The Aftermath of an Avalanche

 /  May 11, 2014, 5:20 p.m.

North Face of Everest

Tents have been packed, climbers have gone home, and the Sherpa community of Nepal is in mourning. On April 18, a massive avalanche on the south side of Mount Everest killed thirteen Sherpas, making it the deadliest incident in the mountain’s history. Three remain missing and have been presumed dead.

The avalanche laid bare the tenuous relationship between the government of Nepal, the Western climbers who hope to summit Everest, and Sherpas, the guides who make these climbs possible.

The world has turned its attention to Sherpas, members of a Nepalese ethnic group who are known for their excellent climbing skills and ability to survive at high altitudes. For them, Mount Everest is sacred. They refer to the world’s tallest peak using the Tibetan word Chomolungma, which means “Goddess Mother of the Land,” and for years, they did not climb the mountain so as not to offend the god.

Once western climbers arrived with dreams of conquering Everest, the Sherpas saw an opportunity to support themselves by guiding the westerners up the mountain they knew so well. They face the perils of Everest before their clients by carrying heavy equipment, setting up camps, cooking food, securing climbing routes, and guiding climbers up the mountain.

Their jobs are among the most dangerous in the world. According to Outside Magazine, a Sherpa is “more than three and a half times as likely to perish than an infantryman during the first four years of the war in Iraq.”

For many Sherpas, though, the payoff is worth the risk. A top high-altitude guide can earn up to $6,000 during a three-month climbing season, which is nearly ten times higher than Nepal’s average annual salary of $700. Sherpas come from remote places where there are few economic opportunities other than high-altitude potato farming. Young boys grow up hearing of the wealth they can earn from leading expeditions to the summit and choose this dangerous profession over the few other alternatives available to them. Once they become guides, they are often the sole breadwinners for their households, and often have to support large families.

Though Sherpas receive relatively high salaries from the companies with which they contract, the Nepalese government, which profits royally from the industry, fails to provide them with much additional compensation. Following the avalanche, the families of the deceased Sherpas received 40,000 rupees, which is about $413, plus around $10,000 from mandatory life-insurance policies.

For many families, though, this money is not enough, and the Sherpa community has demanded greater compensation. For 18-year-old Chhechi Sherpa, her brother’s death in the recent avalanche left her responsible for the care of her elderly parents and six young brothers and sisters. Another teenager whose uncle was killed said: “We have no one to take care of us.” In response to what they have deemed inadequate compensation from the government, the Sherpa community threatened a strike, the first of its kind, and demanded $100,000 in compensation. Additionally, families have demanded improved working conditions, higher pensions, and better education for Sherpas.

The government has agreed to some of the Sherpas’ demands. It will provide further educational support opportunities to young Sherpas, and some of the revenue the government has received from Nepal’s tourism industry will be set aside for a relief fund for Sherpa climbers.

Despite these concessions, the Sherpas are still not going back to work. They are not, however, discontinuing tours in protest of the government, but rather as a show of solidarity and tribute for their colleagues. According to Mingma Sherpa, a 27-year old Sherpa who works with two trekking companies, “We are doing this in honor of our friends and Sherpas who died. How can we walk through the same path where they have died?” Speaking of the three men whose bodies were never recovered, Dorje Sherpa echoed this sentiment: “It is just impossible for many of us to continue climbing while there are three of our friends buried in the snow. I can’t imagine stepping over them.”

The decision to discontinue tours was not without controversy. Sherpas who planned to resume leading expeditions in order to support their families received threatening warnings. Tim Mosedale, a British expedition leader, said, “[Climbers are being told] that if we go into the icefall we might not be safe…Sherpas are being told that if they go on the hill, well, ‘we know where you live.’ Sherpas are turning against Sherpas and in this country where these threats are sometimes carried out, they are taken very, very seriously.” The tour companies through which the Sherpas operate have responded by cancelling their tours for safety reasons, effectively ending this year’s climbing season on Mount Everest just a few weeks after it began.

With mixed emotions and amidst rising tensions, climbers have gone home.

The recent tragedy has highlighted preexisting tensions between the Nepalese government, the Sherpa community, and the foreign climbers who dream of summiting Everest. It has become clear that foreign climbers, western tour companies, and the Nepalese government have taken advantage of the Sherpa people.

