A little before 7 a.m. on April 18 a massive chunk of ice broke off the west shoulder of Mount Everest and shattered into huge blocks that careened into the Khumbu Icefall where up to 50 sherpas were climbing toward Camp 2, carrying huge loads for guided clients. Sixteen men were killed. It was the single deadliest day in the history of the mountain.
In the past, sherpas have worked brutally hard for low pay and practically no benefits. For years they have fixed rope —the “yellow brick road”—to the summit and carried massive loads, and when tragedy struck they quietly buried their dead. But after the avalanche of April 18, the sherpas threatened a work stoppage and issued a list of demands. Now it looks as if most expeditions have abandoned the mountain. It would also appear that the sherpas have finally had enough of the inequity.
I’ve been writing about Everest since I became the editor of Rock and Ice
in 2005 [see for example: TNB: Mayhem: Crawling, Balling and Brawling on the Evere$t Soap Opera
] and I’m still flabbergasted by people paying an average of $60,000-plus to walk in to a crowded, polluted city (Everest basecamp), climb metal ladders placed there by sherpas, stand in a hellaciously long and dangerous line with ascenders clipped to a fixed rope and hike to the summit all the while sucking bottled O2. Many of these people then go home and say they’ve “climbed” the highest mountain on earth, which is like riding a bicycle in the Boston Marathon and then bragging about your time. But more than the blatant hubris and self-delusion that characterizes these guided ascents, more than the commercialization of climbing, or the desecration of the mountain itself, I’m appalled at the exploitation of the sherpas—the term used by most folks to denote the high-altitude porters who carry the thousands of pounds of gear, food, flat-screen TVs, generators, etc. up and down the mountain every year, fix ladders and ropes, cook and usher clients around.
The common justification for using porters in this way has always been the claim that the workers themselves want the job because “they’ll make a year’s wages in two months.” That sounds pretty good to an American, but in a country where the average yearly wage is around $700, it doesn’t really amount to much does it? Still, the sherpas are happy to get the work and many use the money to support themselves, their family and extended families.
But just because someone voluntarily signs up for a job, it doesn’t mean the job is good for him, or that the compensation is fair, or that the work is humane. The poorest people allow themselves to be exploited because their previous situation is untenable. They accept a shitty job because they have to. And when you look at the terms these people consent to, whether you’re speaking of Appalachian miners, third-world sweatshop employees, or high-altitude sherpas, you can only shake your head.
A good place to start looking at the West’s interaction with the people of the Himalayan regions is Francis Younghusband’s 1904 British expedition to Tibet. Regardless of the fact that Tibet was a Buddhist country that had (and still has) no standing army, Younghusband marched across the closed border with 3,000 soldiers supported by 7,000 porters and “thousands” of pack animals (sound familiar?). Over the course of nine months this “diplomatic” mission killed around 5,000 Tibetans and forced the Dalai Lama into exile.
In one encounter, Younghusband’s troops, (finally recognized by the Tibetans as an invading army), came upon roughly 3,000 Tibetans armed with primitive matchlock muskets. In the resulting “battle” the British mowed down the poorly trained and inferiorly armed Tibetans with Maxims—machine guns.
The commander of the Maxims detachment, Lieutenant Arthur Hadow, later wrote: "I got so sick of the slaughter that I ceased fire, though the general’s order was to make as big a bag as possible. I hope I shall never again have to shoot down men walking away."
In the past, sherpas have worked brutally hard for low pay and practically no benefits. For years they have fixed rope —the “yellow brick road”—to the summit and carried massive loads, and when tragedy struck they quietly buried their dead.
Younghusband was knighted upon his return to England and later served as director of the Royal Geographical Society. He summed up his feelings about the mountain people in a letter to his father: “As I have always said, the Tibetans are nothing but sheep.”
The first concerted Western attempt to reconnoiter Everest occurred in 1913, when another Englishman, John Noel, hennaed his skin, donned a black wig and illegally snuck into Tibet. He got to within 40 miles of Everest before being run out of the country.
Of course, the British had been sending “pundits,” a group of Indians disguised as mountain people, into Tibet and Nepal to covertly map the countries since the 1860s, but it wasn’t until 1921 that they were officially granted permission to visit Everest. That expedition found the route to the Northeast Ridge.
Six months later, in March of 1922, the Brits were back with two tons of luggage, 40 Sherpas (capital S denotes the ethnic group, small s denotes high-altitude porters), 13 Europeans, five Gurkhas, an indeterminate (but enormous) number of porters and over 300 horses, yaks and donkeys. On that expedition, seven of the 40 Sherpas were killed. Back in Britain, however, the trip was gauged to be a huge success since the climbers had reached 27,300 feet.
