- Mont Blanc
The Sherpa is a nationality, not a job. And as with any other nationality, jobs they do are different. Expedition-related jobs would be: a porter, high altitude porter, cook, your climbing partner or your climbing guide (and I have some reservations here). What is common – no matter what they do, Sherpas are extremely strong, polite, patient and kind-hearted people.
Sherpas had been helping non-sherpas to climb in the Himalayas since the time of Mallory/Irvin and by the time Sir Edmund Hillary summited, Sherpa’s role was elevated from a mere porter to an equal climbing partner. In fact, Sir Edmund and Tenzing Norgay never unveiled who had stepped on the summit first, they were acting as a team.
Relationship you build with Sherpas working for your expedition is entirely up to your moral and ethical codex. But the common misconception of the recent years is “Sherpas will bring you up the hill”. No. It is not their job and it is not their responsibility. It is yours.
Having said that, here are my reservations. I’m stepping on a slippery ground, since it is highly subjective and not a universal truth:
Being a guide (i.e. not only being a skilled climber, but being capable of making a judgment call and take responsibility) is not a function of a nationality, but of personality and character. Not all western climbers would make a good guides. Same goes for Sherpas. Add to this natural inclination to be polite and not argue, rise voice or exercise authority (that would be less of a problem for a westerner) and the percentage of good guides among excellent Sherpa climbers goes further down. Good, even exceptional Sherpa guides do exist. But do not count on it. What does it mean for you? It means you are responsible to monitor your performance and well-being more than ever and to be honest about it with yourself. YOU would need to make that judgment call and turn back, if necessary
No matter how solid your climbing resume is, your climbing partner will most probably be more experienced. At least on this mountain. So the natural inclination for many would be to listen to what he is saying and do just that. Partly it is a very good idea, since he possesses invaluable information about the route, typical winds, the terrain and risk zones. Only partly however, as here we are coming down to your responsibility for yourself. You are not a child and he is not your father, so step up! Agree on what your contribution will be, discuss the strategy, pace, rest plan, ask about his gear (not only show yours), make sure you will have medicine for two, since Sherpas tend not to take any with them. Take water. Sherpas do not drink much and run around with max 1 liter, so if something happens you will run out of water quickly. Be aware that majority of Sherpas naturally do not embrace the “steady pace” concept, much less “step-and-rest”. What they do is run fast, stop and rest, then run fast again. While it works perfectly for Sherpas it completely wears down a regular person. Talk about it ahead.
Pace, water, rest (food) stops. Discuss it in the same way you would do with any unfamiliar person who is about to become your climbing partner. Language may be a barrier. Make an effort.