The Science Behind The Super Abilities Of Sherpas – Emily Sohn May 28, 2017 7:00 AM ET


A Sherpa fetches ladders for climbers attempting to summit Mt. Everest.

Tashi Sherpa/AP

Sherpas are extraordinary human beings.

In the high peaks of the Himalayas, members of the Nepalese ethnic group are famous for their speed-climbing records, ascents of routes that no one has ascended before, expert guiding and other skills.

What makes Sherpas so good at climbing into the wispy atmosphere of the world’s tallest mountains?

They may be better at harnessing oxygen than the rest of us, suggests a new study, which also offers insights that could eventually help ordinary people whose tissues become deprived of oxygen because of medical conditions.

“You don’t need to spend very long in that part of world to see that the people living there, particularly the Sherpas, perform extremely well at altitude — a lot better than we do,” says Andrew Murray, a physiologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and one of the study authors.

“There’s certainly something really remarkable about their ability.”

The study adds to evidence that their genes play a role.

The Sherpas and other ethnic groups have lived on the high plateau of the Himalayas at an average altitude of more than 14,700 feet going back at least 6,000 years. But life at such high altitudes remains inhospitable for most of us.

People from low altitudes who travel or move to higher elevations face multiple risks: with access to limited oxygen above 8,000 feet or so, symptoms often include headaches, low appetite and trouble sleeping. Severe cases of mountain sickness can cause swelling in the brain, a condition called High Altitude Cerebral Edema, or fluid in the lungs, called High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. Both conditions can quickly become deadly.

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