WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT SHERPA?
Before they achieved worldwide fame as mountaineers, the Sherpa were primarily known as nomadic cattle herders, high-altitude farmers, weavers and salt traders. (Long a regional staple, Himalayan salt has now achieved worldwide fame among gastronomists who value the mineral for its characteristic pink hue.)
The economy and culture of the Sherpa people changed dramatically in the early 1900s, when mountaineers made Everest the ultimate destination for climbing, ushering in an era of mountain tourism.
Though it was once considered blasphemous to climb a sacred mountain, most Sherpas now regard their role as mountaineering guides with considerable pride.
During the three-month climbing season (which beings in spring), a lead Sherpa guide can earn as much as $6,000, according to the Washington Post. This is a staggering sum to many Nepalis, whose average monthly salary is just $48.
Mountaineering, of course, has many risks, and a safe return home is never guaranteed. According to an Outside magazine analysis of dangerous jobs, miners averaged 25 deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalent employees; U.S. soldiers in Iraq averaged 335 deaths; and Everest guides averaged 1,332 deaths, making mountaineering an even deadlier endeavor than warfare.
It’s in their blood
In addition to a tradition of mountain living, the Sherpas may have a physiological anomaly that enables them to live and work at high altitudes longer than other people.
Rasmus Nielsen, a biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the Sherpas’ genealogy, has found that they produce fewer oxygen-carrying red blood cells at high altitudes. In contrast, most other people make more of these cells at high altitudes.
This distinguishes the Sherpas from mountain-dwelling groups in the South American Andes and other regions, according to USA Today. Sherpas “seem to function well in high altitude without producing as many red blood cells,” Nielsen told USA Today. “No one knows for sure why.”