Retired Senator Jon Kyl is now a Sherpa. As The New York Times writes, “In Washington, a Sherpa is an informal but widely known term for a nominee’s guide to the political tundra in the Senate.” Widely known inside the Beltway, perhaps. But although the Times lists Sherpa several times in a search for the term over this last month, if you go back to 2009, the year of Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Sherpa gets hardly any play.

I first heard the term in this sense only this past week, when National Public Radio’s Ailsa Chang interviewed former Senator Kelly Ayotte, the New Hampshire Republican who accompanied Neil Gorsuch on his rounds of the Senate. They had this exchange:

CHANG: So what does a Sherpa exactly do? What is your role?
AYOTTE: Well, it’s kind of a funny name, right...
CHANG: Yeah.
AYOTTE: ...'Cause a Sherpa means bringing someone up a mountain. And I guess often the...
CHANG: (Laughter) And carrying all the bags.

As many readers know, the Sherpa are an ethnic group who live on the borders of Nepal and Tibet. The name means “eastern people.” Sherpa are known for their extraordinary skills in mountaineering, and as a result the family business for many decades has been to lead hopeful climbers up the dangerous slopes of the Himalayas. The first Sherpas were hired in 1895 to help a British expedition scale the 26,600-foot peak Nanga Parbat. Both guides died on that climb, setting a pattern that has resulted in an industry with one of the highest rates of injury and mortality in the world. And neither the Sherpas’ extraordinary expertise nor the risks they take always find their proper due in the global climbing community.

As the Sherpa Norbu Tenzing Norgay puts it, “If somebody in America climbs Everest 19 times, he’d be all over Budweiser commercials. Sherpas don’t get the same recognition.” Death and disability benefits for Sherpas, who take the greatest risks on the mountain by setting the ropes and breaking trail, are rarely enough to support their families. Then there is the simple matter of respect. Following an ugly brawl between foreign climbers and Sherpas on Everest in 2013, the veteran guide Norbu Sherpa said of outsiders’ attitudes toward Sherpas: “Many think Sherpas are just porters, which is not true. Sherpas are a community and a cultural entity.” Scientists have learned that after so many years of living at high altitudes, the Sherpas’ mitochondria have evolved to use oxygen more efficiently. As Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air, explains, “The work Sherpas are paid to do — carrying loads, installing the aluminum ladders, stringing and anchoring thousands of feet of rope — requires them to spend vastly more time on the most dangerous parts of the mountain, particularly in the Khumbu Icefall. … high-altitude climbing Sherpas [serve] an élite profession that deservedly commands respect and admiration from mountaineers around the world.”

Given this background, how appropriate is it to call Kyl, an Arizona Republican, a Sherpa -- or, as many publications would have it, a sherpa, rendering the term as a generic descriptor? I suppose you could liken Brett Kavanaugh’s tour of Senate offices to scaling a mountain. The loose rocks and crevasses are perhaps labeled Affordable Care Act or Roe v. Wade, and veteran political operators know their way around those high-risk zones. The summit, presumably, is Scotus. But Jon Kyl, at 76, is not about to shoulder Kavanaugh’s baggage. In fact, the way both Chang and Ayotte describe a Sherpa makes the expert guide sound like what Norbu Sherpa objected to: a porter.


Western prejudice may account for this condescending description. So might the genericizing and name-branding of the term elsewhere in our culture -- mama sherpas, parking sherpas, sandwich sherpas, cocktail sherpas, the Sherpa 50 solar panel, Sherpa Adventure Gear, Sherpa Pet Trading. I also wonder if we Westerners sometimes get confused about certain words’ ethnic origins. The individual described by Chang and Ayotte sounds to me less like a Sherpa than like a schlepper, a Yiddish term for a porter. Additionally, a schlepper denotes a person so worthless or stupid that he has no choice but to fetch and carry for others. I don’t know if we collapse the meanings of these terms when we talk about Sherpas in general, but when we talk about, say, doggy carriers, I suspect we do.

As to Jon Kyl -- he may know a lot, and Brett Kavanaugh may depend on him for survival as a prospective Supreme Court Justice. But I don’t see him risking his life as he takes the nominee through the ice fall.