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Sherpas were immeasurably valuable to early explorers of the Himalayan region, serving as guides and porters at the extreme altitudes of the peaks and passes in the region. Today, the term is used casually to refer to almost any guide or porter hired for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas. In Nepal, however, Sherpas insist on making the distinction between themselves and general porters, because Sherpas often serve in a more guide-like role and command higher pay and respect from the community.

Sherpas are renowned in the international climbing and mountaineering community for their hardiness, expertise, and experience at high altitudes. It has been speculated that a portion of the Sherpas' climbing ability is the result of a genetic adaptation to living in high altitudes. Some of these adaptations include unique hemoglobin-binding enzymes, doubled nitric oxide production, hearts that can utilize glucose, and lungs with an increased efficiency in low oxygen conditions.

Sherpas are short in stature to accelerate the speed of circulation around the body and also breathe more quickly than the average person to extract more oxygen from the thin air.

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