Frontline World

NEPAL, Dreams of Chomolongma, May 2003

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The Long Climb Up

A Nepali Heroine: Pasang Lhamu

Nepal Country Profile

The Mount Everest Region, Sherpa Life, Nepali Women




Images from Everest
Facts & Stats

• Land
• Government and Politics
• Economy
• People
• Women

• Sherpas and Mount Everest


The Kingdom of Nepal, situated between China to the north and India to the south, is home to more than 25 million people. It is the only surviving Hindu kingdom in the world.

Roughly the size of the state of Arkansas, Nepal lies along the center of the Himalayan arc. Within its borders lie eight of the 10 highest mountains on Earth, including Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak. Nepal's mountain region occupies about 64 percent of the country's total land.

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Government and Politics

Nepal is governed by a constitutional monarchy. A multiparty legislature was instituted in 1991, after 30 years of absolutist rule under the Panchayat system was dismantled. The centrist Nepali Congress Party controls the majority of parliament seats.

In 1996, after winning only nine of 205 parliament seats in an earlier election, a hard-line communist faction in Nepal went underground and took up arms. Today these Maoist insurgents, who call themselves the People's Army, are believed to number 5,000, and they control about a third of Nepal's countryside. Before a cease-fire in January 2003, clashes between the rebels and government forces left nearly 8,000 Nepali dead. The U.S. State Department has added the rebel group to its new second-tier list of 38 terrorist groups.

Nepal's political stability was seriously jeopardized in 2001 when 10 members of the royal family, including the king and queen, were massacred.

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Agriculture is the mainstay of the Nepali economy, providing a livelihood for more than 80 percent of the population and accounting for more than 40 percent of the gross domestic product.

Nepal is among the poorest countries in the world -- more than 40 percent of the population earns less than $100 per year. The country has a per-capita gross national product of $220 a year. Nearly 40 percent of the Nepali people lack access to basic health care and education.

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There are more than 30 ethnic groups living in Nepal, including the Brahman, Chetri, Newar, Gurung, Magar, Sakya, Tamang, Rai, Limbu, Sherpa, Tharu and others.

About 86 percent of Nepalis practice Hinduism; about 8 percent practice Buddhism; 4 percent, Islam; and 2 percent, other religions. The country is revered as the birthplace of Buddha.

Nepali is the official language and is spoken by 90 percent of the population. About a dozen other languages and 30 major dialects are also spoken in Nepal. Many who are in government and business speak English in addition to their native language.

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Although Nepal's literacy rate has improved in recent years, the percentage of literate women lags far behind the percentage of literate men. The literacy rate for men is about 62 percent, and for women, about 28 percent.

Nepal has one of the world's widest gaps between primary school enrollment of girls and boys. About 79 percent of Nepali boys are enrolled in primary school compared with about 60 percent of Nepali girls.

Nepal is one of only two countries in the world where a woman's average life expectancy is lower than a man's.

The mortality rate of women in childbirth in Nepal is one of the highest in Asia.

In 40 percent of Nepali marriages, the bride is under the age of 14.

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Sherpas and Mount Everest

"Sherpa" means "person of the east." Although Westerners pronounce it "SHUR-pa," the native pronunciation is "SHAR-wa," "shar" meaning "east," and "wa" meaning "person." (The word "sherpa" has also come to be the generic term for a porter, or guide.) Most Sherpas are Buddhists of the Nyingmapa sect.

The first Sherpas settled in the Khumbu Valley, the gateway to the south side of Mount Everest. It is believed that they walked from eastern Tibet 500 years ago.

Some 70,000 Sherpas live in northeastern Nepal. About 10,000 of them reside in the Khumbu Valley.

Yak-keeping is one of the oldest Sherpa occupations. Sherpa yak-trains still transport buffalo hides, salt, and wool between India and Tibet, across mountain passes that are nearly 20,000 feet above sea level.

The Sherpas refer to Mount Everest as Chomolongma, which means "Mother Goddess of the Universe."

Mount Everest is approximately 29,035 feet high, and because of geological forces, it grows a few millimeters taller each year. More than two-thirds of the earth's troposphere (the lowest level of the atmosphere) lies below Mount Everest's summit, and for someone who is not acclimated to the altitude and has no oxygen, the top of the mountain is more endurable than outer space by only two or three minutes.

Ever since the first British mountaineering expeditions headed up Mount Everest in the early 20th century, Sherpas have been an essential part of every climbing expedition.

Dr. Alexander Kellas is generally regarded as the first person to recognize the natural aptitude of the Sherpa people for climbing at high altitude. In the 1920s, Kellas was perhaps the world's leading expert on mountain sickness, what we know today as hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation. Hypoxia can cause people to hallucinate and to lose their ability to think clearly. Kellas recognized that Sherpas did not feel these effects in the same way others did, although it's still unclear whether their resistance is because of genetics or an upbringing at high altitude.

More than 1,200 people have successfully reached Mount Everest's summit since New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing Norgay successfully made the ascent a half-century ago.

Hundreds of climbers have failed in their expeditions, and more than 180 people have died on the mountain -- a third of whom were Sherpas.

It costs about $65,000 for a guided expedition up Mount Everest. One of the big-line items is the cost of guides. A lead guide commands about $25,000, and assistant guides earn about $10,000 to $15,000 each. Then there is the park permit, which ranges from $10,000 to $25,000 per person depending on the size of the team. The Nepali government also requires groups to pay a $4,000 advance deposit as a guarantee that they will pack their trash. A climber starting out from scratch can spend an additional $8,000 for basic equipment and gear costs.

Mount Everest porters who work up to base camp are paid $2 to $3 a day, sometimes even less. Higher-altitude porters earn more. Working from base camp to Camp II, they earn about $20 a day, and between Camps II and III, $50 a day. Porters who work from Camp III to the summit earn up to $350 a day. They are also usually given an equipment allowance of about $2,000.

Sherpas involved in tourism can earn as much as five times more than the average per-capita income in Nepal.

At least 50 tons of trash has accumulated on Mount Everest since the first successful ascent of the mountain 50 years ago. The problem has become so severe that climbers mount expeditions specifically to clean up after past mountaineers. Refuse includes thousands of empty oxygen bottles, human waste and crashed helicopter debris. A government incentive program, instituted in 1994, pays Sherpas for every discarded oxygen bottle they retrieve from the mountain. Glass bottles were banned on Everest in 1998.

Thousands of tourists from around the world visit Mount Everest every year, generating millions of dollars for Nepal. However, concern over the country's Maoist conflict, coupled with the worldwide downturn in tourism after September 11, 2001,has resulted in a 28 percent drop in visitors to Mount Everest.

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Sources: United Nations Development Program, "Second Country Cooperation Framework for Nepal"; T.R. Reid, "The Sherpas," National Geographic Magazine (May 2003); CIA, "The World Factbook 2002: Nepal"; UNICEF; Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; USAID; Philip Shenon, "Rebels in Nepal Drive Down Tourism," The New York Times (Feb. 9, 2003); Thomas F. Hornbein, Everest: The West Ridge (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1983, reprinted 1998).