Watching the sunrise from just shy of 19,000 feet, I can’t decide if Nepal is just that breathtaking or if I am simply out of breath. Behind me sits our longtime friend and guide, Ang Nuru Sherpa, carrying more than his fair share of weight and breathing as though he is at sea level. As we reach the top of the pass and stare into the face of Mount Everest, I think about how the Sherpa people came through the Nangpa La pass from Tibet over 200 years ago.
Ang Nuru is one of the Sherpa people of the Khumbu Valley, an area most people know as the path to Everest. Sherpa, originally “sharwa” in Tibetan, meaning “people from the East,” are what we tourists know as some of the strongest and most adept guides in the world. As a trekker, one of the most talked-about people on the trail is Tensing Norgay, the Sherpa guide who led Sir Edmund Hillary to scale Everest for the first time in 1953. This event opened the door for climbers from around the world to test their skills in one of the most extreme places on earth and is the reason we foreigners became familiar with the name Sherpa.
With only 3,200 Sherpas in the whole of the Khumbu Valley, and only 6,000 in all of Nepal, Sherpas are highly sought out as guides. As a result, six or seven Sherpas lose their lives each climbing season in the Khumbu Valley alone due to climbing accidents. Many climbers from around the world say that the Sherpas live on what is called “the sharp end of the rope”— meaning they are the ones who go up first to check snow conditions, set the ropes for everyone else and are more likely to lose their lives testing the stability of the snow on the mountain. However, today, before anyone can climb a mountain or even trek through the valley, they must go through a pujah ceremony to appease the mountain’s spirit so that the climbers may return safely.
At the base of every mountain there is another pujah ceremony for the climbers. Here, another type of Lama, called the “service Lama,” walks everywhere in the valley to bless climbers at the bases of the mountains. Our service Lama, Mingma Dorjee, is a constant figure at the base of Ama Dablam, the 21,349-foot mountain in the Khumbu Valley where we spend the majority of our time.
The job of these Lamas is not always so cheerful as pujah ceremonies. They also perform ceremonies for the dead, called ramnya. During this ceremony, if the Sherpa’s body can be recovered from the mountain on which they were lost (and most often it cannot), they are cremated and their ashes set free from a high point in the valley. Memorials to Sherpas are called chorums and are most commonly located on hills or at the tops of passes so that the spirit of the dead can watch the sacred mountains where bits of their ashes are left.
In Sherpa culture, the name of a dead person is never uttered aloud again, but the names are printed on plates on their chorums. Recently there has been a change in the use of chorums in favor of a new memorial erected from stainless steel that recounts every person who has ever died climbing Mount Everest. These names of the dead are written in English letters and can now be read aloud by people who do not know the Sherpa tradition. With this change in culture and technology, some people have begun to worry that newer, more modern values are replacing the old religious values of the Sherpa people.
A victim of this new trend in Sherpa culture is Nawang Chombe Sherpa, the last remaining stonemason in Pengboche. He has been making chorums and mani stones, carved rocks written in Tibetan for good luck, for over 60 years. This practice has been handed down from generation to generation in his family since it started in Tibet. Now that one of his sons, Guirmi, is a trekking guide and his eldest son died on Ama Dablam, he has no apprentices and therefore cannot pass on his knowledge of this longstanding tradition. Gugu Chombe, as he prefers to be called, worries that, when he dies (he is 82 now), the Sherpa people will lose focus on the traditions of their culture and concentrate only on economic gain.
Over the years, the Khumbu Valley has changed in many ways due to the huge rush of tourism and the increasing influence of Western values. With many religious principles and traditions dying along with the eldest generation in the valley, I ask myself, “Where are the Sherpa people going to end up?” Right now the Sherpa people are in a state of constant change, and as we will see in the next few years, this change could very well alter the face of climbing around the world and the most basic cultural traits of the Sherpa people.