The Vital Role of Climbing Sherpas: Unsung Heroes of Mountaineering


High in the peaks of the Himalayas, a group of skilled and hardy men and women make their living guiding climbers in some of the most challenging and dangerous terrain on Earth. These are the climbing Sherpas of Nepal, whose strength, expertise, and courage have been instrumental in nearly every major Himalayan mountaineering feat for the past century. The role of climbing Sherpas extends far beyond simply hauling gear and leading the way – they are an essential pillar of support, without whom the dreams of reaching the loftiest summits would remain out of reach for all but the most elite climbers.

role of climbing sherpas

Who are the Climbing Sherpas?

The term “Sherpa” often refers to an ethnic group native to the mountainous Khumbu region of Nepal. Sherpas migrated from Tibet to Nepal some 500 years ago and their unique physiology, adapted to living at high altitudes, gives them a natural advantage in the thin air of the Himalayas. Many Sherpas grow up immersed in mountain life and build impressive climbing resumes from a young age. However, not all climbing Sherpas are of the Sherpa ethnicity – the label has also become a job title referring to high-altitude guides and porters of any background. What unites them is their exceptional skill, local knowledge, and dedication to a demanding profession.

Physical Prowess and Technical Expertise

One of the key aspects of the role of climbing Sherpas is the incredible physical strength and endurance they bring to bear in the mountains. Sherpas routinely carry loads of 80 pounds or more across treacherous glaciers, up steep ice walls, and through the “death zone” above 26,000 feet where the oxygen is dangerously thin. Many expeditions would fail before even reaching base camp if not for the Herculean ability of Sherpas to haul the massive amounts of food, fuel and equipment needed for weeks on the mountain.

Beyond brute strength, climbing Sherpas are also masters of mountaineering technique. They are experts at route-finding, risk assessment, ropework, and rescue procedures. On Everest, Sherpas take the lead in fixing the ropes and ladders that enable climbers to cross otherwise impassable obstacles like the Khumbu Icefall. When climbers struggle with the effects of high altitude, it is often Sherpas who get them down safely. And in the event of an avalanche, crevasse fall or other mishap, the Sherpas are the first line of defense, putting their own lives at risk to come to the aid of stricken climbers.

Cultural Bridge and Environmental Stewards

In addition to their physical contributions, climbing Sherpas also serve the vital role of cultural ambassadors. For many foreign climbers, the Sherpas are their first and primary point of contact with Nepali mountain culture. Sherpas welcome clients into their communities, share their traditions, and create an atmosphere of warm hospitality at 17,000 feet. At the same time, they help interpret the needs and expectations of foreign climbers to ensure clear communication and smooth logistics. Sherpas have a foot in both worlds and their ability to bridge cultures is a key part of their profession.

Sherpas, with their deep reverence for the mountains they call home, are also essential partners in protecting the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. They follow and promote Leave No Trace ethics to minimize expedition impacts. Sherpas are integrally involved in efforts like the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee which works to remove trash from Everest, manage human waste, and support sustainable development in gateway villages. The rich traditional knowledge Sherpas hold about the rhythms of the mountains is also an invaluable resource for scientists studying the effects of climate change on these high-altitude environments.

Challenges and Controversies

For all their strength and skill, Sherpas are not invincible, and working in the high Himalaya remains an extremely dangerous way to make a living. By some estimates, a third of all climbers who have died on Everest have been Sherpas. Avalanches, crevasse falls, extreme cold, and the cumulative health impacts of repeated trips to altitude all pose existential threats. In 2014, a devastating avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall killed 16 Sherpas, the deadliest day in Everest history. The loss reverberated through the tight-knit Sherpa community and sparked intense debate over compensation, safety, and labor conditions for the climbing workforce.

There are also complex questions about the power dynamics and wage disparities between foreign guides and local Sherpas. A high-profile dispute in 2013 erupted when a trio of European climbers got into a scuffle with a group of Sherpas at 23,000 feet, underscoring simmering tensions over differing climber expectations and values. While top expedition outfits strive to create an equitable environment for their Sherpa teams, with good pay, gear, and opportunities for advancement, the mountaineering industry as a whole still has work to do to ensure across the board fairness and respect for the climbing Sherpas who risk so much.


From their earliest forays in support of foreign expeditions to the recent boom in commercial climbing, Sherpas have been at the center of Himalayan mountaineering for generations. The role of climbing Sherpas encompasses an astonishing depth and breadth of skills, from physical prowess to cultural diplomacy to environmental stewardship. They are the unsung heroes of the mountains, without whom the annals of high-altitude achievement would be vanishingly sparse. While climbing Sherpas face daunting risks and ongoing challenges, their spirit of joyful perseverance in the face of adversity is an inspiration – and their irreplaceable contributions have earned them a permanent place in mountaineering lore. The next time you marvel at a photo from the roof of the world, take a moment to remember the indomitable climbing Sherpas who, more often than not, made that moment possible.