And so it continued; obscene amounts of stuff hauled into the mountain by low-paid, seemingly expendable brown guys so that Western powers, including the U.S., could engage in nationalistic dick swinging. It really is as simple and pathetic as that.
The sherpas continued dying—at least 190 in Nepal alone with an equal number permanently disabled, according to the Himalayan Database. And stupid amounts of resources were expended. Yet somehow, the climbers continued to be lionized (e.g. 2012’s 50th anniversary of the first U.S. ascent/siege of Everest full-press media blitz [No. 211]) and the unwashed public continued to think that climbing Everest was cool.
Today, nothing much has changed except the motivation for climbing Everest has become even more banal—sloganeering and altruistic-sounding motives notwithstanding. Climbing Everest to raise awareness for X is not so different than doing it for God and Country, in my opinion. You are still taking part in a system that has its roots in discrimination, exploitation and bloodshed.
One of the happiest consequences of 2012’s media stampede to the slopes of Everest was the head-on collision of excellent writers and the reality of climbing on the world’s highest peak. The result was some first-rate journalism like Mark Jenkins’ “Antidote to Everest” [Ascent
2014] and Grayson Shaffer’s “The Disposable Man: A Western History of Sherpas on Everest,” which appeared in the August 2013 issue of Outside
Schaffer’s article highlights the raw deal the sherpas are getting. Strokes, heart attacks, falling into crevasses, wiped out in avalanches. “In villages across the Khumbu region, dependents are left without breadwinners or, in the case of serious injury, forced to choose between supporting or abandoning a disabled husband,” Schaffer wrote.
Many of these men and women were chewed up by the mountaineering industry and spit out dead, or broken and poor. All but the families of the most popular sherpas can go broke just paying funeral expenses.
Many of these men and women were chewed up by the mountaineering industry and spit out dead, or broken and poor. Outside of some minor benefits—a $4,600 death benefit (in 2013), for example—all but the families of the most popular sherpas can go broke just paying funeral expenses. In the case of the popular sherpas, western climbers sometimes step in and “pass the hat.”
In “The Disposable Man,” Schaffer points out that high-altitude sherpas are 10 times more likely to be killed than commercial fishermen, supposedly the most dangerous job in the U.S., and more than 3.5 times as likely to be killed as an infantryman in the Iraq war. (Keep in mind that these death rates are calculated for a season that lasts only a couple of months.) Schaffer also throws out some shocking numbers, such as the fact that the late Chhewang Nima (who died in 2010 while fixing ropes on Baruntse) had summited Everest 19 times but only made $6,000 per season. Western guides can make upwards of $50,000 and they don’t have to expose themselves to nearly the same level of risk. For example, western guides don’t have to fix ropes or pass through the icefall as many times as some mountain workers.
These disparities have not gone unnoticed by the sherpas and tensions have been high on Everest for the last couple of years. Take, for instance, the attack on the Chinese climber that tried to poach the North Col route in 2012—without a permit or sherpa support. When a group of Tibet Mountaineering Guide School (TMGS) graduates—working as rope fixers—noticed an unnamed Chinese climber keeping to himself and camping alone, they became suspicious. The grads confronted the climber and subdued him, bound his hands and marched him back down.
An un-named British climber wrote in an e-mail to the Himalayan record-keeper Elizabeth Hawley’s assistant: “It was disgraceful. They literally kicked him down the ropes. It was a disgusting example of a pack of bullies egging each other on and literally beating him down the hill. It was absolutely unnecessary as he was offering no resistance and was scared out of his mind.”
Just last year, Ueli Steck, Jonathan Griffith and Simone Moro were attacked by sherpas after they soloed across the lines the men were fixing. According to the sherpas, a meeting had been held at Camp 2 and everyone had agreed to not climb until the ropes were fixed. When the sherpas confronted the three climbers, Moro insulted them, a slur which was broadcast over a radio and heard by sherpas in camp 2. The sherpas also claimed that one of their crew was struck by ice knocked off by the Europeans. Later, when they were all back at Camp 2, about 100 sherpas converged on Moro’s tent and assaulted the climbers.
In an interview with Deepak Adhikari published on Outside Online, one of the sherpas involved in the initial, rope-fixing altercation, Tashi Sherpa, was asked whether there was some deeper resentment against western climbers. He answered:
The resentment was always there. But incidents like this didn’t occur before because sherpas didn’t take offense to trivial matters. But this time around, it was different. Earlier, most sherpas were uneducated and they would grin and bear it. Earlier, we had suppressed our feelings.
Even in documentary films like Into Thin Air and Everest, you don’t get to see sherpas. We have been left out. But we are the ones who, despite the risks and hazards, make sure that all is well on Everest. This is our life, our livelihood.
