Mt. Everest's quiet conquerors: the Sherpas of Nepal

Like other climbers who have successfully reached the top of Mt. Everest, Ang Phurba Sherpa will allow himself a few rays of limelight this week.

Here in Kathmandu and across the country Thursday, hundreds of Everest summiteers will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest by Nepalese climber Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary.

Many of the 1,100 or so summiteers since 1953 consider Everest a kind of physical or emotional milestone in their lives, or, more broadly, a pinnacle of human achievement.

But Ang Phurba sees Wednesday's well-trodden trail to the top of the world pragmatically: it's his generation's path out of poverty.

Now the owner of a successful trekking company, Ang Phurba - a Horatio Alger with forearms as big as Popeye's - says the mountaineering industry is the reason why the Sherpas (a Nepalese ethnic minority) are steadily becoming self-sufficient in one of the planet's poorest countries.

"We Sherpas climb because it's a profession, it's our bread and butter, it's risky but we don't have a choice," says Ang Phurba, who admits that nowadays his wife won't let him climb mountains higher than 6,000 meters (19,700 feet). "But for foreigners, it's like a sport to them. And we don't mind helping them."

Few people have gained so much from the historic 1953 ascent of Mt. Everest (or Sagarmatha, as the Nepalese call it) than the Sherpas. The residents of some of the least fertile lands in a country where the annual per capita income is about $1,100, Sherpas have become such a regular fixture of Nepalese mountaineering, that some foreigners use the word interchangeably with guide.

For their high-altitude work, Sherpas earn an average of $7,000 annually.

But many Sherpas are now clamoring for something more: respect.

A little respect

It's a quiet kind of clamoring, of course, since Sherpas are quiet people. But in their own way, Sherpas point out that the foreign climbers need the Sherpas at least as much as the Sherpas need the climbers. For every foreign mountaineer, there are one or more Sherpas making the journey.

"Sherpas climb the mountain twice," says Ang Phurba. "They climb the slope first and fix the ropes, they break up the ice to make the trail, they find the camp and set up the tents, and then they go back and bring the climber up. There are some climbers who go up together with the Sherpas, but they are very rare. Only strong climbers do that."

Nothing could be more symptomatic of this desire for respect than the long-running dispute over who reached the summit of Everest first: Sir Edmund, or Tenzing Norgay? Both Mr. Norgay and Sir Edmund avoided the issue, sticking to their story that they had both reached the summit together. But many Nepalis insist that Norgay reached the summit first.

Norgay's grandson, Tashi Tenzing, has breathed new life into this dispute, saying recently that Sir Edmund received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, while Norgay just received a British medal of honor.

"My grandfather did not get the recognition he deserved," Mr. Tenzing told the BBC. But he holds no grudges against Sir Edmund himself, who is now in his early 90s. "I see Hillary as an inspiration and he is a great man," he told the Associated Press.

What is certain is that Everest itself retains its allure. Fifty years after the first ascent, the region of Northeastern Nepal called Khumbu, where Everest is found, is one of most prosperous places in Nepal. This spring, a record 25 expedition teams are attempting to reach the summit from the southern Nepali slopes, with dozens more climbing the more perilous Tibetan slopes to the north. In a normal spring season, about 12 teams make the attempt.

To some, including Sir Edmund, Everest is turning into a rich man's amusement park. The average eight-member expedition team spends about $200,000 in Nepal. Some summiteers pay as much as $65,000 per ascent.

But you won't hear any complaints from the hundreds of Sherpa guides or the thousands of businessmen who have made Everest into a profitable way of life. With more than 60 percent of all mountaineers in Nepal traveling to the Sherpa's home region of Khumbu, the Sherpas now earn about seven timesthe income of the average Nepali.

Climb every mountain

Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, which regulates the expeditions on some 30 mountain peaks in Nepal, says that Sherpas owe their prosperity to Sir edmund and Norgay, no matter who reached the top first.

"Khumbu and the Anapurna region are very, very prosperous, and it's because of tourism," says Ang Tshering, who has done trekking all his life, but never scaled Everest. "It benefits the local people first, who get employment as guides and porters, who sell food, who provide campsites and lodging. It brings money to an area where roads and industry cannot reach."

