, National Geographic, December 1992].

Sherpa Society and Political Organization

Sherpa society is divided into clans descended form an original founding family. Some clans have communal fields and communal property such as a mill. "Old Sherpas," members of the 18 traditional clans, have the highest status. Marriages within clans are not allowed. Those of lower status are mixed Sherpa-Nepalese families and immigrants from Tibet. Desmond Doig, National Geographic, October 1966]

There is some stratification based on wealth and people who can trace their ancestry to first settlers are of higher status but there are no real class distinctions and nothing that approaches a caste system found elsewhere in Nepal. Villages have headmen and social control is exerted mainly through religion.

Robert A. Paul wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Sherpas have never been organized into any coherent Political unit as such. Throughout their history in Nepal, local headmen have established themselves as authorities on the basis of wealth, personality, religious status, and alliance with non-Sherpa centers of power including the Nepali state. More recently, the Sherpa region has been incorporated within the administrative system of the contemporary Nepali government. [Source: Robert A. Paul, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

“Hierarchical relations exist within Sherpa society between "big" people with wealth or descent Those threatened with poverty and debt have the option of going to Darjeeling or Kathmandu for wage labor. Patron-client relationships are established between Sherpas and the Nepali service castes who perform vital craft functions for them, but the Nepali are regarded as ritually impure and are viewed as occupying an inferior social position. |~|

“Religious authority and values, the power of local headmen, tradition, and public opinion constrain action, but there are few indigenous mechanisms for enforcing social control or adjudicating complaints. Mediation or arbitration by neighbors, relatives, headmen, or lamas settles most disputes. Others can now be taken to Nepali law courts, though this is infrequently done. Nonviolent Buddhist values have helped keep Sherpa society almost entirely free of war and homicide. High mobility makes flight or avoidance a viable solution to conflict.”

Sherpa Homes and Villages

Sherpa villages can range in size from three or four households to large villages and towns such as Khumjung and Namche Bazar. In higher elevations houses are surrounded by fields and demarcated by stone walls. In lower elevations the houses are clustered together and also surrounded by fields. Many villages have a temple or chorten (stupa), communal mill, school and clinic.

A traditional Sherpa wooden houses has two stories. The bottom floor is used to keep animals and store things like yak dung and stocks of potatoes. A ladder-like set of stairs, often made of logs, leads to the top floor living area, often a single long room. The house is made of stone, covered with plaster and supported by wood beams. Wood is used for shingles and the flooring and walls on the interior.

The center of the Sherpa home is the “thap,” an open hearth found at the top of the log stairs. The master bed — piles of Tibetan rugs — is here. A guest's importance is determined by how close he is seated to the thap. Benches are arranged around the walls for sitting and sleeping. Shelves are used to store cooking utensils and family heirlooms. Some houses get electricity from hydroelectric project built the area. Many Sherpas don’t use the electricity much because it is expensive. Many don’t have a clock but they have a calender that shows the phases of the moon. The possession of typical household include a few acres of terraced fields, three cows, three zopkios (male yak-cow crossbreed) and 10 sheep.

Sherpa Life, Food and Clothes

Potatoes are the staple of the Sherpa diet. They are boiled, curried, fermented into chang and even chewed like gum. “Shakpa” (pungent potato stew) is a Sherpas favorite. Leftover meals prepared for trekkers are mixed into a big slop and fed to yaks. Sherpas have traditionally not eaten meat. (See Religion). Sherpas drink Tibetan style tea with salt and yak butter and make homemade beer called chang from maize and other grains. Sherpa chang is sometimes brewed with potatoes.

Technology is still very basic. Children play catch with potatoes and use peddles as marbles. Water wheels power the stones that grind grain into flour. Sticks and rocks are used to make the channels that divert waters from streams. Some Sherpas like to throw and juniper and azalea into a fire and watch them erupt in crackle of sparks.

Many Sherpa women still wear traditional “angee” dresses. Many of the western clothes Sherpa's wear and the utensils and tools they use were given to them by the mountain climbing expeditions that have passed through the Khumbu valley. Like Tibetans many Sherpa men like to wear cowboy hats. Both men and women wear running shoes.

Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic: “Dorje and Ang Nemi had been married 14 years. They had two girls and two boys, all born in yak-herding huts. They lived year-round at 13,000 feet; most of the dozen or so other families came there only in the summer to pasture animals. They had almost nothing: a potato field, some yaks they used to ferry loads to Everest, and the dark-as-a-cave, one-room house Dorje’s father had built, a stone house with a stone roof ringed by stone walls in country that was a plague of stones. The children slept on bedding Ang Nemi rolled out nightly on benches, and they sometimes dawdled on the long walk home from school to play jacks with small stones. For five years Dorje had been working on Everest for Alpine Ascents International; he’d been a cook at Camp IV on the South Col. He and Ang Nemi were saving the wages to build a house closer to Thame so it would be easier for their kids to get to school. They had picked out a site below the monastery in the village of Hungmo. [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, November 2014]

Sherpa Festivals

The biggest Sherpa events are Losar (Tibetan New Year), spring first-fruits festival called Dumje and the masked dancing rituals held at monasteries. These are called Cham in Tibetan; the Sherpa version is known as Mani Rimdu. These are often held in the fall or winter when people are not as busy doing agricultural chores. Individual households and villages sponsor exorcism, curing, and cleansing rites, often in connection with life-cycle events, especially funerals. [Source: Robert A. Paul, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Dumje is fairly big summer Tibetan Buddhist festival that celebrates the first spring fruits. It features lamas in red robes and saffron-colored crescent hats. The Mani Rimbu is annual festival of drama and dance aimed at driving away evil spirts. It is usually held in the winter. Some festival have been rescheduled so they don’t conflict with the tourist season.

Sherpa festivals usually have skits with costumed figures of "drunken men" getting chased by "bawdy women," as well as monks with the masks of fierce gods leaping and twirling around with yak butter lamps. Sherpas are also enjoy doing line dances and choral singing. Instrumental music use Tibetan style instruments.

Sherpa Partying, Sex and Culture

At Sherpa parties there is usually a big barrel of chang (milky rice beer) and a pot of yak stew served buffet style. When the dancing Sherpas lock arms, and step forwards and then backwards in unison, singing to the rhythm of their movements. Usually there are about twice as many women as men since a good portion of the men are often off on mountaineering expedition or working in some other town. During their New Year celebrations Sherpa don monkey masks and to do yak dragon dances. [Source: Rick Ridgeway, National Geographic, June 1982]

Sherpas call having sex "making sauce." Sherpa men often make vows of chastity, which are often broken. In the trekking business, extramarital affairs are not uncommon for Sherpa men; if a Sherpa woman strays, her man would leave her and she would be labeled a prostitute.Few Sherpas become monks these days. Of those that try two thirds eventually quit. "Some fall in love with girls," one trainee said, "Others can't take the responsibility." If old timers can change their ways. One man was a monk for 16 years before he left for "chang and a good woman." [Source: Jim Carrier, National Geographic, December 1992]

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Dancing parties with beer are a preferred social activity for the young people. Many Sherpas have become masters of the Buddhist ecclesiastical arts, including religious painting or iconography. The monastic dance dramas feature elaborate costumery and choreography. The traditional religious orchestra includes the drum, cymbals, telescopic horns, oboelike flageolets, conch shells, trumpets made from human thighbones, and hand drums made from the tops of two human skulls placed back to back. Liturgical chanting is an art mastered by many laypeople as well as by monks and lamas.” [Source: Robert A. Paul, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Sherpas and the Modern World

The Khumbu valley where the Sherpas live has changed a lot since the time Hillary climbed Everest. Outside Lukla airport, the gateway to the region, vendors sells Tibetan jewelry, made in Kathmandu or China, and the "Sherpa Coffee House" sells Yak pizzas. A line of Nepalese and Tibetans wait in lines trying to get work as porters. [Source: Jim Carrier, National Geographic, December 1992]

In Namche Bazaar you can see Sherpas smoking cigarettes while playing pool and listening to hip hop. There have been some reports of hashish-smoking Sherpas listening to rock music and ripping off and trying to have sex with tourists.

