In 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made history as the first people to stand on the peak of the world's tallest mountain. Since then, more than 4,000 people have climbed Mount Everest to the top of the world.
In almost every case, those ascents were made possible by the aid of Sherpa, the distinct ethnic group in eastern Nepal who act as the porters and guides of the mountain. Mountaineering is such an entrenched aspect of Sherpa culture that there is speculation it has led to genetic adaptations among the Sherpa people, which would account for their seemingly inhuman ability to resist the effects of high altitudes on the body.
Sherpa have a number of responsibilities on Everest expeditions—they cook, guide, fix ropes, and ferry climbers' gear up and down the mountain. Some of them summit Everest multiple times in a single season.
While Sherpa have become fixtures on the mountain, the last two climbing seasons have been the deadliest in Everest's history and Sherpa have borne the brunt of these tragedies. In 2014, the collapse of a large column of glacial ice in the Khumbu Icefall killed 16 people, 13 of whom were Sherpa. This prompted the Sherpa to strike until safety conditions improved. Then in 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, triggering a massive avalanche at base camp that left 22 dead (including ten Sherpa) and more than 60 others injured. After the disaster, all expedition companies pulled off the mountain, and for the first season in 41 years, nobody summited Everest.
This year, though, many Sherpa have returned. I traveled with a translator to base camp to find out what made them come back after two consecutive seasons marred by tragedy.
At 64, Ang Kamy is one of the oldest Sherpa still working on Everest. He's returned to climb the mountain every year since 1975, and although he's been a part of 35 expedition teams, he's never made it to the summit. Instead, he's the leader of the icefall doctors, an elite team of eight Sherpa who anchor the ropes and ladders in the Khumbu Icefall that climbers depend on to safely reach the summit.
The Khumbu Icefall is generally considered by mountaineers to be the most terrifying aspect of the climb. It's a death trap of crumbling ice columns with ladders suspended over bottomless crevasses, which are known for swallowing entire expedition teams. For many climbers, the goal is to get through as quickly possible. But for Ang Kamy and the doctors, it's like a second home.
Two to three weeks before expedition teams arrive at base camp to kick off the climbing season, the icefall doctors begin making forays into the glacier. They spend their days fixing ropes, anchors, and ladders up to Camp 2 at 19,600 feet, the second of four resting camps used by climbers on their way to the summit. Because the icefall is a glacier, it's constantly moving and the paths frequently need maintenance. Crumbling ice might obliterate a rope line, or a crevasse might widen by two or three ladder lengths in just a few hours.
It's a dangerous job, but for Kamy—who has worked as an icefall doctor since 1999—that's part of the draw.
"I switched [from working as a porter] to an icefall doctor because I like the danger and making a way for the expeditions," he told me. "My family keeps telling me to stop going to Everest because they're scared for me. But I like it here, I like making the mountaineers happy."
In 2014, when the glacial column collapsed, Kamy and the other doctors should've been among the victims—but on that particular day, they'd gotten a late start on breakfast, delaying their entrance into the icefall and saving their lives.
And last year, on the morning the earthquake struck, the doctors came off the mountain earlier than normal due to bad weather. By the time they got back to base camp, their lunch was almost ready, so they convened in the large dining tent. The earthquake struck around noon and triggered a massive avalanche at base camp that swept away all of the doctors' personal tents. All of the doctors survived, but as Kamy put it bluntly, "If we had been in our own tents, we would all be dead."
Even still, he insists that "nothing has changed" on the mountain, and there was no reason not to return. "The earthquake was just a challenge from nature," he told me. "Even without the earthquake, the glacier always moves."
Tenjing Dorji has been guiding climbers up Everest since 1993, when he was 24 years old. He's been to the peak ten times.
"When I was starting, Sherpa didn't have a good education," Dorji told me. "But I started climbing to earn money, so I could give a good education to my daughters and son."
According to Dorji, Sherpa generally make between $3,000 and $4,000 as a base salary for the season, depending on the expedition company. They can earn a $1,000 bonus if they lead their team to the summit. It may not sound like much, but in one the poorest countries on Earth, it's not bad. The average annual Nepali income is around $700.
Dorji's son, now 25, got the education his father promised. But now he's following in his father's footsteps, leading expeditions.
"The culture in the Khumbu region is like that," Dorji told me. "Even if they get the opportunity for government or office work somewhere else in Nepal, they'd rather go climbing instead."
Dorji was in base camp during last year's avalanche, but he said he wasn't afraid to return this year. The hardest part of his job, he said, is when he has to pass the dead bodies of Sherpa, which are not removed for logistical reasons, on his way up the mountain. It's a reminder that another day is never promised.
"Our ancestors climbed the high mountain—this is our culture," said Dorji. "There is no guarantee of the Sherpa's safety. There's never any guarantee until you get to camp. Only then will you know if you will survive."
When I first met Mingma Chhiri, the skin on his face was flushed and peeling from windburn and exposure to subzero temperatures. I asked if he'd recently been climbing, and he told me he'd summited Everest for the first time two days prior, fixing rope for a commercial expedition. His group of eight other Sherpa was the first to summit this season, making them the first climbers to reach the top in over two years.
Chhiri had been working on expeditions in the Himalayas since 2010, inspired by his brother, who works as a guide on smaller peaks. By 2014, he made it as high as Everest's Camp 2, but the tragedy prevented a summit attempt. When he returned in 2015, he was confident he would finally make it to the top. Then the earthquake struck, and although he survived, the experience left him spooked.
"I'd never been in that kind of earthquake and had no idea where the avalanche was coming from" Chhiri said. "I was scared to return this year, but my brother requested that I come. So I got tough."
For many other Sherpa, though, the risk of returning wasn't worth it.
"In Buddhist culture, the number three has a special significance. We've had accidents here for two years in a row. [Some Sherpa] believe that this year is also a dangerous year because it's the third year," he explained. "So many experienced Sherpa didn't come back. If this year is OK, I think they will all return next year."
Phu Chettar never expected to work on Everest. The 22-year-old recently graduated from a university in Kathmandu, where he studied to become a dental hygienist.
But dentistry wasn't his passion—mountaineering was. Before college, Chettar said he spent his free time climbing mountains in the Himalayas, occasionally working as a guide. So after graduation, he enrolled in training courses and eventually joined Everest's team of icefall doctors. In 2015, he became the youngest member of the team.
"I was very excited to be on the mountain," he told me. "Then the earthquake struck. I was very afraid. It was a difficult first year."
Footage from inside the Khumbu Icefall from a climber's perspective
Despite his rough rookie year, Chettar said he had no qualms about returning this year. The adventure—and the money—lured him back.
"I want to return to school one day and join the university faculty," Chettar told me. "For that, I'll need money. So I'll keep coming back."
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