Mount Everest is the pinnacle of adventure tourism. For the Sherpa people of Khumbu, it is also both a livelihood and the source of unspeakable hardship.
Sitting on a wooden bench overlooking Namche Bazaar, a remote mountain town in northeastern Nepal, I watched a caravan of mules carrying cooking gas cylinders make its way toward the main road.
It was late afternoon, and the cloudless mid-November sky revealed the towering peaks of Kongde Ri, which flanks the town from the west, and Thameserkhu, from the east, in all their glory.
The Himalayan village view of Namche Bazaar is the primary center of the Khumbu region, home to the Sherpa peoples © Adisorn Fineday Chutikunakorn / Getty Images
Namche is the biggest town in the Khumbu region, home to Everest. Ever since the mountain was first summited by Tenzing Norgay, a native of Khumbu, and Sir Edmund Hillary, of New Zealand, in 1953, Everest has single-handedly turned the region into a tourism powerhouse. Khumbu is also home to Nepal’s largest population of Sherpas, an ethnic group with roots in Eastern Tibet.
Since that first Everest ascent, hundreds of ethnic Sherpa from the region have gone on to work as porters, cooks and guides on mountaineering expeditions. The integral role Sherpas have played in Nepal’s mountaineering and trekking industry has made the term ‘sherpa’ synonymous with expedition staff, even though not all ‘sherpas’ are ethnic Sherpa.
I wanted to travel to the region from my home in Kathmandu to shine some light on Sherpa stories, which are so often overshadowed by those of foreign mountaineers and bucket list vacationers.
A town for mountaineers
A small plane lands at the “Tenzing-Hillary” Airport in Lukla Everest Base Camp © Doctor J/Getty Images
The most popular way to reach Namche is by boarding a small propeller plane and flying into Lukla’s Tenzing Hillary Airport (elevation 2860m) from Kathmandu. Often called the world’s most dangerous airport, the airport has a runway measuring just 527 meters. Just south of the runway is a steep 600-meter drop into the valley below, and to the north are steep mountains, leaving pilots with no room for error. Since there are no motorable roads in the area, to get around you need to be ready to walk. The 19-km trekking trail from Lukla to Namche meanders up and down precipitous pine- and rhododendron-forested hills and past sleepy Sherpa villages.
For a town where everything from bathroom tiles to rice needs to be flown in from Kathmandu and then carried on the backs of porters and animals, Namche is surprisingly well-appointed. The narrow alleys of the town are lined with cafes that serve cappuccinos and …….