Space & Innovation

Sherpas: Evolving into Superhumans?

Sherpas have evolved superhuman qualities over the 500 generations they've lived at high altitude. Continue reading →

Legendary for their strength and abilities to operate at high altitudes, climbing sherpas are elite mountaineers who have become ubiquitous on high-altitude expeditions. When climbers succumb to the mountain, it is often the sherpas who mount and execute a rescue.

They are the subjects of the newest documentary set on Everest, called Sherpa, premiering on the Discovery Channel on April 23 at 9 ET/8 Central.

The term sherpa is derived from the name of an ethnic group of Himalayan locals. Sherpas are an ethnic minority in Nepal and it is believed that they migrated from the high grasslands of Kham in Tibet to the high Himalayan Mountains between the 1400s to 1700s. While the terms are often used interchangeably, climbing sherpas are not necessarily a member of the Sherpa ethnic group.

The World's 'Eight-Thousander' Mountains: Photos

Nearly everyone who spends extended periods at high altitude becomes acclimated to it. Low-altitude dwellers' bodies respond to being in high-altitude environments by making more red blood cells, which contain hemoglobins, the proteins that carry oxygen.

In the sherpa population, scientists have found the presence of higher hemoglobin levels without over-production of red blood cells. On average, sherpas have hemoglobin levels that are 20 percent higher than those of sea level-dwelling humans; this is just the beginning of what makes sherpas better suited to life and work in the Himalayas.

A recent survey of the results from hundreds of scientific papers on sherpas found physiological and genetic adaptations across all major systems in the body. To name a few, sherpas tend to be less sensitive to low-oxygen environments and have higher musculoskeletal strength at altitude. Their hearts have greater capacity; they have larger and more efficient lungs, better blood circulation, more well-regulated metabolisms, higher oxygenation at the cellular level, and protective features for brain function not found in lowlanders.

It's no wonder sherpas are considered super humans.

Within the scientific community, the high-altitude adaptations in sherpas are collectively considered one of the clearest examples of human evolution at work. Scientists often attribute their adaptations to natural selection in response to the stressors they've faced over the 500 generations they've lived in a high-altitude environment.

Those who are better able to handle the stress of high-altitude environments thrive over their less-adapted neighbors, and pass on their genes to more offspring.

To learn more about the various physiological adaptations found in sherpas, see the American Physiological Society Journal article titled: King of the Mountains: Tibetan and Sherpa Physiological Adaptations for Life at High Altitude.To learn more about the genetic variations, see University of Chicago's post on the Genetic Origins of High Altitude Adapations in Tibetans.

A Sherpa hikes from Dughla towards Lobuche, with Taboche and Cholatse peaks visible in the background.

The world's 14 "eight-thousanders" -- mountains taller than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) -- are all located in Asia. On one hand, they really beautify a horizon, but on the other they present a fierce, at times fatal, challenge to mountain climbers. Beauty can, indeed, be deadly. Here's the "baby" of the bunch, Shishapangma in Tibet, peaking at 8,027 meters (26,335 feet).

This is Gasherbrum II (we'll have another Gasherbrum coming up shortly), on the border of Pakistan and China. It's 8,035 meters up in the sky (26,361 feet) and is sometimes known as K4. These mountaineers are near the summit.

On the left side of this picture we see the sheer mass of Broad Peak, the 12th highest mountain on the planet at 8,047 meters or 26,394 feet above sea level.

As promised, here's another Gasherbrum: Gasherbrum I. (Gasherbrum, translated from the Tibetan language Balti, means "beautiful mountain.") It also goes by the name of K5, lives along the China-Pakistan border and is 8,080 meters (26,444 ft) high.

The Himalayan mountain range Annapurna, in Nepal, is seen here from Pkhara, about 124 miles (200 kilometers) west of Kathmandu. Annapurna is considered one of the most dangerous for climbers; first crested in 1950, it has since been climbed by more than 100 people but taken 53 lives along the way.

This somewhat unsettling photo was taken in 1931 by mountaineers at a base camp on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat, the ninth-tallest eight-thousander at 8,126 meters (26,660 feet). The area captured in the picture is known as the Nanga Wall.

Eighth-tallest of the eight-thousanders is Nepal's Manaslu, at 8,163 meters (26,781 feet).

The Dhaulagiri mountain range in the Himalayas sports a rather volcanic look in this picture, with the sun brushing its top. But Nepal's 8,167-meter (26,795-foot) monster is of course quite chilly on top. Dhaulagiri's south face is considered by mountaineers to be a next-to-impossible climb, and no one has ever topped the mountain from that side.

Clouds hover over snow-covered Cho Oyu mountain in Tibet. The sixth-tallest mountain stands 8,201 meters tall (26,906 feet), and the "Mountain Goddess" (in Tibetan translation) is considered one of less-challenging climbs among the eight-thousanders (if you don't consider climbing ANY mountain a challenge, that is!).

Next in the eight-thousander club is Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world, looming on the border between Nepal and China. It's 8,463 meters (27,766 feet) tall and is another tough climb, with 22 deaths tallied against its 206 successful climbs.

Standing 8,516 meters tall (27,940 feet), Lhotse, fourth-tallest, rests on the border of Nepal and Tibet. It was first climbed in 1956.

Kangchenjunga, in Nepal, is the world's third-tallest mountain, edging Lhotse by just 71 meters, standing 8,587 meters tall (28,169 feet). It's a prominent mark on the horizon in Darjeeling, the tea-growing region.

K2, the second-tallest mountain on the planet, is 8,611 meters up in the clouds (28,251 feet) along the China-Pakistan border. Climbers know it for its incredibly difficult ascent routes; in 2008, an ice fall on the treacherous slopes took the lives of 11 climbers.

And now we reach the Big Daddy in the worldwide mountains club. That, of course, would be Mount Everest. Its name alone is synonymous with challenging feats, as climbing it continues to this day to be a dicey endeavor, though it draws people year after year to attempt the ascent. And what a climb: Mount Everest stands 8,848 meters tall (29,029 feet). It was famously crested for the first time in 1953 by New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay.