It is one of the most famous mountains in the world: Mount Everest. People from all over the world come here to test their boundaries, it is the ultimate test for adventurers. There is only one group of people that actually excel at climbing this natural monument: Sherpa people.
The term “Sherpa” comes from Shyar (East) and Pa (People) in the Sherpa language. These people have lived in the Himalayas for generations. Yes, imagine growing up 4000 meters above the ground. As Nyingma Buddhists, they believe that the high peaks of the Himalaya’s were the homes of gods. Until the 1920’s, the Sherpa’s were not actually climbers. At the time, the British controlled the Indian subcontinent and they were planning mountain climbing expeditions where they hired Sherpa as porters. Due to their characteristics as hard workers and the ability to climb those insanely high peaks, mountaineering became a part of their livelihood and culture.
There were multiple expeditions with Westerners attempting to climb to the top, but they failed until 1953, when Edmund Hillary accompanied by a Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay managed to succeed. After this event the demand for the climb literally skyrocketed, attracting adventurous climbers from all over the world, thus invading the Sherpa homeland with thousands of international travellers hiring the Sherpa’s as guides and porters.
Sherpas are being admired for their -almost- inhumane energy, and how they deal with the physical challenges while climbing peaks of this size. Some people compare them to superhumans, as one person recalls one particular Sherpa who came down 2,000 meters from the top in 2 hours while it took the group the best part of a day. He even stopped for a cup of tea while he was on the way down. So, Denny Levett, a founding member of Xtreme Everest and a consultant in clinical care at University Hospital Southhampton, England took part in a scientific expedition to the top of Everest in 2013. This expedition would explore the biology behind human endurance, including the Sherpas endurance, at high altitude.
But first, what does high altitude mean? And what happens to your body on mt. Everest? A fairly recent Hollywood film Everestquotes “Human beings aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747, our bodies will be literally dying”. But is this true? According to people who have been there: yes. Geographer and climber Jon Kedrowski says that the body will actually start to deteriorate on a certain level, especially on a mountain like Everest: a mountain of extremes. But climbers can experience more symptoms, like extreme fatigue, dizziness to coughing up blood. Due to the lack of oxygen, people could catch something called Hypoxia, which means that there is not enough oxygen brought to the brain, which causes people to make poor and sometimes deadly decisions in the landscape which can be found confusing.
So how come Sherpas do it with such ease, you ask? First of all, the key problem foreign climbers struggle with is the atmosphere at high altitude. The oxygen levels up there are about a third of the levels around sea level. For this reason, climbers generally need supplementary oxygen as they reach the top. Altitude sickness can happen to you on altitudes as low as a few thousand meters and adapting of the human body becomes harder the higher you go. Levett said that if you go up to 3,500 meters at one go, the next morning you will feel like you have got the flu or a hangover. But not for Sherpas. Due to them living at such altitude for centuries, the oxygen level does not affect them at all. According to the tests in 2013, the blood flow within the small blood vessels was found to slow down in the non-Sherpa volunteers, whereas it did not change in the Sherpas. This means that quick blood flow allows you to deliver oxygen to the tissues more quickly.
The Sherpa culture has changed drastically over the last decades. Whereas they used to be an isolated community, the majority of their lives revolve around foreign climbers today. Back in the day, only experienced climbers would attempt to reach the summit of mount Everest. But now, more inexperienced climbers want to give it a shot as well. Given that every climber pays a small fortune to make this happen, the Sherpa community has become one of the richest ethnicities in Nepal. Despite making a lot of money on it now, Sherpas lose a lot of their people who are on the job. From all of the deaths that occur while climbing to the summit, about 40% of them are Sherpas, leaving widows and fatherless children. This is a lot considering the size of their community, which is about 150,000 people. This does concern the Sherpa people, despite foreigners expecting that the Sherpas will do whatever the risks are. This has to be seriously reconsidered. Put yourself in the sturdy shoes of a Sherpa and wonder what you would think of this situation.
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