Sherpa vs sherpa
Capitalized "Sherpa" and sherpa are NOT interchangeable; here is a most important distinction worth noting.
Author: Jamie McGuinness
Sherpa ethnic group
With a capital "S", Sherpa is an ethnic group, one of the many pseudo-Tibetan ethnic groups that live at the higher altitudes in Nepal. The Khumbu, the Everest region from Namche and up to Everest Base Camp is inhabited by Sherpas. There are pockets of Sherpas throughout the Nepal's district of Solukhumbu and close by.
And sherpa, the worker
Whereas "sherpa", uncapitalized, means a trek or expedition worker, a jack of all trekking trades, an assistant who puts up and packs tents, serves meals (made by the cook) and walks/climbs with the the clients (also called members) during the day, ensuring they don't get lost and help them if tired or sick.
Of course, sherpa is derived from Sherpa, and all the first "sherpas" were from the Sherpa ethnic group, however, now there are trek and climbing sherpas from other ethnic groups too. Please take care with the distinction.
For the difference between climbing sherpas and personal sherpas and trek sherpas, see further down...
Nepal organization roles
A select list of trekking, mountaineering and tourism-related associations.
MoCTCA - Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation
They write the mountaineering rules, collect the royalties and issue the permits for mountaineering. This is the "Ministry", based in Bhirkuti Mandap and is where expedition briefings are held. They have a list of registered Tourism associations. The top people are the Minister (appointed by the political party in power) and the Secretary, who is the top ranking civil service officer and theoretically apolitical. Each department has its own Joint Secretary.
Department of Tourism
This is within MoCTCA and the Joint Secretary is in day to day charge, under the Minister and Secretary.
CAAN - Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal
This is within MoCTCA and is MASSIVELY corrupt and utterly dysfunctional, and only pays lips service to safety or airport management. Can it really be that in 2018 Nepal, a country of ~30 million people and severe earthquake risk, has only one international airport with a single runway shared between international, domestic and helicopters?
NMA - Nepal Mountaineering Association
The NMA is the national alpine association and promotes mountaineering and training, so more than just the trekking peaks, although trekking peak fees are their main source of funding. It acts in the short term best interests of Nepal's trekking agencies rather than the industry or guides.
NNMGA - Nepal National Mountain Guides Association
This is the governing body for mountain guides and so is the office that deals with the UIAA and with training mountain guides.
NMIA - Nepal Mountain Instructors Association
Once a qualified guide, this is their own association, their voice.
TAAN - Trekking Agents Association of Nepal
An umbrella organization, they look after the overall interests of the trekking companies, often at odds with what is better for the trekking industry as a whole, eg pushing for the implementation of the useless TIMS (Trekkers Information Management System) card system. In theory this would track where trekkers are; in practice it was a way of forcing individual trekkers to go to a trekking company office to get a permit, and so suffer sales pitches.
EOA - Expedition Operators Association
This is only open to Nepal trekking companies who have run an 8000m expedition spring and autumn season for three years in a row. Invited observers are allowed to meetings (ie people like Russell Brice, and also aspiring trekking company directors).
The EOA is currently responsible for fixing the ropes on Everest from Camp 2 (~6400m) to the summit. A per climber (foreign climber) fee is collected by the Nepal trekking companies and put into a pool and rope and associated protection gear is purchased, and climbing sherpas are paid extra for rope fixing.
HRA - Himalayan Rescue Association
They do NOT provide rescue services; however they do have very useful medical posts staffed by volunteer doctors in Manang, Pheriche and Everest BC during the seasons. They are funded by the clinic charges.
NTB - Nepal Tourism Board
Until 2015 this was also massively corrupt, and now in 2018 is still finding its direction.
Be confused no more!
There more job roles than you imagine to run treks and expeditions.
Green are trek staff; turquoise are expedition staff.
A load carrier BELOW base camp levels, for both trekking groups, expeditions trekking in to BC (normal load 30-45kgs) and to supply lodges or towns (variable loads but carrying for themselves, sometimes over 150lbs/80kgs - seriously). They come from a variety of ethnic groups, although in the Everest region many are Rai, from a couple of districts below the Everest region. Basically they are never from the Sherpa ethnic group. In Nepal, locals mostly refer to them as "coolies" in the vernacular.
For expeditions coordinating tons of supplied broken into hundreds of loads is a big job, and a sirdar manages all of that, the labour relations of all the staff and more.
For treks, unless there is a designated trek leader, the sirdar will will be manager and guide and coordinator - respect!
On camping treks with lots of porters a porter leader sorts the loads each day and generally helps out.
Although few companies ever provide, on a long camping trip it often works better to have a cook to prepare meals for the porters too.
On a trek, the job of a sherpa is to serve meals, set and pack camp, ensure the members don't get lost along the way and generally help the sirdar run a good trek. Note "sherpa" is a job description that I have yet to find a better word for something so all encompassing. (For Sherpa with a capital "S" see above.)
