Sherpas want to become masters of their own homes again



It’s a story that begins just over a century ago, in 1921 and 1922, during the first two attempts to climb Everest. From the second expedition of 1922, which reached the formidable altitude for the time of 8,320 m, the British mountaineers understood, in the light of the failure of 1921, that it was necessary to save the forces of climbers designated for the top. And therefore entrust the carrying of the equipment to these little strong and agile men belonging to an ethnic group called to become famous throughout the world, the sherpas.

→ Conquering the last 8,000 (1/4). The K2, a giant never conquered in the Himalayan winter

One hundred years, 27 of the 28 peaks of 8,000 defeated later (14 in summer, 13 in winter since K2 is still missing), things have not really changed. The dozens of customers paying dearly for the right to set foot on the roof of the world in summer owe this pleasure less and less exceptional (it is estimated today that 7,000 summiters of Everest) to the work of the Sherpas. Which keep the monopoly on mountain equipment and safety.

Mountaineers of Everest

“From 8,200-8,300 m, they are the bosses: they have the technique, the resistance and the lucidity that the best western mountaineers no longer have”, explains guide Michel Pellé, the first to have taken clients to the top of the world in 1992. At 70, he is inexhaustible on this people of 180,000 to 200,000 people living on the slopes of northeastern Nepal, in proximity to the most famous 8,000, many of whom made their living.

→ Conquering the last 8,000 (2/4). On the K2, patriotism at the top

He dedicated a famous film to them with an evocative title, Galzhen, the roadmender of Everest. In the documentary, he follows the work of these men, and a few rare women, equipping the ice fall guarding the summit with ropes, ladders and metal bridges., the famous Ice Fall. “These rather well paid shadow workers spend their lives installing fixed ropes, carrying oxygen cylinders, then handing over to those who equip the last camp before the assault. We don’t talk much about those either, he said, because all the light is on those we call the sizes, very strong technically sherpas who have physiological qualities (read below) even more incredible than the others. “

New rich

These lords of the 8,000 live light years away from the low-altitude carriers supplying the base camps. The laborers from below are no longer Sherpas, but more often Tamangs, a lower-rated ethnic group working for trek companies owned by Sherpas. “Very famous in the West, to the point of having inspired a common name to designate the assistants of great political figures, the Sherpas are not always well regarded in Nepal by the dozens of other ethnic groups that make up this country of 28 million people. inhabitants “, explains Jean-Michel Asselin, mountain journalist and Himalayan.

His wife, the sociologist Anne Benoit-Janin, who has just published a book entitled The Nepalese of Everest (ed. Glénat) even qualifies them as ” new rich “. They aroused little solidarity from their compatriots in 2014, when they launched a strike following an avalanche that killed sixteen of their own under Everest. ” They don’t declare much of what they earn to the state, hunt non-Sherpas who want to set up trekking companies or tourist lodges, explains Michel Pellé, in short, they do exactly like our fathers, the Savoyard peasants who became guides who did everything to kick the townspeople out of the Alps in the 1950s ”.

This gradual takeover of the Sherpas over their mountains is accompanied by a technical rise in the technical range of the youngest, in the process of becoming excellent climbers. “Some are stronger than the western climbers who hire them, continues Michel Pellé, they have the talent, the money, but they still lack what defines mountaineering, the free amateur act, the pleasure of riding for the beauty of the sport which alone makes progress. It’s coming, on my last trip I saw 20-year-old kids climbing like gods, they are the future of the Himalayas, not us. “

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Physical qualities studied by scientists

Raised at high altitudes, between 3000 and 4500 m, the sherpas have developed over time physical characteristics which would explain their resistance. Most scientific studies report a particular level of red blood cells in the blood, which explains their muscle resistance. An American study reports the presence of nitric oxide, ensuring better circulation of the blood without the need for a lot of oxygen. Researchers at the University of Cambridge (England) have found that mitochondria, the powerhouses of cells, would be more efficient in sherpas than in the rest of the population.

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