Himalayan Livelihoods in Transformation

The Rolwaling Sherpas on their way into a globalized world

Ruedi Baumgartner

Tom Weir expedition’s Sherpa porters

The Tom Weir expedition’s Sherpa porters by-passing the ice-cataract of the Drolambao glacier on their way to the high camp (Douglas Scott, 1952)

For surviving we must remain on the move – valley up and valley down – the whole year round – until we die!

The Rolwaling Sherpas in the 1950s - admired and deplored

How tough these Rolwaling Sherpas were we later discovered; indeed they were not ordinary men and women but of the stuff heroes are made. Little did we know as we looked them over in their baggy homespuns and Tibetan boots that they were rock climbers of whom any mountaineering club might be proud…

This statement by the four members of a Scottish expedition led by Tom Weir (1955; 80) takes us back into the remote Rolwaling valley of 1952. It pays tribute to the men and women of a small Sherpa community who enabled the team to make a safe crossing of the infamous Trashi Laptsa pass (5755 m), which links Rolwaling with Khumbu, the Sherpa homeland at the foot of Mount Everest. Only a year before, as the very first Western mountaineers ever, Edmund Hillary and two companions had explored this high glacier pass, on their return from testing oxygen equipment on the Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition of 19511. By Hillary’s own account, this was one of the world’s most spectacular and difficult crossings.

Until the 1980s, Rolwaling remained a hidden valley in the shadow of the Rolwaling Himal, dominated by the white twin peaks of Gauri Shankar that forms the backdrop to Beding, the main village of the valley. The valley extends roughly 30 km from east to west along the Chinese border. The almost impassable mountain range in the north deprived the settlers of any noteworthy opportunity for traditional Trans-Himalayan trade, once upon a time the source of considerable wealth for their Sherpa neighbours in Khumbu.

Rolwaling Sherpas

Rolwaling Sherpas ready to carry the Scottish mountaineers’ loads over the Trashi Labtsa pass (Tom Weir 1952)

The serenity and striking natural beauty of Rolwaling could easily detract from investigating what motivated migrants to establish a permanent home in such a harsh and isolated mountain valley. Immigration only began in the second half of the 19th century. The settlement history appears tightly interwoven with the traditional belief that Guru Padmasambhava repeatedly meditated in caves of the valley during the time he introduced Buddhism to Tibet at the invitation of King Trison Detsen (ca. 740-798). Ever since, the remote valley cherishes the status of a sacred abode, of a ‘Beyul’ (Sacherer, 2009). Such blessed locations not only offer refuge and shelter to living creatures but also grant protection from persecution by worldly powers. Indeed, this theme is echoed in the immigration memoirs of most of the Rolwaling clans.

Contradicting Western perceptions

It was vague tales of a great gorge and formidable, unclimbed peaks of ice and pale granite that attracted the Scottish climbers.

They conquered four virgin peaks. Moreover we owe them the first Western tribute to this Sherpa community. For Edmund Hillary’s impression we have to wait a further eight years, until 1960, when he returned as leader of a large multipurpose expedition engaged in a search for the Yeti in Rolwaling2. Towards the end of October, after a futile hunt for the elusive Yeti, Hillary was about to leave the valley via the Trashi Labtsa pass (5755 m) to join his expedition colleagues in Khumbu. And like Tom Weir, his team was in urgent need of porters (Hillary & Doig 1962; 83) : “Although every able- bodied man, woman and child in Rolwaling had been coaxed into our service, they were far short of our needs, numerically and physically.” By any account, recruiting sufficient porters for a large expedition such as Hillary’s from a population of less than two hundred people must have been difficult. But why complain about ‘physical inadequacy’? Indeed, Desmond Doig paints a shockingly grim picture of the outcome of the recruitment :

We had seldom seen such a sadly deficient lot of people as those of Rolwaling. The cause may be inbreeding, the lack of iodine in their water (…) At least 50 per cent of the population suffered from disfiguring goitres; many were stunted, the way plants are stunted for lack of nutriment …

Are Tom Weir and Desmond Doig really describing the same people? Eight years seems too short a span to produce so basic a mental and physical deterioration amongst the people of a mountain valley. With both sets of visitors being familiar with the Himalaya, which of these contradictory observations does justice to the Rolwaling Sherpas of the time?

Had Doig and Hillary simply overlooked the fact that demand for labour in the yearly agro-pastoral cycle of the valley hit its peak precisely in the month of October, when the yak herds with their offspring had to be brought down from the high pastures to the winter settlement? Indeed, contrary to Desmond Doig’s account, Hillary’s expedition might have failed in coaxing ‘every able bodied man, woman and child’ into porter services. The ‘deficient lot of people’ thus hardly was a valid sample of the population of the Rolwaling valley, all the more as Skjerven (1975) reports a combined incidence of deaf mutes and cretins of only 2.7 % in Rolwaling, against 10.6 % in neighbouring Khumbu for those years. Yet, beyond all speculations such incongruous perceptions make us aware of our responsibility when labelling people in an intercultural context.

