Beyond Oxygen: What it Means to Have A Sherpa At Your Side

Yes, there is a clear distinction between climbing an 8,000m peak with or without supplementary O2. But there is actually much more to consider when judging a climb. In the Himalaya, the term “Sherpa assistance” means much more than a local climber who carries a client’s oxygen bottles.

The degree of support may differ depending on the client’s skills and experience. But generally, the high-altitude support staff — and in particular, the ones generally called Sherpas (though they may belong to other ethnic groups) — help in ways that greatly increase an individual’s summit options. At the same time, the clients become highly dependent on their helpers.

The guides

What do Sherpas do for their client? “Everything!” says Gesman Tamang. Tamang guided six peaks on Nirmal Purja’s Project Possible. He has summited Annapurna without O2 twice (with clients) and specializes in ground and aerial rescues.

Gesman Tamang sitting on a rock, a sea of clouds at his feet, on Ama Dablam last year

Gesman Tamang on Ama Dablam last year. Photo: Facebook

 

“Sherpa guides carry all the client’s weight in their own pack, including food, oxygen, tent, first aid kits, sleeping bag, mattress, cooking gear, extra clothing, and anything else that the client needs,” said Tamang.

The client’s own pack usually includes only one oxygen bottle. (On Everest, oxygen use typically begins at Camp 3.) Before that, their pack includes two three-litre water bottles, medicine, and extra gloves. The Sherpa or Sherpas carry the rest.

Physical and psychological care

“Sherpas do everything,” explains Tamang. “Some clients can’t put on or take off their own mountaineering boots or crampons. Sherpas also change oxygen [bottles] and constantly check the oxygen to make sure it’s working properly. After summiting, some clients start acting very excited. Sherpas have to control them and make sure they stay controlled enough to descend [safely].”

If the client gets frostbite, the guide also has to recognize it promptly and keep it from getting worse.

Lu Guoguo of Taiwan with Gesman Tamang near the summit of Annapurna I, 2021. Frame from Guoguo’s FB video

 

What if the client decides to climb without supplementary O2? In that case, says Tamang, “the guide should carry an emergency bottle of O2, mask, and regulator. This is not optional. It is 100% necessary if the client is climbing without O2 and has a
Sherpa/guide.”

Note that Gesman Tamang uses the word “Sherpa” generically, although he prefers to use “guide” since he himself an accredited guide but not a Sherpa. As his name implies, he belongs to the Tamang people, who are also from Nepal’s mountain regions.

The clients

Chris Warner is familiar with all kinds of Himalayan climbing, from pure alpine-style ascents on new routes to, in recent years, “enjoying the mountain experience with all the advantages that a commercial expedition can provide,” he told ExplorersWeb. He embraces each style as appropriate to different stages of life.

Chris Warner and Chhiring Sherpa on the summit of Kangchenjunga last spring. Photo: Chhiring Sherpa

 

The Sherpa at your side does more than carry your gear or short-rope those who are weaker. They do all the work that, at 8,000m, is exhausting: “They will pitch your tent; melt snow and cook for you; tie your boots if needed…That [energy saving can] make all the difference in a summit push.”

Recently, Adriana Brownlee explained that in a commercial team, you are “literally being told when to eat, drink, change, and go to the toilet.” Kristin Harila, currently on her quest to summit all 14 of the 8,000’ers in six months, told ExplorersWeb that she relies totally on the decisions made by her Sherpa guides, Pasdawa Sherpa and Dawa Ongchu.

A heavy-loaded Sherpa climbs up the Kinshoffer Wall on Nanga Parbat.

A heavily loaded Sherpa climbs the Kinshoffer Wall on Nanga Parbat. Photo: Chhiring Namgel

The independent climbers

Flor Cuenta of Peru was one of the few who summited K2 without oxygen or personal Sherpa support this summer.

“I have to say that, strictly speaking, I do have support as long as the routes on the 8,000’ers are fixed,” Cuenca admits. “Having the ropes fixed and the trail broken is a great help and why I can go independently and hire logistics only up to Base Camp.”

However, Cuenca carries all her gear and supplies, digs a platform and pitches her own tent, cooks, melts snow for water, and makes all her own decisions on the mountain.

Flor Cuenca atop K2 last month.

 

“This is how I have climbed all my life,” she says.

On K2, Cuenca was lucky enough to meet another climber with whom she partnered up.

“We were both climbing in the same style and decided to collaborate by sharing a tent in the higher camps. So during acclimatization, we could carry one tent per camp for both of us.”

Cuenca was in Camp 4 when the first massive wave of climbers set off for the summit, but she decided not to join.

“I was feeling well, but I thought that I still needed one more rotation,” she said. “So I returned to Base Camp, rested for two days, then went up again — this time to the top.”

Extra value in self-sufficiency

In the end, the use of O2 is important but is not the only factor that makes an ascent easier. Everything from conditions, the state of the route, and the presence of other climbers can make it nearly impossible to discern which climbs are the most difficult and admirable.

It is also true that the increasing commercialization on 8,000ers homogenizes the experience. Everyone on the normal route, for example, takes advantage of ropes and broken trails. Hopefully, they will lend a hand in case of trouble.

Those few determined to climb truly independently will have to do alternative routes or go in the off-season. Yet it is still worth considering that one of the main factors in high-altitude mountaineering is a climber’s self-sufficiency. Not only to breathe in the thin air, but also to deal with logistical issues, make critical decisions, and carry heavy loads up and down the mountain.

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides is a college-graduated journalist specializing in high-altitude mountaineer and expedition news. She has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of local and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporations, press manager and communication executive, and a published author.