It’s an irresistible contrast. On the one hand, modern mountaineering superstars with their blogs and sponsorship deals, scrapping with outraged Sherpas on the slopes of Everest. On the other, one of the defining images of the 20th century, the photograph of Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary standing on the summit of the world, a symbol of human courage and resourcefulness.

The obvious conclusion — that in the 60 years since Everest was first climbed, greed and ego have hollowed out this once noble enterprise. But events earlier this month, when three of the world’s leading climbers fled the mountain in fear of their lives as an angry mob of Sherpas reportedly threatened to kill them, would have caused Tenzing a wry smile.

Even before setting out for Everest in 1953, Tenzing — as sirdar, or leader, of the Sherpas who would carry loads for the sahibs to supply them on the mountain — had been agitating for better working conditions. When his team were told to sleep on the floor of the British Embassy’s garage in Kathmandu, Tenzing, who was offered a bed inside, was outraged. Next morning, lacking access to any facilities, the Sherpas relieved themselves in the street in front of the embassy, prompting fury from embassy staff.

Even before the war, the diaries of Everest pioneers are full of observations about the pride and resourcefulness of Sherpas and how, when traveling far from home with expeditions, they wouldn’t hesitate to defend their honor, even if it came to blows.

Nevertheless, news of Sherpas and climbers fighting has sent shock waves through the mountaineering world. The three mountaineers — Ueli Steck from Switzerland, Italy’s Simone Moro and Briton Jon Griffith — had been moving without ropes at more than 7,000 meters. At the same time Sherpas were laying fixed ropes for guided climbers to use on their way to the summit. As the trio crossed these ropes on their way toward their tent at Camp Three, an argument broke out, with the Sherpas claiming that one of them had been hit by ice dislodged by the Westerners, an allegation they denied. Later, when the climbers returned to Camp Two, a much larger group of Sherpas attacked them, punching and kicking them and throwing rocks. Other foreign climbers intervened so that the three could escape to base camp.

Views are split between admiration for Sherpas, and the infectious joy that they take in life, and concern that the commercial exigencies of climbing Everest, which can cost $65,000 a head, don’t really square with the freedom of the hills. What has been missed in reports of this hypoxic melee is a much broader story and a rather more inspiring one. The inexplicable passion among a small, wealthy European elite for exploring the mountains of the Sherpa homeland, together with the Sherpas’ ability to cope with altitude, gave these people a chance to escape difficult lives herding yaks or carrying loads for traders.

If you’re looking for a good example of the consequences of this unlikely journey, then the Sherpa Adventure Gear shop in Kathmandu is better than most. Inside its air-conditioned interior, with its racks of colorful outdoor equipment, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to Seattle — which is, in fact, where the company is based. Its owner is Tashi Sherpa, a U.S. citizen born in Nepal and the nephew of Gyalzen Sherpa, one of those who worked on Everest in 1953.

“People were very poor,” Gyalzen, who lived into his early 90s, recalled in later life. “There were few houses. Most Sherpas worked as coolies transporting loads for the few rich traders that lived here. The expeditions changed that.”

Mountaineering was the catalyst that changed forever Khumbu, Gyalzen’s homeland below the slopes of Everest. It also extracted a terrible cost. More than 230 people have died on Everest, and a third of them have been Sherpas — the latest, Mingmar Sherpa, at the start of last month.

Out of friendship and gratitude, Hillary and his friends founded the Himalayan Trust, a sustained development effort that saw schools and health centers built and an airport constructed at Lukla in the mid-1960s. That airport is now the hub of a booming tourism industry. Since Nepal’s civil war ended in 2006, the number of trekkers and climbers visiting this small region has surged.

With so much of their business in Kathmandu, many Sherpas now spend much of the year there and send their children to the best private schools in the region. Working for expeditions still offers a way for Sherpas to move up the economic ladder. “Of course, there’s been a cultural impact,” Tashi Sherpa says. “But you have to weigh it from both sides. Do you still want Sherpas to be the same, uneducated, simple folk? No. We want our children to be educated to go out into the world.”

Sherpa Adventure Gear has had a real economic impact on the lives not just of Sherpas but other groups in Nepal. It employs, either directly or as subcontractors, more than 1,400 Nepalis, most of them women. It also runs an education program for poorer Sherpa children. It’s hard to think of another group that has traveled so far so quickly.

Jon Griffith, the British climber who was one of the trio who came under attack, spoke of the frustration many Sherpas feel about how they are treated on Everest, but Tashi Sherpa is not convinced. “People talk about 10 or 20 years of frustration. I don’t think there’s any frustration. If anything, Sherpas are a lot better treated now then they were 10 years ago. We have a voice. Along with development and education, we have a clearer understanding. It’s no longer that idea of the simple native.”

He points to the decision of the international body that represents mountain guides to admit Nepal’s mountain guides. It’s an illustration of the steady rise in the ability of Sherpas, not just to carry loads but to set ropes and look after clients in a hostile environment.

Sherpas are also gradually taking control of how the mountain is managed. This was the immediate cause of the friction last week. Sherpas may now have the technical skills to become guides, but mountaineering is still for them a commercial activity whose ethics are largely meaningless.

Moro, who has climbed the mountain four times, said Everest has seen an influx of younger, more outspoken Sherpas. That self-confidence matches a broader development in Nepalese society, the rise of the janajati movement, janajati meaning indigenous ethnic groups. Subjugated under the monarchy, these groups, including Sherpas, are finding their voice.

“There’s a great sense of each one’s worth now,” says Tashi Sherpa. “The way things were for the last 200 years isn’t going to continue. There are going to be some serious changes in the next election and hopefully it will be for the better.”

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