Phurdigi Ama (2011)

Phurdigi Ama (2011)

Ngawang Tongme Sherpa (2011)

Ngawang Tongme Sherpa (2011)

From Agro-Pastoral Livelihoods to the Himalayan Summits

“For surviving we must remain on the move – valley up and valley down – the whole year round – until we die!” This statement of an elderly Sherpa couple of Ngawang Tongme and his wife Phurdigi Ama captures the essence of transhumant livelihoods in the Himalayas : moving with the seasons is the key to survival! Agro-pastoral transhumance among the Sherpas incorporates semi-nomadic pastoralism, mainly yak herding, with potato cultivation into a single economic system that involved, in the past at least, the entire Rolwaling community. The couple still follows the transhumant life cycle illustrated in figure 5.

In early March the couple locks their winter house down in Ramding at 3200 m. There the winter hamlets of the Rolwaling community are loosely scattered over the south-facing slope for optimal exposure to the scant sunny hours of a Rolwaling winter. The first station of their yearly journey up the valley is the village of Beding at 3700 m. Around mid-April, they migrate with their cattle to the summer settlement on the vast open plain of Na, at 4200 m. On all three levels, Ngawang Tongme’s wife, Phurdigi Ama, prepares their terraced potato fields in cooperation with women from other households.

Agro-pastoral transhumance in Rolwaling

The traditional yearly cycle of agro-pastoral transhumance in Rolwaling

In bygone days up in the summer village of Na, soon after the first monsoon showers, the Rolwaling community would split into smaller family groups. These herder-groups then trekked from one pasture to the next, seldom staying more than 10 days at the same place. Elderly Sherpa women remember the drudgery of being young mothers, moving the entire households from one pasture to pasture. On their back they carried a heavy basket with food and household equipment, while guiding small children or yak calves. The rain soaked roof mats of woven bamboo for their temporary kharka- houses, moreover, became very heavy loads. In the past, this yearly cycle peaked in the dense monsoon mist of the Tang Nak Kharka, the so-called rock pasture, far above 5000 m.

Bidding Farewell to Yak and Yeti …

Transhumance could only sustain mountain livelihoods as long as it was based on finely balanced and commonly accepted rules, implemented under a trusted local leadership, namely the village headman and the head lama of the village Gompa. Hence, traditional village governance of Sherpa communities rested on two pillars, one temporal and the other spiritual. In the 1990s, however, when the era of large yak herds came to an end in Rolwaling and elsewhere, high lying kharkas were gradually abandoned. With the exception of a few Rolwaling families who, to this day, remain true to the traditional, transhumant life cycle of their ancestors, yak herding and potato cultivation in their valley have given way to gainful employment in the Himalayan trekking and expedition business. Indeed, in my first visit to Rolwaling in 1977/78, I still recorded 214 yaks herd and no less than 349 sheep and goats. By 2010, the yak herd had shrunk to roughly 50 head, while 200 sheep and goats still roamed the valley.
It took the small Sherpa community of once roughly forty households less than a generation to transform their marginal agro-pastoral livelihoods into modern, prosperous Kathmandu based households with a global outreach.
With good reasons we therefore turn to Mount Everest, nowadays the major source of wealth and recognition, also for the Rolwaling Sherpas.

Conquest of Everest; a History of Fact and Fiction

Did Mallory and Irvine ever reach the summit of Mount Everest, but perished on their descent? We still do not know. It was shortly after midday on 8th June 1924 when Noel Odell, member of the third British Mount Everest Expedition, caught the last glimpse of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine on their climb towards the summit over the North-East Ridge3. The next encounter happened 75 years later, when a frozen body was discovered in the North-Flank of Mount Everest, just 600 m below the peak and recognized as George Mallory. This nourished fresh speculations, but didn’t bring us any closer to the truth4.

No doubt, however, the two ill-fated mountaineers were part of a larger scheme. Dudley Green (2005; 99), biographer of George Mallory, quotes from the inaugural speech of Sir Francis Younghusband5, when he became president of the Royal Geographical Society in 1913 :

As long as we impotently creep about the foot of these mighty mountains and gaze at their summits without attempting to ascend them, we entertain towards them a too excessive feeling of awe. (…) If man stands on earth‘s highest summit, he will have an increased pride in himself in the struggle for ascendancy over matter.

