Everest's Sherpas climb out of poverty

Thomas Bell

Adventurers' desire to stand on top of the world transforms Himalayan region

The fascination that the world's highest mountain holds for foreign visitors has transformed Nepal's Everest region from a potato-eating backwater into the country's richest area.

Before the foreigners started coming half a century ago, the local Sherpa people had no idea that the mountain they call Chomolungma, sacred abode of a wealth-giving goddess, was the highest in the world.

'We did not know what a westerner was. There was nothing here,' said Killi Pala Sherpa, 66, recalling the arrival in 1949 of Toni Hagen, the Swiss geologist who was probably the first European to enter the area.

'We wanted to see how a foreigner goes to toilet,' he said, describing how the adventurer was obliged to chase away crowds of small boys to create a brief moment of privacy. 'Wherever he walked, we used to worship his steps because we wanted to wear boots like him.'

In those days, the typical footwear was a leather sock stuffed with hay. Now, Mr Killi Pala's son runs a major expedition company and regularly flies to Seattle, business class.

Historically, men made their living by carrying goods across the high passes from Tibet and down through the foothills to Kathmandu, returning with wheat and sugar. This provided the first step on the way to then-unimagined wealth.

'People were mostly porters,' says Gyalzen Sherpa, 88.

He was hired by Tenzing Norgay, who conquered Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953, to engage the huge teams of porters required for that expedition. They were paid 7 rupees (13 HK cents) a day, seven times the wage at the stone quarry.

In the early decades of tourism, most foreign visitors were mountaineers. Hundreds of people now climb the 8,848 metre mountain every year, and Sherpas have been involved in mountaineering since the beginning.

'These climbing Sherpas made a big difference,' says Yankila Sherpa, a former minister of tourism who owns a trekking company. 'They brought in money, they made contacts with westerners and were invited abroad. They came back with western knowledge.'

But climbing is only a part of the modern Everest industry. Over 20,000 trekkers visited last year, and this year is set to be even better for business. This April was the best on record for visitor numbers. 'These are rich tourists who are able to do expensive trips,' said Ms Yankila.

Many Sherpas today send their children to Kathmandu boarding schools, and have second homes in the city where they avoid the cold mountain winter and look after the children during the school holidays. During the tourist season they run hotels in their native villages.

Sherpas still do the relatively well-paid high-altitude work on Mount Everest, but the community is now too wealthy to engage in regular portering. The task of carrying tourist luggage goes to poorer communities from neighbouring regions.

Inevitably there are some complaints about change. 'Young people taking too much western culture in their language and dress, you know the kind of thing,' said Ms Yankila.

But tourism has also helped support local traditions.

'The monasteries and the [monks] have a lot of influence in the lives of the people, and tourism and mountaineering has played a big part in maintaining them,' she said.

The most important monastery, at Tengboche, was lavishly rebuilt after it was destroyed by fire in 1989 and many others have been saved from crumbling away.

At Tengboche, Mingma Sherpa, a 24-year-old monk, pointed out a colourful painting of the goddess Chomolungma on the monastery wall.

'You see the mouse on her palm?' he asked. 'It gives precious stones, and you can see three green precious stones. Chomolungma has given us so many benefits.'

The goddess, traditionally a minor figure in the Sherpa pantheon, is more popular than ever before.

Ang Norbu Sherpa, a 63-year-old hotelier, followed his father into the difficult and dangerous business of mountaineering to enrich his family. Now, his son has a German car dealership in Kathmandu.

'We worship her more because money comes from her,' he said, dropping another piece of yak dung into the stove. 'If it wasn't for Chomolungma, life would be difficult for Sherpas.'

High achievers

Successful ascents of Everest this year: 285