These guys are superheros. Watch anything about Everest and there is endless talk about the "sherpas", which are more accurately called climbing sherpas or perhaps high altitude mountain workers, but that doesn't have much of a ring to it. Again, a climbing sherpa is a broad job, serving meals, carrying loads above BC (but definitely not below BC), fixing camps, and then providing backup by literally following just behind a member on summit day with extra oxygen. Some also assist with the rope fixing, and in general are indispensable on Everest.
See Aaron's classic shot; this climbing sherpa is using a "namlo", a head strap/tump line because the load is so heavy, while clearing the mountain.
I, Jamie McGuinness, am the only foreigner who has worked as a true climbing sherpa ever (on Everest in 2006).
On Everest (and other 8000m mountains) a personal sherpa is essentially a guide and climbing partner who climbs beside the member on all climbs to the camps and to the summit, and is a source of advice and a helping hand. Normally they will have some local mountaineering qualifications.
They climb with the members on "trekking" peaks, such as Island Peak and Mera Peak, and if Nepali will have a Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) course certificate. There are basic and advanced levels and I feel only guides Advanced level are suitable for trekking peaks, although many guides have only the basic level or no certificate at all.
Aspirant mountain guide
Nepal now trains guides to the UIAGM/FMGA standards, with a nepal-specialised course that switches out ski guiding for 8000m peaks - sensible!
An aspirant guide is one who has passed most or all the modules and is in a two year "aspirant" phase where they keep a log book and have to climb a variety of mountains, some high, some technical, to get an all round experience.
Although many people guide in the mountains, the term "mountain guide" is best reserved for fully qualified UIAGM/IFMGA mountain guides, or similar. They are internationally recognized and have a badge and/or pin showing their qualification, and are the true mountain experts as it takes years and more than a hundred climbs and many study modules and tests to pass. Some mountain guides are summer-qualified, so are part way through and still have the ski modules to go.
In general when a company offers a guide ratio, ie 1:3 meaning one guide to three members, they mean that the guide is a fully qualified mountain guide.
In Nepal there are less than 100 qualified mountain guides, qualified through special nepal-based courses and instead of being a ski guide (basically there is no skiing in Nepal), they have an 8000m peak module.
Member / client
A trekker or climber who has paid their way on a trek or expedition. Until recently they were most "westerners" or foreigners but now Nepalis and Indians are joining treks and expeditions too as "members" or clients.
In a trekking scenario a guide will be someone who walks with the members explaining what they see and perhaps eats with them, or at minimum gives a briefing over meals. In Nepal they should have a certificate from a basic ~24 day course.
A trek guide who also carries some member's gear, perhaps 8-12kgs.
On trek, they could also be called the guide, but differently can be a representative of the foreign trekking company that acts as a liaison between the overseas agency and the local trekking company, and generally ensures everything goes smoothly, and whose opinion especially counts when times are challenging.
A "professionally lead" Everest expedition will have a leader that is in overall charge, working closely with the sirdar, climbing sherpas and personal sherpas and other crew. Their role is partly to guide but without a fixed guide ratio. Usually there will one leader for the whole team (check the max team size!) They discuss and manage, and as such will normally eat with the members and climb mostly with them. They may or may not be qualified, but invariably will be experienced on big peaks. (I am a professional leader.)
Notable usually for their absence, an "LO" is a government official randomly assigned to an expedition to accompany them to help arrange logistics with the "village headman" (now a job the sirdar does) and check that every member is obeying the law, although police now supersede them. This old-style position is utterly anachronistic and the main barrier to progress in changes of mountaineering rules. Certainly there is a need for an official to observe and manage various issues at a big base camp such as Everest, however this is not an old-style "LO".
This is a British qualification for leading groups in the mountains, both on approach, and on basic snow and ice. There is discussion in Nepal about introducing a similar system, but so far a discussion only.
In charge of the kitchen, whether an on the move trekking kitchen or a fixed expedition kitchen. The majority have from a village and learned from other cooks, and basic cooking classes. None are what we would call a chef, although I hope this does develop. The cook oversees the other kitchen staff and on trek just carries his personal gear.
A "kitchen boy" in the vernacular, they are the hardest workers on a trek, waking before dawn to start boiling water and prepare breakfast. After breakfast they wash the dishes, carry them and the supplies needed for lunch (25kgs/55lbs+) and march off to catch the trekkers at a suitable spot. Once at camp in the afternoon they prepare afternoon tea then dinner, and can be found washing the dishes as everyone heads to bed. Kudos to them.
With the low rates of pay, tips are especially appreciated and are part of treks and expeditions. For our Project Himalaya treks we suggest putting aside a ballpark figure of 5% of the trip cost, and note the western guides don't take tips so all that goes to the directly to the crew. For our expeditions we provide guidelines.
Re "low rates of pay" - well, why not just pay more? The issue is the normal rates of pay for office work etc in Nepal are low, and basically Nepal is in an economic black hole with providing jobs. I can feel a rant coming on so will stop here!