Interview with a Sherpa guide
Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (right) and Edmund Hilary show the gear they wore when conquering Mount Everest. (Associated Press)
Sherpa mountaineers and guides are the unsung heroes of Mount Everest. Ever since the world first turned its attention to the highest mountain on earth, Western climbers have overshadowed the very guides who help them to the top. Although the first mountaineers to ever summit Everest were Edmund Hilary and guide Tenzing Norgay, the former was knighted and gained the bulk of the glory.
But it is not the Sherpa way to vie for such attention, explains Karma Sherpa, the mountaineer who owns Sherpa Mountain Travel. "Sherpa people love helping Westerners to get to the top," he said simply. Karma, who grew up in Taksindu, Nepal, and began leading treks when he was just 17 years old, comes from a family of accomplished climbers. His cousin, Babu Chhiri Sherpa, holds the world record for most time spent on Everest's summit - 21.5 hours without oxygen. While he was alive, he also held the record for the fastest ascent without oxygen, having reached the top in under 17 hours.
"That's how I was inspired to start guiding," Karma said. He founded Sherpa Mountain Travel about 11 years ago where he and his brother Phurwa Sherpa are both trek leaders. Karma is also on the team for Bridges Between, a non-profit organization working to bring literacy to Sherpa women in rural Nepali communities.
Karma took the time to speak with us about climbing Mount Everest, Sherpa culture, and how things have changed since the 1996 Everest disaster, which his friend Jon Krakauer brought attention to with the book Into Thin Air.
Travelwise: Can you tell us about the expeditions you lead each year?
Karma: Next year, I'm coordinating for four people to [climb] to the top of Everest. Yearly, we lead about 50 or 60 treks to Base Camp and to other mountains in Nepal. That's a very small amount compared to some other people because I just want to make sure everything goes well - that everything is under control. And also, I just want to give travellers a good experience.
T: How much do the different trips cost?
K: So, here's the thing. There's a couple ways to do trekking [in the region]. One is staying in tea houses. That type of trip is less expensive than a camping trip - but it all depends on what kind of hotel you want to stay in in Kathmandu. These tailored trips might start at $2,200.
A camping trip [to Base Camp] includes the crew, camping gear, a personal chef, everything... for 17 or 18 days. Depending on how many people we get in a group, it could be $3,400 to $3,800. [The mountain] is Kala Patthar. The view of Everest is so close, and also the whole Himalayan mountain panoramic view surrounding the peak is spectacular.
For a summit expedition, a lot of companies charge around $65,000. My company charges $45,000 for the summit expedition. It's a big difference, because I'm a native Sherpa and we have connections with the people there.
T: How much should climbers tip their guides and/or porters?
K: Well, I mean, we don't have an exact amount. My company recommends 10% of the total cost. Some people do less, some people do more.
T: What currency of money should travellers bring with them to the Everest region?
K: [Nepalese] rupees.
T: What advice do you have for climbers who are thinking about joining expeditions?
K: In my experience, to climb Everest, people have to have some sort of mountaineering skills. But physical strength is more important than technical training... I mean, climbing on Everest is also about luck. The person has to have good luck. No matter who you are, sometimes it is not easy to get on the summit. A lot of things must come together - weather, physical body condition, guiding.
T: You became a guide in 1995. What was it like being a guide during the 1996 Everest disaster, when eight climbers died on 11 May?
K: I was in the West at the time, but my best friend -- we grew up together -- he was part of the Base Camp crew. He was the main cook at Base Camp for that expedition. We all felt very sad because a lot of people lost their lives up there. But it was an accident. You never [completely] know the weather condition.
[What] we know is when people are really super experienced, then they have more confidence, but the thing is, when you are too confident, any accident can happen. It can happen whether you are driving or [trekking]. That's why when I take people to mountain, I always say, no matter what kind of experience you have, the mountain is always a mountain. You have to be cautious and you have to know the conditions. When there are indications of bad weather, come down and go the next day.
As Sherpas, we know [that] the conditions can change at any time. Even a sunny day can come to bad weather any time. We've lived for so many years there, so we can tell certain things. Also, Sherpa people respect Everest as part of Mother Earth. When we climb, we have to be very careful and also respect nature. Sometimes people who don't know that tradition, they do whatever they like and climb whenever they like, and then sometimes accidents can happen.
T: Author Jon Krakauer, who's a friend of yours, was one of the survivors of that tragedy. What do you think has changed since he wrote the book Into Thin Air about the 1996 disaster?
K: With this kind of a big tragedy, probably the guides themselves changed that kind of attitude [of overconfidence]. [But] probably not too much has changed [in terms of regulations]. Climbing Everest is different than climbing other mountains. When people climb Everest, the chances of getting good weather are in a very short window. It's only a few days. That's why all the people want to go in that short time. So, they come to Base Camp and then they look at the weather report and then whenever the weather report shows it'll be good, everybody rushes to the top.
T: Has tourism become the main industry for your community back home?
K: Yes. I mean, Nepal was closed to Westerners until 1953. After '53, it opened doors to foreigners, and since then the Everest region has become a world famous destination for travel. All the people come from all parts of the world because of Everest and Sagarmatha [National Park], which is a World Heritage Site. We have the most beautiful mountain on the planet called Ama Dablam. And also [one of] the biggest glaciers in the world, the Khumbu glacier.
T: Since you and your brother grew up in the region, do you ever worry about the influences of Western tourism on Everest?
K: There's always good and bad parts for everything. But as far as I know, the positive outweighs the negative. It's created a lot of jobs. Tourism is the main industry bringing economic growth to the country. And the Sherpa people appreciate the tourism industry; they always welcome the Western tourists. I mean, there's some kind of changes or influences that we can see. In some places, the culture that we have is kind of disappearing, which is bad; but, learning new things is not bad. As long as you keep your original culture and also learn the new culture, it's good. But sometimes when people learn new things, they forget the old ones...So, I always encourage people, keep what we have, and also learn other cultures.
T: Sherpa people have been trekking in the Everest region for decades. How do climbers there feel about Westerners who seem to get more credit for mountaineering achievements?
K: Well, I mean, I think probably there are controversial things for some people. But [in general,] Sherpa people, they don't really care. They are more into helping people and getting people to the top. In the past there wasn't too much competition for making records. But after a couple people make records, and they become successful, it is human instinct to want to compete. Competition in my opinion is a good thing, if they do it positively. Some people, they do this kind of competition negatively. Then that will create problems among the community and among climbers -- and destroy relationships. But if someone has success, then we all should be happy. That's what Buddhism and Sherpa culture teaches.
T: What's your favourite part about being a guide?
K: When you guide, you meet new people. You make relationships with those people and you become friends with them. The reason I wanted to be a guide is I love people and I love all the cultures that people have. When you're doing this job, you're with new people and you make a new connection. I like very much that no matter where you live or which family or which religion or which culture you grew up in, when you have this kind of connection, it all becomes one universe.
Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.