First, the nature of climbing Everest has changed over the past six decades. According to Curtis Chin and Dhamey Tenzing Norgay of The Himalayan, when Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa became the first people to reach the peak of Mount Everest in 1953, they both “shared the risks, challenges, and joys of the adventure” equally. Now, climbing Mount Everest is more accessible than ever before, as long as climbers are able to afford an expedition. According to CNN, “foreign climbers spend between $40,000 and $90,000 each in their attempt to scale the mountain.” Climbing Mount Everest has been commercialized, and Chin and Norgay argue that this shift indicates “a breakdown” of the values embodied in the first successful ascents of Everest. With the increase in accessibility,, many climbers with little experience attempt to summit Everest each year, but their inexperience increases the risk involved for their Sherpa guides.

Private companies are also exacerbating the situation. Jon Krakauer, an author who has written about deaths on Everest and was quoted in The Himalayan, said that flashy private companies and the amenities they offer give “a false sense of security about ‘a preposterously dangerous undertaking.’” Many tour companies will accept any client who is willing to pay, regardless of experience. Another issue is that Western companies are putting local ones out of business, causing them to cut prices, which puts strain on the Sherpas who work for those local companies.

Third, Mount Everest has become the cornerstone of Nepal’s tourism economy. The government of Nepal makes about $3 million from Everest climbers during the high season, and Sherpas receive very little of that money. The government receives $10,000 from every Everest climber in a group of seven, yet only gave $413 to grieving families. To that end, many Sherpas have stated that the government treats the Everest industry as a “milk cow” and cares little about the welfare of individuals. Chhechi Sherpa has charged that the government “makes good money from tourists and climbers but doesn’t care about the Sherpas who struggle to support their families.” Norbu Tenzing Norgay, the son of Everest pioneer Tenzing Norway believes: “It’s the Everest business. Sherpas are being pushed to climb Everest because people paid sixty grand.”

Grayson Schaffer, senior editor for Outside Magazine, takes a different stance: “If Everest were about the exploitation of poor men, this industry would’ve been shut down a long time ago. The reason this is difficult is because this industry has taken a lot of poor men and made them into relatively rich men.”

At the same time, though, these Everest experts have been turned into middlemen who receive very low wages compared to the sums collected by tour companies and the government. And, as Chin and Norgay point out, the Sherpas’ “skill and judgment is usually the deciding factor in any expedition’s success, and the challenges they face are much more difficult when foreign climbers are sipping coffee at base camp rather than pulling their weight.” In other words, the government and foreign climbers do not do enough to appreciate Sherpas and adequately compensate them in turn.

Part of this attitude relates to the disproportionally high number of fatalities among Sherpas compared to other climbers. According to Schaffer, casualties are viewed as “an unfortunate price of conquest.” Climber Melissa Arnot has called climbing Everest an “industry that fosters people dying,” saying “it supports humans as disposable, as usable.” This attitude is partially fueled by the fact that climbers do not understand the role they play in the politics of Everest. Chin and Norgay believe that “wealthy consumers ignore the fate of the impoverished workers who provide their cheap goods and services.”

The politics of Mount Everest are multifaceted, but it is clear that with two recognized classes of climbers, the wealthy foreigners and the Sherpas, current conflicts cannot be resolved. Mountaineers have generally lacked respect for their guides, and private companies and the government have taken too great a profit from the Sherpas’ work. They may be wealthier than the average Nepalese worker, but their work is disproportionately more dangerous. Yankila Sherpa, a member of the advisory board of Nepal’s Mountaineering Association, has said, “It’s these people who have been the ambassadors of the country. The Sherpas have introduced Nepal to the rest of the world.” Sherpas are indispensable, but they are treated as if they are.

Given the media attention this tragedy has garnered, Chin and Norgay are hopeful that the Sherpas’ plight will not be forgotten after their story has faded from the headlines. Both climbers and government officials have made comments and taken steps that are indicative of a shift in support for the Sherpa community. This tragedy has been a wake-up call for everyone. American climber Ed Marzec said, “I am ashamed by our greed and embarrassed by our lack of compassion.” According to Italian climber Claudio Tessarolo, “We made Everest a circus. This year the Sherpas decided that the show will not go on.”

The government held a funeral service in Kathmandu, and, following the service, government officials met to further discuss the Sherpas’ demands. The government said it would continue to stock the fund it set up and will increase the insurance payout for those killed, but the numbers proposed are still well below the Sherpas’ demands. A final deal has yet to be determined.

Though very little concrete action has been taken at this point, these tensions have given many involved a new perspective, which will hopefully carry involved parties forward in negotiations. Kaji Sherpa, one of the survivors of the avalanche, plans to return to potato farming to more safely provide for his children. Climber Jon Reiter has said, “I am going to go home and hug my 12-year-old… There’s just a tug of war going on within me. I have put years of my life into this. But I am going home alive. I think I’m done with the mountains. I’m going to cherish what I have and count my blessings.”

Chelsea Fine