Nepali Sherpas are the World's Fittest People—But Only at Altitude

Sherpas are to mountaineering what Kalenjins are to marathoning. Climbing the world's highest peaks is a sport pioneered by westerners, but Sherpas, an ethnic group who live in the Himalaya, dominate it. They hold the world record for most Everest ascents—Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa both summited the peak 21 times—and the majority of speed summiting records. Pemba Dorje climbed from Everest's South Base Camp to summit with supplemental oxygen in eight hours and ten minutes, while Kazi Sherpa completed the feat without supplemental oxygen in 20 hours and 24 minutes.

Turns out that Sherpas bloom into incredible endurance athletes at high altitudes. From my recent Vice story:

The Sherpas’ mitochondria—tiny power plants within human cells that power our bodies—produce more ATP, or energy, using less oxygen at altitude. They also found that the Sherpas used fat as fuel more efficiently. “It’s interesting because the Sherpas are actually unremarkable at sea level,” Murray says. “You don’t see them winning marathons. Their adaptations is not one that gives them super performance at sea level, but it does at altitude when the oxygen is scarce.”

In other words, Westerners have the engine of a gas guzzling four-by-four, while the Sherpas are more like a sensible hybrid that sips fuel. When fuel is abundant—at low altitude—both engines get the job done. But when you climb into a fuel-scarce, high-altitude environment, the more efficient engine is optimal. It can help you climb farther, faster, and with less effort.

The story is based on a recent study conducted by Andrew Murray, a physiologist at the University of Cambridge. It also gets into how you can improve your own endurance by stealing a few secrets from the tribe. 

Click here to read the story.