In the Khumbu Valley many Sherpas have smart phones and access to television. They had access to telephone until Maoist rebels blew up the telephone repeater. On the effects of television, one Sherpa told National Geographic, “There’s less talking among family members. But there’s no entertainment here except ceremonies and festivals. TV helps people pass the time.” There are still some Sherpas who have not been touched by modern life: that have never seen a car or turned a light switch and still wash their clothes in creeks.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “In the years following the opening of Nepal to the west, after the restoration of the Shaha monarchy in 1952, mountaineering and tourism became major industries. Sherpas from Darjeeling had already established a reputation as able assistants on British surveying and mountaineering expeditions by the beginning of the century. The conquest of Mt. Everest (in Nepali, Sagarmatha; in Sherpa, Chomolungma) in 1953 by a British team relying on Sherpa porters and guides — with a Sherpa climber, Tenzing Norgay, as one of the first two people on the summit, along with Sir Edmund Hillary — brought the Sherpas worldwide attention. Since then, work related to the tourist, trekking, and mountaineering trade has more and more dominated the economy of the Sherpas, who serve as guides, sirdars (expedition foremen), and service providers in the cash economy of tourism. The Sherpas in the towns, especially Darjeeling, are drawn there by wage labor in industries such as road building and tea planting. A few Sherpas made great fortunes as road-building labor contractors under the British and more recently since Indian independence. Although the Nang pa La is no longer an active trade route, trading, both within the region and over long distances throughout much of Asia, is an important Sherpa economic activity. [Source: Robert A. Paul, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Sherpa Education and Health

When Sir Edmund Hillary finished his expeditions he asked his Sherpa companions what they desired most. "Schools" an old Sherpa answered, "Our children have eyes but they are blind." Hillary then help open some schools in the Khumba Valley. One Sherpa who attended a school set up by Hillary and went on to fly Boeing jets said: “We were 47 scrappy children with no schools in 1960... It was one of the biggest excitements for us to have the opportunity to learn what the English alphabet looks like, to understand Nepali writing.”

Some Sherpa high school students walk five hours to school each week and spend the night in dormitories and return to the villages on the weekend. Regardless of whether the trails are covered in snow in the winter or drenched in monsoon rains in the summer they make the trip. These days many Sherpas forgo completing school to get jobs in the trekking industry.

Sherpas uses both Western medicine and health services, which are available for a very small cost through the various organizations set up by Hillary, and use faith healing and herbal medicines prescribed by shaman known as “lhawas.” They see no contradiction going to a clinic to get a flu vaccination and purchase an amulet at a monastery that wards off evil spirits. Among the local cures are herbal medicines, shamanic exorcism, the reading of exorcism texts by lamas, and the use of amulets and medicines made or blessed by high-level lamas. Walking is generally the only way to get to a clinic. People with broken legs are carried in on boards. It is not unusual for a woman to give birth on a trail trying to get to a doctor. Even those who make it in time walk home after two days with their baby on their back.

Thanks to Hillary the Sherpas now have some of the best schools and hospitals in Nepal. Early doctors in the area found that the high incidence of goiter and mental retardation was directly linked to a lack of iodine in their local diet. After iodinized salt as introduced to their diet the number of cases of mental retardation dropped dramatically and goiter virtually disappeared. Hillary and his climbing buddies personally helped vaccinate hundreds of Sherpas against small pox, which was a serious problem in rural Nepal until the 1960s.

Sherpa Transportation, Electricity and Infrastructure

There are no buses, cars, trucks, or three-wheelers in the Khumbu Valley. There are a few bicycles and motorbikes but they generally won’t get you very far. Everybody walks. Goods are moved on people’s backs — often in a bamboo baskets with a head strap — or on the backs of pack animals such as yaks or dzos (cow-yak hybrids). Distances are measured in walking time not miles or kilometers. When a house is built all the material — corrugated aluminum roofs, floor boards, even sinks, toilets and solar panels — are usually carried in from the lowlands on someone’s back. On the trails in the Everest area is amazing by the huge loads of soft drinks and beer carried in for trekkers on people’s backs.