But the tourism industry that Sir Edmund and Norgay spawned has not just benefited the Sherpas.

"Mountaineering is the mother of our tourism," says S.P. Koirala, joint secretary of the Tourism Industry Division for the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation. In this spring alone, the government is expecting to earn more in royalty fees from mountaineering expeditions than they earned from all of last year ($2 million and $1.8 million respectively).

With so many climbers scrambling up Everest this year, there are a lot of records being broken. One climber, a Sherpa of course, succeeded in making the fastest ever ascent of Everest from Base Camp to the top and back in just under 11 hours. A normal ascent takes about a week. This year also brought new records for the youngest and oldest climbers to reach the summit: 15-year-old Nepalese girl Mingkipa Sherpa and 70-year-old Japanese man Yuichiro Miura both reached the summit on Thursday.

But reaching the top and getting back down alive are two different things, says Ang Phurba Sherpa. In 1979, when he reached the top of Everest on his first ever mountaineering expedition, Ang Phurba says that the roughest part was coming back down. Two foreign climbers on his expedition died just after reaching the summit: an American from Alaska froze to death; a German climber collapsed from exhaustion. And Ang Phurba himself nearly fell into a huge 100 meter wide crevice where a trail had been just three hours earlier.

But while he says he "stays away from mountains" these days, he has been trying hard to get his children interested in mountaineering. They, unlike their father, are getting formal educations, a crucial factor in getting international accreditation for leading mountaineering expeditions, and making more income from Nepal's greatest resource.

Besides, says Ang Phurba, it's pretty up there.

"It's unbelievable. It's like you are completely in another world," says Ang Phurba, who in 1979 was the second youngest person to reach the Everest summit.

"When I looked to the south, I could see all the mountain ridges of the Khumbu region, some of the highest mountains in the world. And to the north, there was the high plateau of Tibet with all these little blue dots that were lakes. And there wasn't a sound."

Fifty years on Everest

The world's highest mountain measures 29,035 feet. Held in awe by locals and world travelers alike, Mt. Everest has accumulated a rich history as a geological wonder and target for adventurous climbers.

• Everest straddles the Himalayan border between Nepal and Tibet.

• It was named for India's former surveyor general, George Everest, in 1865. Nepalis call the mountain Sagarmatha, literally "head of the ocean." And Tibetans call it Chomolungma for the "mother goddess."

• More than 1,100 people from 63 countries, including 75 women, have reached the top of Everest. The largest number of climbers, 258, have come from Nepal, followed by 160 from the United States. (Figures don't include the current season ending this week.)

• Of the 175 people who have died on Everest, 42 reached the summit but did not survive the descent.

• Nepal charges $25,000 a permit for one climber and $70,000 for seven. China requires a registration fee of $5,000 for a team of up 10 people.

• The average journey from the Nepali side takes 2-1/2 months, including the trek to base camp at 17,550 feet, several acclimatization climbs to higher camps and back to base, the ascent to the summit, and the descent.

Famous Firsts:

May 29, 1953 The first successful ascent, by New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepali Tenzing Norgay.

May 1, 1963 The first American summiteer, Jim Whittaker.

May 20, 1965 The first person to summit twice, Nawang Gombu Sherpa.

May 16, 1975 The first woman to reach the top, Junko Tabei of Japan.

May 8, 1978 The first ascent without bottled oxygen, Peter Habeler of Austria and Reinhold Messner of Italy.

Aug. 20, 1980 The first solo trek, Mr. Messner in three days.

May 6-7, 1999 The longest stay on the summit, Babu Tshering Sherpa: 21 hours and 30 minutes.

Oct. 7, 2000 The first ski descent, Davo Karnicar of Slovenia.

May 25, 2001 The first blind person to summit, American Erik Weihenmayer.

May 22, 2003 The youngest person to summit, Mingkipa Sherpa, a 15-year-old Nepalese girl.

May 22, 2003 The oldest person to summit, Yuichiro Miura, 70, of Japan.

May 26, 2003 The fastest climb, Lhakpa Gyelu Sherpa, in 10 hours, 56 minutes. Most climbers take about a week to climb from base camp to the summit.

May 26, 2003 Appa Sherpa summited for the 13th time, improving on his own record of 12 ascents.

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