Sher­pas set world records while fac­ing life-threat­en­ing oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ards. For these spe­cial moun­taineers, risk­ing life and limb is all in a day’s work.

Sher­pas work where oth­ers bat­tle for sur­vival, ba­si­cally set­ting world records as they go about their daily busi­ness. They’ve earned their place among the best ath­letes in the world— yet hardly any­one knows their names…

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To this day he is con­sid­ered one of the best moun­taineers of all time: Rein­hold Mess­ner has suc­cess­fully sum­mited the 29,029-foot-high Mount Ever­est twice—with­out sup­ple­men­tal oxy­gen bot­tles. It’s an in­cred­i­ble achieve­ment that makes Mess­ner world fa­mous— yet the luster of this ac­com­plish­ment pales in com­par­i­son with the amaz­ing life’s work of Lhakpa Ten­z­ing Sherpa. His name is al­most un­known out­side climb­ing com­mu­ni­ties, although this Sherpa has stood on the peak of the planet’s high­est moun­tain 21 times. It’s a world record that he shares with fel­low Sherpa Phurba Tashi. How­ever, Mount Ever­est is rarely this gra­cious to­ward those who try to as­cend it…

THE FATE OF THE UN­SUNG HEROES

It is only 3:30 in the morn­ing when Dorje Kha­tri turns on his head­lamp and shoul­ders his back­pack, which weighs half as much as he does. At more than 17,700 feet above sea level and a tem­per­a­ture of just 5°F, the thin air cuts into his throat like a knife. But the Sherpa knows that time is of the essence—mount Ever­est for­gives no de­lay. Es­pe­cially not at the Khumbu Ice­fall, the most dan­ger­ous part of the path to the peak. The 2,625-foot-high es­carp­ment is a 45-de­gree cas­cade of wildly jagged ice boul­ders the size

of houses. In be­tween them lie deep glacier clefts that can sud­denly gape open in a mat­ter of sec­onds. The risk of an avalanche oc­cur­ring is greater here than any­where else in the world, and no other sec­tion of the route has claimed more lives than this one as climbers make their way to the peak of the high­est moun­tain in the world. But while moun­taineers from across the globe only need to pass through this treach­er­ous stretch of ice once, Dorje Kha­tri crossed the so- called Val­ley of Si­lence 10 times in the prior year alone. In or­der for thrill-seek­ing tourists and ex­treme ath­letes to be sup­plied with pro­vi­sions even at the camps that are lo­cated higher up the moun­tain, he and hun­dreds of other Sher­pas carry loads of ma­te­ri­als up the moun­tain on a daily ba­sis. Food portions, tents, lap­tops, can­is­ters of gas—in short, ev­ery­thing a cus­tomer needs to sur­vive in the death zone of Mount Ever­est. For the porters this is a tall or­der that en­tails push­ing their bod­ies to the lim­its of per­for­mance— and yet they seem to cope with this bur­den ef­fort­lessly in one of the most in­hos­pitable re­gions of the planet.

AT THE PEAK IN EIGHT HOURS

Af­ter three hours Kha­tri fi­nally stands at the heart of the Khumbu Ice­fall— in front of a wob­bly alu­minum lad­der that’s placed be­tween two ice walls. Dozens of heav­ily-laden Sher­pas are wait­ing here. Step by step, one af­ter an­other they fight their way forward— when all of a sud­den a deaf­en­ing roar re­ver­ber­ates through­out the val­ley. Due to the ris­ing tem­per­a­tures in the morn­ing, a gi­gan­tic tower of ice half as high as the Em­pire State Build­ing has dis­solved loose above the group. At the very last mo­ment some of the Sher­pas man­age to take cover un­der a rock cre­vice. Then the tower comes crash­ing down, bust­ing up the glacier field into boul­ders the size of trucks that trans­form into deadly pro­jec­tiles. Sec­onds af­ter the avalanche ends, the snow turns red; 16 Sher­pas were killed in­stantly. Among them is Dorje Kha­tri. He’d been on his 11th Ever­est as­cent.

