When an avalanche swept down Mount Everest on Friday, killing at least 13 Sherpa guides as they fixed ropes for other climbers, some members of the Sherpa community were not surprised.
Nima Wangchu Sherpa, 57, who grew up in Khumjung, northeastern Nepal, in the shadow of Everest, remembered his mother pestering his father to stop carrying loads up the mountain.
“Many of my dad’s friends died on the mountain, so my mom insisted that he stop,” Wangchu Sherpa told NBC News by telephone from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif.
His father was part of the 1953 expedition, led by Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, that was the first first to scale Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world at 29,035 feet. His father later got a job for Hillary's non-profit organization, the Himalayan Trust, which paid for Wangchu Sherpa to go to school.
Since that pioneering expedition, the word “Sherpa” has become synonymous with “mountain guide” to many Westerners. Plenty of Sherpas, however, do other things — from growing potatoes in small villages to practicing law in Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital.
Sherpas first came to the area surrounding Mount Everest in Nepal from the Tibetan plateau around 400 years ago, and many of them practice a form of Buddhism similar to that practiced in Tibet. Many of them also speak the Sherpa language, which has never been written down, along with Nepali.
"Sherpa" was a term given by foreigners to ethnic groups surrounding Everest. Nowadays, the term Sherpa is slightly vague. The Royal Embassy of Nepal estimates there are around 100,000 self-designated Sherpas in Nepal, a number that might be inflated because of the influx of Western climbers.
“The word Sherpa carries big financial implications,” Peter Zuckerman, author of "Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2's Deadliest Day," told NBC News. “If you are Sherpa, foreigners want to hire you; if you’re not Sherpa, they don’t want to hire you.”
Being a Sherpa guide pays about $125 per load, per climb, Norbu Sherpa, an experienced guide, told the New York Times last year. In a country where the average person makes $700 per year, that is a good haul.
“They know that it’s a risky business, but it’s a quick way of making a lot of money in three months,” Wangchu Sherpa said. Some Sherpas, like Western trekkers, climb because they enjoy it. Many, however, are looking to make enough money during the climbing season (March to May) to start their own business, like a lodge for travelers or a tea house.
Sange Gorje Sherpa, 53, started as a guide when he was 18 years old. He eventually earned enough to open his own expedition business in Nepal before moving to Idaho 10 years ago.
“It’s like being in the army. In the army, people will shoot at you and you could die, but people still sign up to do it.”
His father and his grandfather helped foreigners climb Mount Everest, too. So did his son, Nangl, who had scaled Mount Everest two times before he died while on an expedition two years ago at the age of 24.
“I got a call in the middle of the night saying, 'Your son was in an accident,'" Gorje Sherpa told NBC News. “It was a shock. He was a really good climber.”
Today, some young Sherpas are choosing school or big cities like Kathmandu over climbing. But tourists bring money, and there have been plenty of them in Nepal lately. In 2013, more than 800 people attempted to scale Mount Everest, according to the Nepal Tourism Ministry’s mountaineering department. It got so crowded that the government started requiring climbers to bring back 18 pounds of trash with them on descent.
Sagarmatha National Park, at the foot of Everest, received 25,000 visitors in 2010 — a number that dwarfs the roughly 2,500 native Sherpas who live there year-round.
Early in their history, Zuckerman said, many Sherpas thought it was sacrilegious to climb Mount Everest because it was a holy site. That stigma has mostly died out.
“Sherpas have been dying on Everest for many, many years,” Gorje Sherpa said. “It’s like being in the army. In the army, people will shoot at you and you could die, but people still sign up to do it.”
NBC News Peacock Productions' crews were on Mt. Everest preparing for Discovery's "Everest Jump Live'"when the avalanche struck. We are grateful and relieved that the seven NBC News staffers on site are all accounted for and unharmed. Tragically, 13 Nepalese Sherpas from a number of expedition companies who prepare the mountain each year for climbing season lost their lives, and the rescue mission continues. We are working closely with the team on the ground to assist however we can, and our thoughts and prayers are with the affected families. The future of the production will be assessed at the appropriate time.
First published April 19 2014, 1:59 AM