When you call someone a Sherpa, what does that mean?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The Everest climbing season may be over, that's the word today from a group of Nepalese expedition guides. Most Sherpas have left Everest base camp to show their respect for the 16 Sherpas killed or presumed dead in an avalanche last week. The deadliest accident in Everest history has shown a spotlight on dangers faced by Sherpas. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa is an anthropologist at Penn State University. Let me start with a basic question about Sherpa culture. When you have "Sherpa" at the end of your name as you do, what does that indicate?

Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: It indicates that we belong to this ethnic group called Sherpas. One thing I would want to clarify is that the term Sherpa is often used synonymously with expedition workers, or porters, because historically those were the jobs that Sherpas did. But it kind of takes our attention away from who Sherpas really are and does not differentiate the ethnic group from the job.

Werman: Explain to us what it does mean to be a Sherpa.

Yangjee Sherpa: Sherpas currently live in different parts of the world but it's largely concentrated in Nepal in the Everest region and that is where I'm from. But today a large concentration of Sherpas are in Kathmandu and in New York City.

Werman: Why are Sherpas so skilled at mountaineering or is it just a skill you get when you're a mountain dweller in the Himalayas?

Yangjee Sherpa: We have been living in the mountains for a very long time and that's where we come from, so we know the area. We know how to live and survive and adapt. But we need to understand that Sherpas do not climb mountains for a hobby or as a sport, they do so to earn money for themselves and their families. So the families can have a better life.

Werman: We spoke with Tenzing Norgay's son just the other day and he said something really striking, he said he had summitted once himself but for him it wasn't about the summit, it was about the journey. I'm just wondering, how do Sherpas generally view this Himalayan mountain region?

Yangjee Sherpa: The mountains are not just objects in front of them. The mountains are places where deities reside. So we go to the mountains and we actually pray and make sure the mountain is not upset, and we make sure the mountains are happy to allow Sherpas, or anyone, to climb.

Werman: Which is why, I understand, a lot of people in the Sherpa community see the terrible deaths of these Sherpas last week as perhaps a sign of some deity, that they're not happy.

Yangjee Sherpa: Every time one of the expeditions goes up, the Sherpas do a puja — a ritual to appease the deity and to make sure everyone's happy and it's okay for them to climb. But this time, because so many lost their lives, this was seen as a sign by the Sherpas that their God is not happy. They thought it was a good reason to stop climbing this year. I do not have anyone related to me directly by blood who get injured or hurt and lost their lives but this is something that's really sad for every Sherpa.

Werman: What does the future look like for the Sherpa people? Has this avalanche been a turning point?

Yangjee Sherpa: My friends and I are hoping this will be a turning point. The cycle of people feeling pressured to go to the mountain and then getting injured or dying, and then the families grieving — I think this cycle has to end. We think this incident should be a turning point for everyone. And for the expedition workers, in particular.

People should pay attention to the real issue: the unfair working conditions and the unfair pay for the expedition workers on the mountain. I hope the Nepalese government is able to set a good standard as to how much insurance coverage should be and provide good compensation for the widows and the families left behind and also for the expedition workers who will lose income this year.

I also hope the big organizations in Nepal who are profiting a lot from this industry will not just be aware, or just say that they're going to honor those individuals who lost their lives, but actually take action to make sure that not only the expedition workers get good pay and they're treated well, but also their families are supported in case something like this were to happen again.

Werman: It's striking to me that since this disaster on Everest just over a week ago it's sparked that discussion with more force than I've ever heard in the past.

Yangjee Sherpa: I also think this has been a moment for us, the Sherpas, to come together and be able to talk to the media and really put light to this issue so we're happy and thankful for that.

Werman: Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, thank you very much for your time.

Yangjee Sherpa: Thank you.