It’s possible it’s one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Sherpas guide foreigners to the top, set ropes and ladders, and carry everything from food to tents and oxygen canisters up, risking their own lives so foreigners can summit the world’s highest peak.
For most, it’s just a job, but foreign climbers bring a lot of money to Nepal, $11,000 for the Everest climbing permit alone. These jobs bring money and development to their communities, but also tragedy, and very little glory for the Sherpas.
Some 290 people have died climbing Everest in more than a century of attempts, according to the Himalayan Database, an archive that tracks expeditions in the Nepalese Himalayas going back to 1905, reports NPR.
About a third, 94, have been Sherpas. By comparison, just 13 Americans, a leading nationality of the climbers, have died on the mountain. During the first real summit attempt in 1922, seven Sherpas died in an avalanche. Another avalanche in 2014 took 16 Sherpa lives and became the deadliest day on the mountain until the following year, when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal and killed at least 17 people at Everest Base Camp, including seven Sherpas.
While Sherpas are on Everest in much greater numbers than people from other countries or ethnic groups, they also spend much more time exposed to its greatest dangers. The most dangerous section is the Khumbu Icefall, where house-sized slabs of ice hang and sometimes break off. Most foreign climbers pass through the Icefall just a few times. But Sherpas working on the mountain might make 15 to 20 trips through setting equipment and carrying gear.
Phurba Sherpa has stood on top of Everest 12 times as a porter and guide. Five of his brothers have summited too. On his first expedition, just west of Everest on Mount Pumori, one of the brothers died in an avalanche that killed three other Sherpa climbers too.
“I give up. I promise I never climb mountain and I went in my valley, but one year I changed again my mind because I need money,” he says. Phurba earns $8,000 to $10,000 a year guiding on Everest, about 10 times what an average Nepali makes.
Sherpas who have earned a decent living by climbing are now looking for other opportunities in the field, says Thaneswar Guragai, manager of Seven Summit Treks. As pressure from worried families builds, and if they can find alternate work that pays enough, “they prefer to have a good life not climbing,” Guragai says.