It is not impossible to build roads in the Khumbu Valley but yet there aren’t any. Many Sherpas don’t want them. When asked why, one lama told National Geographic, “We are Sherpas, We walk.” Mail between the Khumbu Valley and Kathmandu used to be carried on foot. Normally the 350 mile round-trip journey took 32 days but special Sherpa runners could do it in 15 days.~

Some Sherpa villages have electricity. When it is turned many Sherpa women rush to see the latest Bollywood movies. Jan Morris, who reported on the first successful Everest expedition for the Times of London, wrote that his dispatches “went via cable station in Kathmandu....There was no road to Kathmandu from the mountain. We had no long distance radio transmitters, and certainly no satellite telephones, so they went by the hands of Sherpa runners — perhaps the last time news dispatches were transmitted by runners. It was 180 miles from the mountains to the capital, and the faster my men ran, the more I paid them. The journey was very hard. The best of them did in five days — 36 miles a day in the heat of summer, including crossing three mountains ranges more than 9,999 feet high. They very nearly broke the bank.”

Sherpa Agriculture

Sherpas have traditionally been yak herders, farmers and traders. In high, harsh Khumbu area, around Everest, they traded, raised Yaks and herded. In the lower Solu region to the south they farmed terraced hillsides with buckwheat, corn, rice and potatoes.

Many Sherpas eat mostly potatoes. They crop was probably introduced in the 19th century and helped the Sherpas change from trading to a more settled lifestyle. They also raise turnips, radishes, watermelon-size cucumbers, barely and wheat and corn varieties. There is little or no mechanization. Plowing is done with oxen.

Sherpas raise yaks, cows and yak-cow crossbred prized for their high quality milk. Butter and a kind of yogurt are produced for home consumption and traded for tea, rice, fruit and other items. Sherpas don't like to sent their yaks below 3,660 meters (12,000 feet). They are worried the animals will get malaria. Be careful entering a Sherpa's home at night. A house is often guarded by a Tibetan mastiff. And if it doesn't attack you the yaks and sheep in the living room might. [Source: Desmond Doig, National Geographic, October 1966]

Land has traditionally been individually owned and worked by households. Tools and utensils were generally acquired through trade with ethnic Nepalis.

Sherpas and the Tourism and Mountaineering Businesses

Sherpas have done quite well for themselves by leading mountaineers up Mt. Everest and other big peaks and providing accommodation and food for trekkers,. At the bottom end of the pyramid are the porters who are paid a few dollars cents a day for carrying 20 kilograms load of kerosene, food or construction material in rain, snow, cold weather and hot weather.

Sherpas have perhaps better exploited the tourism trade better than any other group. They own most of 300-plus lodges and guest houses and hotels in the Khumbu Valley. They have not been exploited by other groups. In fact they are now doing the exploiting. They use members of other ethnic groups such as the Rai or Magars to work as porters. They also run many of the trekking agencies in Kathmandu.

Many Sherpas entrepreneurs got their start as porters, carrying everything form oxygen canisters for mountaineers to beer for trekkers, and worked in guesthouses and hotels as waiters and cooks. Over time they picked up English and maybe some German and Japanese and saved up enough money to build a guesthouse. Those advance up the ladder start trekking companies and earn commissions for hotels, guides and plane tickets they organize for their clients.

Sherpa Economics and Business

Some Sherpas have done quite well in business. Yeti Airlines is owned by Sherpas. The planes are flown by Sherpa pilots. Among the first Sherpas to do well were four Royal Nepali Airline pilots, three physicians, an executive of an Asian hotel and airline group, a president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, a director of programs for the World Wildlife Fund and members of the Nepalese parliament.

Many think that the Sherpa’s success has come at too high a price,. Some have lost their culture and roots. Their lives are also much affected by thing beyond their control: namely the vagaries of the tourism business, which is affected by the whims of bad weather, Maoist rebels, pandemics and terrorism in other parts of the globe.

Large numbers of Sherpas have left the traditional Sherpa areas. Many have moved to Kathmandu to work at trekking company offices or in city jobs. They also live in villages across northeast Nepal and India. Some have even gone more further afield than that. In Kobe, Japan there is a Sherpa restaurant. In New York there was a Sherpa rock band. Sherpa guides are found in trekking and mountaineering destinations around the globe.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (, Nepal Government National Portal (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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