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.