For many the word ‘Sherpa’ has become synonymous with mountain guide, or porter – particularly in the Everest region – but it is in fact the name of an ethnic group of people, one of 50 or so in Nepal.
Tibetan in origin, Sherpas inhabit the southern flanks of the Himalaya in northeast Nepal, including the Everest region. Their language is a dialect of Tibetan, their customs basically Tibetan, and their religion Buddhist. Few who are privileged to meet them aren’t impressed by their remarkable toughness, courage and good humour.
The staple crop of the Sherpas is potatoes, and they rear yaks in Alpine pastures to altitudes of 5,000m. Deforestation, much of it due to the growth of tourism, is a major problem, resulting in the loss of topsoil, threatening crops and contributing to flooding downstream. Many of their basic needs, such as foodstuffs, building materials and medical supplies, have to be manually carried along mountain footpaths. And the children, eager for an education, often walk two hours to and from school every day.
Sherpas live in the Kanchenjunga region, as well, at the higher altitudes, though their culture and tradition is distinct from those in the Everest region. The Kanchenjunga region is also home to a diverse range of ethnic groups including Limbus, Tibetans, Rai, Gurung, Magars, Newars and Tamangs.
It is still early days for the Himalayan Trust UK in the Kanchenjunga region, although the implemented teacher training is already showing positive results with children being far more engaged in their education. School attendance and results are much improved. In the Everest Region, where Himalayan Trust schools have been open for over 50 years, the impact on the Sherpas communities has been significant. A number of the Sherpas have progressed to secondary and tertiary education and graduated in medicine, dentistry and forestry, contributing to the communities from which they came. Others have flown further afield. Ang Zangbu, who is a regular visitor to the UK, is now an airline pilot for Thompsons Holidays. He has written a children’s book about his growing up in the mountains of Nepal and education at the Hillary school at Khumjung, and leads treks where he invites participants to contribute to the cause. Another Sherpa, Ang Temba, who is deaf and dumb, won a scholarship through the Hillary’s Himalayan Trust as a teenager, and has carved a career painting beautifully intricate pictures of the life of the Sherpa people in summer and winter. One famously includes a helicopter bringing ‘The Big Man’ to the Solukhumbu for a visit.