Conquering Mount Everest was, in the eyes of Sir Younghusband, driven by the ambition of ‘… getting the upper hand on earth’ and acquiring ‘… a true mastery of our surroundings.

A hundred years later such ambitions form one of the corner stones of commercialized summiting of Mt. Everest.

Performance as Entry Ticket into the Expedition Trade

Early memories of Rolwaling childhoods offer a charming metaphor for the very first steps of young Sherpas into the realm of international mountain tourism : “As small boys we were very shy in meeting tourists crossing through our valley,” a seasoned Rolwaling sardar recalls, “but on their heels we enjoyed walking in the footprints their heavy mountain boots left in the muddy ground, just to experience under our bare feet the feeling of the profiles of their rubber soles and the imagination of walking in their sophisticated mountain shoes.” Today, most mountaineers are well advised to step into the footprints of their climbing Sherpas, if they wish to safely reach the summit!

Agro-pastoral transhumance in Rolwaling

Heading towards Mt. Everest’s South Col : a traffic jam on the Lhotse Face (Ralf Dujmovits, copyright www.ralf-dujmovits.de)

In sharp contrast to young Rolwaling sardars nowadays, who go through a demanding professional guide training, their fathers developed their skills entirely on the job. They had first to struggle through an initial phase of low paid jobs as local porters or as kitchen boys. If lucky, such employment became the entry ticket for a gradual promotion to the function of a climbing Sherpa. The Rolwaling Sherpas from their hidden valley were true latecomers. The first Rolwaling Sherpa summited Mount Everest with a Japanese winter expedition only in 1983. By 2014, however, no fewer than 12 out of 47 internationally certified Nepalese mountain guides hail from Rolwaling – including the first and only woman, Dawa Yangzum, who joined the ranks of Everest and K2 summiteers.

The growing demand for Everest summiting has meanwhile become a powerful driver for professionalization of expeditions, regarding route management, equipment, logistics and security. Highly sophisticated meteorological services enable precise timings of the final assault of the summit. Yet the precision of forecasting the few promising weather windows also causes expeditions to be dangerously crowded for the peak - Mount Everest then turns into an anthill.

Nowadays Rolwaling Sherpas also run their own expedition and trekking agencies. They compete with foreign agencies in a steadily growing expedition market for a decent share of the Himalayan mountaineering cake. Ang Tshering from Asian Trekking, one of the largest Nepalese operators says : “Over all we assume that 60% of commercial expeditions on Everest and Lhotse are under the control of foreign operators. The profits are allocated accordingly.” For the other registered Nepalese peaks the situation apparently looks more balanced.

Foreign agencies, such as Himalayan Experience, established by Russell Brice from New Zealand in 1996, generally enjoy a privileged access to a global market of very resourceful clients, prepared to invest around 60,000 US Dollars for a full service arrangement. Such agencies provide high service quality to their clients and offer long- term contracts to their local expedition staff. The success rate still depends, to a considerable degree, on the human and professional qualities of the Sherpa staff, which in turn becomes increasingly aware of its negotiating power.

Meanwhile a new pattern of inequality among the Sherpas evolved which Sherry B. Ortner’s statement (1999; 254) aptly captures :

There is first of all a new class of ‘big people’ – not the old traders and landowners but a few fabulously successful sardars who have been able to retire early from the dangerous and hard work of climbing and from the social stress of the sardar position. They have gone into various forms of business, mostly hotel and restaurant ownership. They may be contrasted with less successful climbing Sherpas, carrying loads at high altitude into a relatively advanced age …

Facing Floods — Rolwaling in Times of Global Warming

“Alarmed by a rumbling noise, we were puzzled to see the river rushing suddenly so close along our houses in Beding and watch our whitish potatoes dancing in the muddy brown floods.” Over all the years this image remained alive in the memories of Ngawang Tongme and his wife Purdigi. The roaring waters had surprised the community, assembled in the village Gompa of Beding to celebrate the Dumchi festival in summer 1990. From the safety of the elevated terrace of the Gompa they helplessly witnessed the sudden destructive rage of the Rolwaling river. Indeed, the floods of the early 1990s carried a disquieting message for everybody; they were a forewarning of a potentially much greater disaster building up in the shape of the fast expanding glacier lake of Tsho Rolpa in the upper reaches of the valley.

Beding and its devastated river plain after the floods

Beding and its devastated river plain after the floods. A solid gabion dam has forced the river back into its original bed (Marc Authenriet 2011)

Living in the Shadow of an Impending Disaster

Until recently, the degradation of watersheds in intensively cultivated ranges of the Himalayas had been a main concern. Meanwhile, the focus has shifted to the impact of global warming on the melt rate of Himalayan glaciers and the changing seasonal run-off pattern. The impact of black carbon fallout adds to these concerns – not only because of the toxic load of watercourses. According to studies in Tibet (Yasunari et al. 2010), industrial black carbon emissions rank second in terms of impact on accelerated glacier melting, whereby China and India have become the primary source of these emissions. We are likely to face accelerated recession of most of the Himalayan glaciers, and as a consequence a corresponding growth of moraine dammed glacial lakes.

