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Who are the Sherpa?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Sherpa are a group of Tibetans who migrated across the Himalayans into Nepal around 1500 CE. Their oldest settlement is Pangboche, which is believed to have been built in the 1700s. They are well adapted to the demands of high altitude living, and their familiarity with the Himalayan Mountains led to their adoption by the mountaineering community as guides.

When referring to a guide, “sherpa” is not capitalized, to distinguish the ethnic group from the profession. Sherpas who also act as guides are in high demand, especially for Everest expeditions.

The word comes from the Tibetan shar meaning “East” and pa, which means “people.” The Sherpa or Sharpa are “people from the East” since they traveled over the mountains to settle in Nepal. A male member of the group is called a Sherpa, while a woman is a Sherpani.

Many are Buddhist, probably bringing the religion over with them from Tibet. They live as farmers and cattle breeders, and also spin and weave wool. Physically, these people tend to be stocky and very strong, with Mongolian features. They speak their own language, also called Sherpa, which is related to Tibetan. The culture includes its own unique cuisine and traditions, developed after hundreds of years of Himalayan living.

The use of Sherpa people as guides began when European explorers began traveling through the Himalayans. The people were well adapted to act as guides since they knew the territory very well, and they were well adapted to the sometimes difficult condition. It has been suggested that they actually have a larger lung capacity, allowing them to function in low oxygen conditions.

Over time, explorers began to use the generic term to refer to any sort of guide or porter. Ethnic Sherpa are usually preferred because they know the weather and history of the Himalayas very well, and they offer numerous services in addition to just carrying goods. They may help organize food, networking with other Sherpa, and they offer extensive guide services. Acting as a guide is a very respectable career which commands a high rate of pay for both men and women.

One of the most famous Sherpas who was also a sherpa is Tenzig Norgay, who guided Edmund Hillary on his successful Everest climb in 1953. Many Sherpas continue to live traditionally, supplementing the income of villages with the activities of guides. Once Everest was successfully summited, some also started informal competitions to see who could climb the mountain most quickly, or who could achieve the climb without supplemental oxygen. As a group, they are an important part of Nepal's economics and history.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon350312 — On Oct 03, 2013

A high rate of pay, according to local standards, is what -- like $5 an hour?

By anon345215 — On Aug 16, 2013

Sherpa is a community in eastern Nepal. Today there is approximately 30,000 who live in Nepal and 3000 that live in the Khumbu Valley. The language they speak is Sherpali. Most of the Sherpa's community religion is the Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism.

By anon292727 — On Sep 21, 2012

Maybe give more examples of ways Sherpas have adapted over time.

By anon242783 — On Jan 25, 2012

Are Sherpas' blood cells bigger than people who live in cities like New York?

By calabama71 — On Mar 12, 2011

Actually, “Sherpa” is our mis-pronunciation of “Shar-wa”. There are 18 different clans among the Sharwa. One’s surname is based on the clan that they belong to. An example of this would be; Members of the Sharwa clan use “Sharwa” as their surname. Members of the Nawa clan use “Nawa” as their surname.

If you were interested in knowing a Sherpa (Sharwa) person’s surname, you would ask them to tell you their “ru”. The word “ru” means “bones”. If you know their ru, you can trace back their village and family roots for about 400 years.

By dill1971 — On Mar 10, 2011

@cellmania:

Professor James Fisher did a study in 1990. At that time, he reported approximately 35,000 Sherpas, also known as Sharwa, lived in Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and India.

However, the Royal Nepal Embassy quotes around 100,000 as the total number of Sharwa people living in the Himilayan Region.

It is said that around 5000 Sherpas live in the cities of Europe and North America.

By CellMania — On Mar 07, 2011

How many Sherpa are there today?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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