It is one of the most aw­ful dis­as­ters in the his­tory of Mount Ever­est—and few peo­ple are aware that it oc­curred. The vic­tims weren’t Western tourists, dar­ing jour­nal­ists, or ex­treme ath­letes with a cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship—they were Sher­pas, the un­sung heroes of a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar tourism in­dus­try.

On the morn­ing of the avalanche that swal­lowed Dorje Kha­tri and 15 other Sher­pas, hun­dreds of moun­taineers hail­ing from more than 40 coun­tries had been wait­ing for the Sher­pas to pave the way for their path to glory. Each in­di­vid­ual par­tic­i­pant had paid roughly $60,000 for this ex­pe­di­tion. On the other hand, the Sher­pas are paid just $2,500 af­ter the two-month Ever­est sea­son, which in­cludes any bonuses they re­ceived for guid­ing a group all the way to the sum­mit. But that is a suf­fi­cient amount to pro­vide for their fam­i­lies for an en­tire year— pro­vided they sur­vive…

But what ex­actly makes the Sherpa peo­ple the unique moun­taineers and indis­pens­able guides they are when it comes to as­cend­ing to the roof of the world? Which phys­i­cal at­tributes help them at­tain peak per­for­mance?

THE SE­CRET OF THE SHERPA GENE

Even to this day, de­spite months of train­ing and use of state- of-the-art equip­ment, only one out of ev­ery five Western climbers will make it to the sum­mit. Rea­son: High-per­for­mance sports tak­ing place near the cruis­ing al­ti­tude of a Boe­ing 747 au­to­mat­i­cally in­volve mor­tal dan­ger. The ex­tremely low level of oxy­gen, the con­se­quent al­ti­tude sick­ness, tem­per­a­tures that fall as low as – 60°F, ice avalanches, frost­bite, and brain swelling—the list of deadly dan­gers dur­ing an Ever­est as­cent is long. And that makes the ac­com­plish­ments of Sher­pas such as Lhakpa Ten­z­ing and his col­leagues all the more in­con­ceiv­able: The first as­cent (1953), the most suc­cess­ful as­cents (21), the long­est stay on the sum­mit (21 hours)—in­deed, al­most all Mount Ever­est world records are held by Sher­pas. And that in­cludes the fastest as­cent of all time: It took Pemba Dorje Sherpa just 8 hours and

“Sher­pas are the best ath­letes in the world, the un­known su­per­stars of ex­treme sports. Nev­er­the­less, they’re the ones risk­ing their lives as pack mules and serv­ing as kitchen help for tourists.” AARON HUEY, PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

10 min­utes to climb from the base camp at 17,600 feet to the sum­mit at 29,029 feet. For com­par­i­son: Even trained top ath­letes need four days to cover this route. The term Sherpa is not just used for the lo­cal porters in the Hi­malayas, it is also the name of a Nepalese moun­tain peo­ple. And the mem­bers of this group ob­vi­ously have a unique phys­i­ol­ogy. In fact, the Xtreme Ever­est 2 study re­vealed that the body of a Sherpa is es­sen­tially made for sur­viv­ing at high al­ti­tudes. They pos­sess a gene vari­a­tion that pre­vents them from fall­ing vic­tim to the dreaded al­ti­tude sick­ness that can plague climbers. Their cells are also able to get by with sig­nif­i­cantly less oxy­gen, and even in low-oxy­gen en­vi­ron­ments they can still pro­duce suf­fi­cient energy to keep a Sherpa’s body ef­fi­ciently sup­plied.

