While the word "sherpa" is often used interchangeably with "porter" because of their strong association with Everest climbing, Sherpas are actually an ethnic group that can be found throughout the Himalayas. The Sherpas are most recognized around the world for their assistance in Everest mountaineering exploits in Nepal, but ethnic Sherpas actually have a much longer history with the north side of Everest. Today, there are significant Sherpa populations in Nepal, India, Bhutan, and China, but all of them trace their origins back to the Kham region of China. Kham is an ethnically Tibetan region that falls across eastern Tibet, western Sichuan, and parts of Qinghai and Yunnan. Over the centuries, as clans of these Kham Tibetans migrated across the Himalayas, unique people groups such as the Sherpas have emerged with their own distinct beliefs, languages, traditions, and even physical appearance.
As a result of their gradual migration over the Himalayas and long-term presence at high altitude, Sherpas are strong, tough, and very familiar with the challenges of the Himalayan environs. This knowledge and adept ability makes Sherpas excellent mountain guides and has brought them fame as outstanding mountaineers who are able to work in the low oxygen conditions of high elevation climbing. Along with Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, a Tibetan Sherpa mountaineer, became the first to document a successful summit of Mount Everest in 1953. Since then, Sherpas have participated in a majority of the mountaineering exploits on and around Mount Everest, which serves as testament to the tough disposition and adventurous spirit of the Sherpa people.
At Base Camp, visitors will not only see Sherpas nimbly navigating the mountain terrain but can also interact with Sherpas and begin to learn their culture and customs. The Sherpa tent camp at North Base Camp is a great place to catch ones breath, grab a cup of tea, and strike up a conversation with a Sherpa. The time spent will be well worth it, both for acclimatizing to the altitude to reduce the risk of altitude sickness and also for the stories that are sure to be shared.
A permit from the Chinese government is required to visit Tibet's North Base Camp, as well as the general Tibet travellers permits, which should be secured before travellers set out for E.B.C. All of the necessary permits can be easily arranged by a tour company to eliminate uncertainty and confusion.