Life as a Sherpa in the age of climate change – Part 1

Summer foods and restless yaks: Nima Doma Sherpa on Himalayan village life


This article is part of a series on the experiences of Himalayan Sherpas adapting to a warmer world. Read the background story and accounts of a glaciologist and an anthropologist.

It’s somewhat rainy in Namche Bazaar in early June, but it’s Nima Doma Sherpa’s favorite time of the year. This is the time of the Dumji Festival, a 10-day celebration of Buddhist master Guru Rinpoche’s birth on a lotus flower. Tibetan Buddhist monks perform rituals and dance with the locals. There’s food and merrymaking galore.

“We all get together and talk, and the Sherpa and the local people wear their good clothes,” says Nima. “We wear our traditional dresses, and the women wear beautiful jewelry. It’s like a dress competition!”

Nima and her husband Lhakpa own and manage The Green Tara guesthouse in Namche Bazaar. “That’s 3,440 meters above sea level,” she says, like it’s part of the address. They also own a smaller lodge up at Tengboche village. “That one is at 3,870 meters,” says Nima. “I’ve been running these lodges for 25 years.”

Nima Doma Sherpa (right) and her sister during the Dumji festival. Courtesy of Nima Doma Sherpa

At the guesthouse, she serves meals with summer vegetables  grown in greenhouses – cucumbers, tomatoes, cauliflowers and pumpkins. She remembers a time when this was impossible in Namche, and even in the warmth of greenhouses, she could only grow cool season vegetables like spinach, cabbage and carrots.

“Now it’s warm enough to grow the cool season vegetables outside the greenhouse and the summer vegetables inside the greenhouse,” she says.

This she thinks, might be a benefit from climate change.

However, she’s noticed other changes that are more unsettling. The villages don’t seem to be getting as much snow as they used to. “As a child, I remember we often got snow as much as five feet. Nowadays, not so much.” In the past few years, she has also observed more occasions when Namche hasn’t had enough water. Some locals think the 2015 earthquake had an impact; Nima doesn’t know what to make of it all and wishes she could understand.

And then there are the yaks – the large furry cattle, often distinguished by long horns. Here, they are beasts of burden that help carry food and supplies between villages and up to Everest Base Camp, the bells on their colorful woven collars signaling their anticipated arrivals. Native to high-altitude habitats, yaks are designed for cold climes and begin to suffer heat exhaustion above 15 degrees Celsius.

Nima near her guesthouse in Namche Bazaar. Courtesy Nima Doma Sherpa

Namche used to be flush with yaks, but now there aren’t as many. It’s possible that the Sherpa lifestyle change from herders to hotel owners contributed to this, but it’s also telling how yak drivers arriving in Namche with their herds rarely stick around. “There was a time when the yaks would come down to Namche Bazaar from higher-up villages, and they would stay the night,” says Nima. “Now, I think it’s too warm for the yaks in Namche. The yaks get restless and sometimes get sick. They always have to turn back and trek up to higher and colder altitudes.”

Nima says, “That might be a sign that temperatures are warming.”


Originally published in the Global Landscapes Forum’s Landscape News. Read the series on the GLF site here. Banner photo: Yaks, native to the Himalayas and high-altitude terrain, graze near the city of Namche Bazaar. (Credit: Cameron Moore, Flickr)