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Sherpa child World of the Sherpa
by Liesl Clark with Broughton Coburn
Photography by Liesl Clark

"For a foreigner, a Sherpa means someone who carries loads at high altitudes. But Sherpas are actually all Tibetans. They are called 'People from the East.'"—Jamling Norgay
The Sherpas are an ethnic group who live in the high mountain region of the eastern Himalaya. About 3,000 of Nepal's more than 10,000 Sherpas reside in the Khumbu valley, the gateway to the southern side of Mount Everest. Because their physical prowess at high altitudes is unmatched, they are the backbone of climbing expeditions.

Historically the Sherpas were traders, and yak trains still carry buffalo hides and sundry items across the 19,000 foot Nangpa La pass to Tibet, returning with salt and wool. The Sherpas are Tibetan Buddhists of the Nyingmapa sect, and have drawn much of their religious tradition from the Rongphu monastery, located at 16,000 feet on the north side of Mount Everest.

women planting potatoes The Sherpas have, by and large, retained their traditional customs, even though some villages have limited telephone service, and energy for lighting and cooking. They grow or raise most of their food herding yaks, and planting potatoes, which were introduced from the English gardens of Darjeeling and Kathmandu in the 1800s. Yaks provide wool for clothing, leather for shoes, Sherpa homedung for fuel and fertilizer, milk, butter and cheese. Potatoes, which grow at altitudes up to 14,000 feet, provide the Sherpas with their dietary staple: the main food eaten is Sherpa stew, "shyakpa," a meat and potato based stew with some vegetables mixed in. Rice with lentils, which is called "daal bhaat," is also a common meal for the Sherpas. Tea is the drink of choice, served in big thermoses with plenty of milk and sugar already added. Each household brews its own chang, which is a thick, rice-based beer.

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Photos: (2) courtesy Jenny Dubin.

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