Everest’s forgotten victims

The death of 16 Sherpas has sparked an uprising and maybe some long-overdue change on Mt. Everest
Everest climbers form a long snaking line up the mountain as they strive to reach the summit this spring.. Photo by Ralf Dujmovits
Everest climbers form a long snaking line up the mountain as they strive to reach the summit this spring.. Photo by Ralf Dujmovits
Everest climbers form a long snaking line up the mountain as they strive to reach the summit in the spring of 2012. (Photo by Ralf Dujmovits)

They are Mount Everest’s forgotten victims.

The world’s tallest mountain has claimed some 250 lives since adventurers first began trying to scale it in 1922. Its extreme mix of altitude, weather, pitfalls and exertion has claimed 18 climbers from Japan, 17 each from the U.K. and India, and 10 Americans. But it is the local men who lug the foreign visitors’ gear, fix their ropes, and guide them up and down the steep pitches who have always been the most likely to die.

An avalanche in the Khumbu ice fall, a treacherous field of giant ice blocks and deep crevices between base camp and camp one, took the lives of 16 Sherpas last week. The worst-ever disaster on the mountain, it brings the total number of locals killed on the mountain over the past nine decades to 88.

And the tragedy seems to touched off a rebellion among the high-altitude guides and porters.

At least 400 Sherpas have walked off the job, voicing complaints about their poor pay, limited benefits, and elevated risks, throwing the spring climbing season in chaos. Several major expedition companies have already announced that they are pulling clients and staff off the mountain. And reports from base camp suggest tensions are running dangerously high.

“Time and again the Sherpas have stated that their argument is not with the Westerners and there is no animosity towards us. Their beef is with the government. They are sorry that we are caught in this tangled web on the sidelines but at the same time we (and the mountain) are being used as political leverage to get what they want,” Tim Mosedale, a British expedition leader (and B&B owner) wrote on his blog. “And then came the threats … insidious threats that have completely changed the nature of the demands and the situation. There was a veiled threat (or rumour of one) that if we go in the icefall we might not be safe. Our initial reaction wasn’t quite ‘bring it on’ but we certainly weren’t going to stop and, indeed, if the protagonists could be identified perhaps the rot could be removed. But then it got worse. 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 transformation of Everest from a quest to a business over the past 20 years is the root of the problem. Each year, hundreds of foreigners flock to its slopes, having paid as much as $120,000 each for “the adventure of a lifetime.” But most of that money goes to the tour operators and the government. Very little trickles down to the people who do the heavy lifting. A top-flight climbing Sherpa—even those who have summited more than a dozen times—typically takes home just $6,000 for the two-month spring season. And most make far less. (Foreign guides typically make $50,000 plus tips over the same period.) Meanwhile, the dangers associated with helping less skilled—or as was the case of Shriya Shah-Klorfine, a Canadian who perished in 2012, woefully unprepared—climbers, are multiplying.

“While training is significant, no amount of practice inoculates Sherpas from the increased exposure to risk they’re asked to take on in the mountains,” Grayson Schaffer of Outside Magazine wrote in an extensive look at the issues last summer. “Walking through the Khumbu Icefall, a shifting glacier with the constant threat of calving, is considered so dangerous that some outfitters acclimatize their clients on neighboring peaks to avoid traveling through it. In a typical season, a climbing Sherpa might make a dozen round-trips through this area, some earning a bonus for each extra lap. Guides and clients usually make between two and four.”

When a Sherpa is killed, or falls victim to one of the many other hazards of the job—which include broken bones, frostbite, edema, heart attacks and strokes—there is virtually no social safety net. The Nepalese government—which takes in tens of millions each year from climbing permits, fees and taxes—mandates that each tour operator must provide Sherpas who work above base camp with $575 worth of medical coverage and a $4,600 death benefit. (The payout for a fatality at lower altitudes in $3,500.) And all local employees must be covered for at least $4,000 worth of rescue costs. But in a place where a single helicopter evacuation—live body or frozen corpse—can cost $15,000, that insurance doesn’t cover much.

After a scary confrontation between three European climbers and a group of 100 furious Sherpas last spring, the Nepalese government took some baby steps to address the problem, increasing the high-altitude death benefit to $11,000 and rescue insurance to $10,000, but those changes aren’t scheduled to go into effect until next year. But its ham-fisted handling of avalanche deaths—the government initially offered the victims’ families 40,000 rupees (about $415) each in compensation—suggest it still hasn’t fully grasped the problem.

Apa Sherpa, the man who holds the record for most Everest summits with 21, and now runs a foundation dedicated to helping improve education in rural Nepal, says most Sherpas climb because they have no other choice.

“They lack education and job opportunities in other sectors. Since they live in the high altitudes, where nothing else grows except for potatoes, they have no option to working for foreign clients,” he told the Italian newspaper Republica this week.  “For the foreigners mountain climbing is a fun, an adventure. For the Sherpas it is an obligation, a source of livelihood.”

Most of the risks, few of the benefits and none of the glory. No wonder they’re angry.