Sherpas should step out of the shadowsTheir contribution to mountaineering successes is often overlooked by the global media.
Ever since the first successful winter ascent of Everest in 1980, there have been a slew of climbing expeditions on various high mountains in the winter, including the 1983 Polish reconnaissance expedition to K2. Besides facing insurmountable natural obstacles, the mission had to deal with byzantine logistics, uncooperative government officials and costs that easily outweighed the most generous budgets.
Now, 38 years later, K2, the second-highest mountain in the world at 8,611 metres, has been summitted in the winter for the first time ever. K2 was the only one of the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 metres never to have been climbed during the winter season. A team of 10 Nepali climbers set foot on the top of K2 on January 16 at 5 pm, and among them were nine Sherpas. While most first summits usually have names associated with the feat—like Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on Everest—this time it was the group that got credited, rather than an individual.
Their ascent in mid-January of the notoriously challenging 'savage mountain' of Pakistan exemplifies the climbing prowess of the Sherpas that often gets overshadowed by Western climbers. For generations, with the success of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s first climb of Mt Everest in 1953, the Sherpa people have consistently been associated with being guides, facilitators, collaborators and porters on innumerable historic mountaineering feats. Despite being an indispensable part of every expedition, their contribution to mountaineering successes has often been overlooked by the global media; and they have seldom received their due, to the extent that the meaning of the word 'Sherpa' has evolved to represent a job description, a trekking crew and a porter.
Everest guides are predominantly Sherpas, with longstanding ties to the mountain. Since the earliest expeditions, they have worshipped the mountains as deities to be revered and cared for. However, the presence of Sherpas in the mountains has been tokenised in the West with 'Sherpa' being commonly referred to as porters for foreign mountaineers. Thus, the Herculean athletic triumph reflected in the winter ascent of K2 by the 10 climbers provides a very deserving spotlight on a long-overlooked indigenous people whose knowledge, dedication and skill are often largely unacknowledged in the shadows of Western climbers who receive recognition for climbing firsts.
The word Sherpa originally signifies people from the east. Originally descended from Tibetan heritage, Sherpas are an ethnic group indigenous to the Himalayan region. On a global scale, 'sherpa' has become synonymous with those working as mountain guides, cheerfully schlepping gargantuan loads of oxygen bottles, water and food while panting foreign clients bring up the rear. Irrespective of this powerful image, Sherpas are not just the muscle behind an expedition: They are expert navigators and often endure freezing temperatures of -30 to -50 degrees Celsius to assist climbers and lead them through icefalls, avalanches and extreme altitudes. Today, Sherpas are in front of the climbers, setting the routes and guiding them.
In other words, Sherpa isn’t an occupation—it’s an ethnic group. And as a Sherpa studying environmental management in New Zealand, and having lived and travelled overseas innumerable times, being asked how much weight I can carry up a mountain only highlights the ignorance and stupidity of the people who pride themselves in being knowledgeable and well informed. It is high time we reframed the usage of the word, and separated it from the notion of porter or muscle force. Nepali climbers over the past generations have always carved their niche in the mountaineering field in the shadow of foreign climbers who receive countless accolades for conquering the world's most treacherous peaks.
The success of the first winter ascent thus represents a long-awaited acknowledgement that Nepali climbers so wholeheartedly deserve. The heroic effort of the K2 winter ascent was led by members of two of Nepal’s major indigenous groups, Sherpa and Magar—Mingma Gyalje Sherpa and Nirmal Purja, respectively. To dissect how the team of Nepali climbers were able to endure the brutal trek, as a proponent of teamwork, I strongly believe the team emphasised the importance of teamwork; as Purja said, ‘A joint team effort, a symbol of hardship, selfless effort and unity.’ A climb of such difficulty that was once thought to be impossible has been accomplished through unified effort and strength, and steadfast determination with a common purpose.
This achievement has been a great pride and celebration for the entire Nepali community, especially at a time when mass tourism in the country has been halted. The widely circulated video of Nepali climbers roped together, strung like prayer beads, and marching shoulder to shoulder singing the national anthem with the purest joy and pride showed a remarkable example of solidarity. This is not only an inspiring moment of recognition for Nepal, but the historic ascent yet again solidified the strength and resilience of the indigenous peoples of the mountains. In the words of Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, one of the team leaders, ‘This expedition was for the pride of the nation, for the Nepali climbing community, and for the future generations of Nepali climbers.’