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…
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…
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.