The incredible achievements of Everest’s forgotten heroes

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
In 1953, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary were the first people to summit Everest - Royal Geographical Society

At the fraying hem of the Khumbu Glacier, towers of ice the size of houses teeter precariously over the main approach route to Mount Everest – known as Sagarmatha to the Sherpa people of northern Nepal.

It’s a place of astonishing beauty, and danger. On April 18 2014, an avalanche of broken ice cascaded down onto a team fixing ropes and ladders for climbing expeditions to follow to the summit, claiming the lives of 16 Sherpa climbers – it remains one of the most devastating disasters on the world’s tallest mountain.

As Nepal commemorates the 10-year anniversary, the world is reflecting on the achievements and challenges faced by the nation’s Sherpas, who are often overlooked as crowds of foreign visitors set their sights on the top of the world.

Trekking in Nepal
Mount Everest is a place of astonishing beauty – and danger – and Nepal's Sherpas are its unsung heroes - Jack Anstey

Early pioneers

In 1953, a Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, was one of the first two people to stand on the summit of the world’s tallest mountain, alongside New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary.

Norgay was no casual add-on to John Hunt’s pioneering British expedition though. He participated in many early summit attempts, including three British ones in the 1930s, the Canadian expedition of 1947 and two Swiss missions in 1952, before finally conquering the mountain on May 29 1953.

“Tenzing Norgay did so much for the Nepali community, and everyone knows him for his incredible achievements,” says record-breaking Nepali climber Nirmal “Nimsdai” Purja. “But I think sometimes the Sherpas were not given equal weighting when it came to news coverage of their achievements.” Indeed, it’s only recently that the Sherpa contribution to the story of Everest has been properly acknowledged beyond Nepal’s borders.

A high-stakes industry

The success of Tenzing and Hillary inspired countless other climbers and trekkers to head to Nepal, spawning an industry that today provides work for 15,000 Sherpas as guides, porters, sardars (team leaders) and route-setters, delivering more than 600 climbers to the summit of Everest every year.

“High-altitude climbing on Everest would not be possible without the help of the Sherpas,” says Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Tenzing Norgay. “Sherpas do all the heavy lifting. They carry all the supplies, they pitch the tents, they prepare the food… They do everything, plus they’re climbing the mountain at the same time.”

Jamling Tenzing Norgay is an Everest sherpa in Nepal
Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Tenzing Norgay, was inspired by his father

Sherpas are naturally suited to work on Everest. They are fit and resilient, know the weather conditions and terrain, have a spiritual connection to the Himalayas, and are physiologically adapted to dealing with the effects of low oxygen at high altitudes.

A generation of Sherpas found a route out of poverty by joining the international climbing expeditions of the 1950s and 1960s – including Nawang Gombu Sherpa, who in 1965 became the first person to climb Everest twice.

But this work comes with risks. The first recorded deaths on Everest were seven Sherpa porters lost in an avalanche during the failed British expedition of 1922. Since then, 125 Sherpas have perished on the world’s highest mountain.

Humble high achievers

While newspapers trumpeted the achievements of foreign climbers – the first ascent by a woman, Junko Tabei, in 1975; the first ascent without supplemental oxygen, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler, in 1978 – hundreds of Sherpas continued to climb Everest every year without fanfare.

Earning a footnote in the world’s press, in 1988 Sungdare Sherpa became the first person to summit Everest five times. In 1996, Ang Rita Sherpa – nicknamed the “Snow Leopard” by his peers – became the first person to summit 10 times.

Ang Rita Sherpa
In 1996, Ang Rita Sherpa became the first person to summit Everest 10 times - Corbis/Getty

“Sherpas are incredibly humble people who don’t look for the limelight,” says 17-time summiteer and British mountaineer Kenton Cool, who holds the record for the most Everest ascents by a non-Nepali climber. “But there was also a bit of a throwback to colonial attitudes. Even the Sherpas on the 1953 expedition were not treated as equals.”

Despite this unbalanced relationship, Sherpas repeatedly proved their worth as team members, rescuing stricken fellow mountaineers with little regard for their own safety.

“For me, the greatest feat achieved by a Sherpa climber is Pemba Gyalje Sherpa rescuing two members of the Norit K2 Team in August 2008 during one of the most devastating disasters in mountaineering history,” says climbing guide Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa, who paraglided from the top of Everest in 2011. More recently, video footage has shown the lengths Sherpas go to to save lives on the world’s tallest peaks.

Entering the world stage

On April 22 1993, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa became the first Nepali woman to summit Everest. She died tragically while descending, but her courage inspired a new generation of Sherpa women to take up ice axes and head for the mountains.

“Dozens of Sherpa women are now playing key roles in the mountaineering industry,” says Jamling Tenzing Norgay. “Women such as Dawa Yangzom, Maya Sherpa and Pasang Lhamu Akita have climbed most of the 8,000m peaks.” On May 12 2022, Makalu-born climber Lhakpa Sherpa reached the summit of Everest for the tenth time, the record for any female climber.

Nepalese climber Lhakpa Sherpa holds the world record for most successful climbs of Mount Everest
Nepalese climber Lhakpa Sherpa holds the world record as the women with the most successful climbs of Mount Everest - AFP/Getty

Another great leap forward came in 2019, when Nirmal “Nimsdai” Purja – a former Gurkha soldier from Dhaulagiri – completed the fastest ascent of the world’s 14 8,000m peaks.

In 2021, he went on to join an all-Nepali team on the ground-breaking first winter ascent of K2 without supplemental oxygen. “It was important for me that the whole team summitted together,” he recalls. “We marched arm-in-arm singing the Nepal national anthem – an important message of unity and teamwork, to show the world that nothing is impossible.”

Nirmal "Nimsdai" Purja
In 2019, Nirmal "Nimsdai" Purja completed the fastest ascent of the world's 14 8,000m peaks - Nimsdai

The future of Sherpa climbing

With growing media attention, it is becoming increasingly easy for Sherpas to find funding for their own expeditions. “Ultimately, the more people hear the amazing stories of climbers like Mingma David – the only person to climb K2 six times – and Kami Rita Sherpa – with 28 summits of Everest – the more they want to know,” says Nimsdai.

However, practical issues remain. After the 2014 disaster, the Nepali authorities increased the level of mandatory life insurance that expeditions are required to take out for local staff, but the payout of 1.5 million rupees (around £9,000) if a Sherpa dies is only enough to support their dependents for one or two years.

Families increasingly rely on money donated by mountaineering organisations such as the Nepal Mountaineering Association and Adventure Consultants’ Sherpa Future Fund, established after the 2014 icefall disaster. With growing awareness of the risks, some younger Sherpas are abandoning the mountains for safer work elsewhere.

Sherpa Porter carrying a heavy load on the Everest base camp trek
Sherpas carry heavy loads up treacherous routes - iStock/Getty

“Many Sherpas climb because there is no better alternative to earn the same amount of money,” explains expedition medic Dr Nima Namgyal Sherpa. Depending on their role and experience, Sherpas can earn up to £4,000 for a two-month climbing expedition – more than a Himalayan subsistence farmer earns in a year. “But if they find an opportunity to work or settle abroad, they will happily leave without a second thought,” says Dr Nima.

“Without incentives to encourage the younger generation to pursue a career in mountaineering, in 10 years’ time, it will be very difficult to find Sherpas to go on expeditions.”