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Mystery of Mt. Everest’s ‘Superhuman’ Sherpas Solved

While Kiwi mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary is widely remembered as the first man to ascend Mount Everest, he was accompanied the entire way by his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay. Without the aid of the Nepalese Sherpa guides, very few expeditions could reach the summit of Himalayan mountains like Mount Everest.

Hillary and Norgay after their historic ascent.

Hillary and Norgay after their historic ascent.

The Sherpa people have lived in the high-altitude mountain ranges of Nepal for thousands of years and display an almost superhuman ability to resist altitude sickness, making them perfect guides for the rich, bored Westerners who come to Everest in search of social media cred (or whatever it is that would compel you to climb a mountain literally littered with the unrecoverable corpses of fallen climbers). It has been known for decades that the Sherpa people are somehow better suited for life in high altitudes, but the exact mechanism for this adaptation remained a mystery.

Some Sherpas have ascended Everest dozens of times.

Some Sherpas have ascended the corpse-littered Everest dozens of times.

A team of researchers led by the University of Cambridge set out to solve this mystery once and for all by actually ascending Mt. Everest, lugging a horde of medical and scientific equipment with them the whole way. But hey, it’s cool – the Sherpas probably carried it. Along the way, blood and muscle samples were taken from both non-Sherpa mountain climbers and the Sherpas themselves. They discovered that Sherpa’s mitochondria – the energy-generating organelles inside cells – are incredibly efficient at processing oxygen and ATP, the body’s main metabolic energy source.

The Sherpa people live mostly in eastern Nepal but are found in the mountains of Tibet, Bhutan, and India as well.

The Sherpa people live mostly in eastern Nepal but are found in the mountains of Tibet, Bhutan, and India as well.

According to their data published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers believe the Sherpa people have evolved metabolic adaptations that allow their bodies to use oxygen and recover from fatigue on a near-superhuman level compared to us lowly “Lowlanders.” The University of Cambridge’s Dr. Andrew Murray, who led the study, claims that these unique adaptations are due to the relatively isolated evolutionary and geographical history of the native Sherpas:

Sherpas have spent thousands of years living at high altitudes, so it should be unsurprising that they have adapted to become more efficient at using oxygen and generating energy. When those of us from lower-lying countries spend time at high altitude, our bodies adapt to some extent to become more ‘Sherpa-like’, but we are no match for their efficiency.

Archaeological evidence suggests humans have lived in the Himalayan Plateau for tens of thousands of years. Over the millennia, the native people have essentially evolved into high-altitude superathletes. Now that the human genome has become our plaything, could the genes for these adaptations be ‘copied and pasted’ into the DNA of designer supersoldiers? It’s not a new idea – similar human genome tweaks have already been suggested. And why not? If the Earth is going to get a lot more perilous due to pollution, climate change, radioactive fallout, or robotic takeover, we might as well be prepared.