In the Himalaya the Tsho Rolpa glacier lake is among the prominent ones. The lake is embedded in an impressive amphitheatre of snow-capped peaks that tower above immense moraines, once formed by now fast receding, yet still huge glaciers. Tsho Rolpa is situated at 4580 m, at the headwaters of the Rolwaling Khola, a tributary of the Tama Koshi river in the Dolakha district.

The lake was formed by the receding Trakarding glacier and is retained by a huge end moraine, extending roughly half a kilometre across the valley. The elevation from base to crest is about 150 m. The core of the end moraine consists partly of dead ice from an earlier glacial expansion. The depth of the lake averages about 52 m. The stored water volume amounts to almost 80 million cubic metres.

Coping with a Potential Glacier Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF)

After futile efforts to lower the water level of the lake with siphons, an open channel, 4.2 m wide and 70 m long, was cut into the left side of the end moraine and equipped with a sluice gate. This enabled Tsho Rolpa’s water level to be lowered by 3.5 m. This first phase of mitigation work was completed by July 2000. The Netherlands provided major funding of 2.9 million US Dollars. It was estimated that mitigating the potential danger of a Tsho Rolpa GLOF would be achieved only if the lake level was lowered in phases by a total of 20 m.

The Tsho Rolpa glacial lake in 1952

The Tsho Rolpa glacial lake in 1952 : the distance from the end moraine to the snout of the glacier still is less than one km (Douglas Scott)

The Tsho Rolpa glacial lake in 2010

The Tsho Rolpa glacial lake in 2010 : the snout of the glacier has receded by roughly four km

Regardless of the scale of this looming disaster, Rolwaling Sherpas still believe that safety from destructive natural forces primarily depends on the kindness of local protector deities who reside in and around their valley. These deities expect, in turn, decent human behaviour, and must be appeased by regular offerings. However, this belief by no means deters Rolwaling Sherpas from acknowledging the effectiveness of more worldly measures against floods and comparable natural calamities – all the more so since their survival has always depended on adequate physical preparations against natural disasters. Offering prayers to local deities and maintaining protective embankments along the river thus went hand in hand!

The village of Beding with the twin peaks of Gauri Shankar (H.P. Isotton)

The village of Beding with the twin peaks of Gauri Shankar (H.P. Isotton)

The Sherpa goddess Tashi Tseringma and the holy couple of Shiva and Parvathi share the same twin peak of Gauri Shankar on the backdrop of Beding village. In legendary past Shiva’s hair cushioned the fall of the river goddess Ganga from heaven and spared the earth of a devastating flood. Ever since Ganga resides in Shiva’s hair, as long at least, as the glaciers of the Himalayas are able to feed the three big rivers in the north of the Indian subcontinent.

This article is a brief overview of lives of Rolwaling Sherpas. Rolwaling is a remote valley in the Everest region of Nepal, separated by a range from its more famous cousin Khumbu. The author has recently published a book Farewell to Yak and Yeti - The Sherpas of Rolwaling Facing a Globalised World, a review of which is also published in this Volume.

About the Author

RUEDI BAUMGARTNER is author of the book Farewell to Yak and Yeti – The Sherpas of Rolwaling Facing a Globalised World, which traces the socio-economic and cultural changes of a small Sherpa community over the past 40 years. He has assumed various long- term assignments in bilateral development cooperation on the Indian subcontinent.



  1. Hillary, Riddiford and Dutt were members of the Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition 1951. They returned through Rolwaling while Shipton and his team returned through valleys north of Rolwaling Himal (Shipton, 1952).
  2. The expedition to Khumbu undertook physiological research on human performance at high altitude, while the visit of Rolwaling was dedicated to shed light on the existence of Yeti, the abominable snowman.
  3. Odell himself was at that moment at an altitude of roughly 7900 m. It was the third attempt of the 1924 expedition. Compare: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Everest.
  4. As early as 1933 Irvine’s ice-axe was found at 8400 m. Later in 1991, an oxygen bottle belonging to their equipment was also found.
  5. Francis Younghusband (1863-1942) was a highly decorated British Army officer, explorer and writer. As head of the British invasion of Tibet (1903-04) he is also remembered for a cruel massacre among Tibetan troops. In 1921 Younghusband became chairman of the Mount Everest Committee, which coordinated the British Reconnaissance Expeditions to Mount Everest.



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