In ad­di­tion, over the course of the mil­len­nia their cir­cu­la­tory sys­tem has also adapted to the harsh con­di­tions. Their blood ves­sels ex­pand read­ily, al­low­ing oxy­gen to be trans­ported to the mus­cles, brain, and heart faster. There­fore when the sup­ply of oxy­gen de­creases as the al­ti­tude in­creases, which in the worst case can lead to brain swelling, the blood ves­sels of Sher­pas per­mit oxy­gen to cir­cu­late through the body as it nor­mally does. “For­get triath­letes or ul­tra­ma­rathon run­ners—by far the best ath­letes in the world are Sher­pas. They are the ones who serve Western climbers break­fast at 4.30 A.M. at an al­ti­tude of 23,000 feet. This is ba­si­cally the equiv­a­lent of Cris­tiano Ron­aldo or Lionel Messi clean­ing off the cleats of an ama­teur,” says pho­tog­ra­pher Aaron Huey, who had ac­com­pa­nied groups of Sher­pas for sev­eral weeks on their Mount Ever­est ex­pe­di­tions.

And yet de­spite be­ing adapted to the ex­treme al­ti­tudes, the bod­ies of Sher­pas can’t pro­tect against death. Be­cause they al­ways go on ahead, mark­ing the routes and se­cur­ing the ice for­ma­tions, they are sur­prised by avalanches, snow­storms, and rock slides sig­nif­i­cantly more of­ten than their clients—as Dorje Kha­tri was.

In fact, one study re­vealed that the prob­a­bil­ity of a Sherpa dy­ing while on the job is 12 times higher than that of a U.S. sol­dier in Iraq. But in con­trast with fallen sol­diers, the dead Sher­pas al­most al­ways re­main name­less…

REC­OM­MENDED VIEW­ING

Sherpa is a doc­u­men­tary that was filmed dur­ing the 2014 ice avalanche on Mount Ever­est and shows the Sher­pas’ view­point.

“The tragedy was a cry for help from the moun­tain. It was an ex­pres­sion of the wrath of the gods. There were too many peo­ple, too much rub­bish, too much stress, too much money. Now the moun­tain must be left alone.” — NORBU SHERPA ON THE WORST AVALANCHE DIS­AS­TER ON MOUNT EVER­EST, WHICH CLAIMED THE LIVES OF 16 SHER­PAS ON APRIL 18, 2014.

PORTERS TO THE ROOF OF THE WORLD Sher­pas risk their lives bring­ing loads of sup­plies to in­ter­me­di­ate sup­ply sta­tions along the route to Mount Ever­est to en­sure climbers from wealthy na­tions are suf­fi­ciently equipped with pro­vi­sions, oxy­gen tanks, and climb­ing gear.

KING OF THE SKY No other per­son has been on the sum­mit of Mount Ever­est more than he has: Lhakpa Ten­z­ing has con­quered the high­est moun­tain on the planet 21 times—mostly as a porter for Western ex­pe­di­tions. Is he proud of this un­be­liev­able achieve­ment? “I would rather have been a doc­tor, but I needed money for my chil­dren. That’s the only rea­son I climb the moun­tain— so they’ll never have to do it.”

172-SQUARE-FOOT BIVOUAC SHEL­TER At a stag­ger­ing al­ti­tude of 19,350 feet, there are very few avalanche-proof places to spend the night in the Hi­malayas. One of these safe sites is Ama Dablam Base Camp 2. Here, a max­i­mum of four tents can fit side by side.

THE FIRST STAGE Yaks can carry up to 300 pounds. To this day, most ma­te­ri­als are car­ried up to the 17,600-foot-high base camp by the cat­tle. From there, the Sher­pas take over most of the load.

RACE TO THE TOP OF A WORLD- RECORD MOUN­TAIN In re­cent years thou­sands of peo­ple from all across the globe have come to Mount Ever­est to try to con­quer the planet’s high­est moun­tain. This has re­sulted in dozens of fa­tal dis­as­ters.

WHO MUST RE­TURN TO THE DEATH ZONE? In a tent the Sher­pas dis­cuss who will col­lect the ma­te­ri­als in camps 2, 3, and 4 and who will re­cover the corpse of a col­league that lies be­low the peak.

DE­CEP­TIVE IDYLL The bright sun and blue sky can be mis­lead­ing. In the Hi­malayas rad­i­cal changes in weather can oc­cur within a few min­utes.

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