Two of the world’s most celebrated climbing Sherpas are participating in University of Utah Orthopedic Speciality Hospital research designed to explain the high level of athleticism at altitude displayed by the Sherpa people.
Forty-seven-year-old Apa Sherpa holds the world record for climbing Mount Everest seventeen times, with his seventeenth summit–and fifteenth successful summit in a row–occurring in May of 2007. Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa established a speed ascent record for Everest in 2003, on his tenth successful summit of the peak.
Both men have been living in the United States during the last few years and are involved in the study.
The Sherpa people have become legendary for their ability to climb high altitudes and carry heavy loads in the Himalayas. They have been involved in every Everest expedition since the 1920s and are relied upon to move camps and supplies up and down Mt. Everest, as well as many other peaks in the Himalayan region. Now researchers are trying to determine how and why their abilities are so much more advanced than other climbers.
A scientist engaged in the research project was also part of the Super Sherpa Expedition in May this year, which aimed to raise awareness of the contrast between the Sherpa people’s crucial role in commercial Everest expeditions and the lack of educational options for the children of Nepal.
“The study would soon reveal a lot of details about the unique high mountain climbing capabilities of the Sherpas,” said Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.
Initial findings from laboratory and field testing suggest that the Sherpas’–and their ancestors’–bodies have undergone thousands of years of physiological adaptation to high altitudes. Alpinist.com will be reporting on the study’s findings as they become available.
The Sherpa are an ethnic group from the most mountainous region of Nepal. In Tibetan, shar means “east”; pa is a suffix meaning “people”: hence the word sharpa or Sherpa. Sherpas migrated from eastern Tibet to Nepal within the last 500 years. A female sherpa is known as a “sherpani.”
The term “sherpa”–the preferred spelling with a lower case first letter–is also used to refer to local people, typically men, employed as porters or guides for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas. A sherpa is not necessarily a member of the Sherpa ethnic group, but generally the two definitions overlap.