In 1922, the Sherpas were praised by Mallory who reported that they had “far exceeded our expectations.” He was impressed by their willingness to work three days in a row, carrying loads to 25,500 feet. Now, over nine decades later, not much has changed. The sherpas continue to labor for low wages and literally sacrifice themselves for their clients … not for fame, or fun, or because it’s there, but because they need the money. In Dave Costello’s great book, Flying Off Everest
, Lahkpa Sherpa states it in no uncertain terms: “Climbing is not fun. Climbing is hard work. I do not climb for fun. Climbing is my job.”
On April 20, two days after the accident that killed 16 sherpas, the Himalayan Times reported that nearly 300 guides and support staff, expedition leaders and climbers had met at Everest base camp to discuss the future.
Lamakaji Sherpa, General Secretary of the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) (the ad hoc governing body on Everest), told the Times that, “most of them vowed to call off this season’s climbing activities if their demands were not addressed by the government.”
The sherpas issued 12 demands. (Rupee amounts have been converted to dollars.)
1) Relief for those injured in the avalanche.
2) $16,680 each to the families of the deceased.
3) Set up a memorial park in the name of the deceased in Kathmandu.
4) All expenses paid for treatment of the injured.
5) $16,680 to critically injured sherpas who cannot rejoin mountaineering.
6) Set up a mountaineering relief fund with 30 per cent of royalties collected from issuing permits to different mountains.
7) Double the required insurance minimum for mountaineering workers. [Note: As of 2014, trekking agents were required to purchase a minimum of $10,000 in rescue insurance, $4,000 in health coverage, and $11,000 death and accident insurance.]
8) Provide chopper rescue to mountaineering support staff if insurance fails to cover the cost. [Note: A helicopter flight can cost $11,000. Rescues have been delayed to sherpas when it was determined they didn’t have the coverage to pay for the flight.]
9) Provide perks and salaries, except summit bonus, to sherpas if they want to call off climbing this season.
10) Manage chopper to bring equipment from different camps if mountaineers decide to abandon climbing this season.
11) Don’t take action against SPCC icefall doctors if they refuse to fix ropes and ladders on the route this season.
12) Allow expedition members to call off this season’s climbing if they so wish.
Two days later, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation issued a press release stating that:
1) The government of Nepal would contribute 30 percent of the $3.3 million collected from Everest for the Village Development Committee (VDC). Five percent of that amount (about $50,000) will be allocated for a Mountain Relief Fund that goes towards:
• Rehabilitation of injured summiteers.
• Education of children of the dead and missing summiteers.
• Providing rehabilitation, capacity development and daily livelihood for the families of dead and missing summiteers.
• Rescue and medical expenses.
2) Required minimum death and accident insurance will be increased to $25,000 for the sirdar, mountain and high altitude workers.
3) Required minimum medical insurance will be increased to $6,660.
4) The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation will allocate a budget for the construction of a memorial park in Kathmandu.
5) Management of open mountains not climbed due to lack of promotion will be handed over to the Nepal Mountaineering Association. A fixed amount of the peak royalty will be deposited in the Mountaineers Relief Fund.
6) Additional financial assistance (of the amount which is insufficient as per the proposed insured amount mentioned in No. 2) will be provided to the families of those who perished in the April 18 avalanche.
7) Initiation will be taken to manage addition financial assistance for the injured mountaineers.
8) Additional funding (not covered by insurance) will be provided to the helicopters used in the rescue activities.
9) Helicopters will continue to be restricted from flying above base camp except for rescue activities.
10) Garbage will not be allowed to be left above base camp.
11) The Nepal Mountaineering Association will manage the education of the children of the dead and missing mountaineers.
When you compare the sherpas’ demands and the government’s response you can see that Nepal is willing to require the trekking agencies (and, by extension, the guide companies they represent) to purchase additional insurance, but the demands addressed to the government are treated vaguely, without any specific sums promised. Whether this olive branch will be enough to bring the sherpas back to the mountain remains to be seen, but it’s not looking good for the spring season.
On April 26, an article appeared in the Himalayan Times with the subhead: “Sherpas ‘provoked’ by ‘politically indoctrinated’ liaison officer.” According to officials at the ministry of tourism, the government was considering taking action against three liaison officers and two operators who they accused of inciting the sherpas to leverage the situation for what the Times called “a lot of benefits.”
An officer at the Department of Mountaineering is quoted later in the article: “Three foreign expedition leaders approached the ministry to raise concern over the ongoing unnatural activities by liaison officers and others in the base camp.” He went on to say that 10 more expedition leaders were threatening to file complaints “against those who were indulged into ‘dirty politics’ in the name of dead people.”
The president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, Ang Tshering Sherpa, came down firmly on the side of the government and the operators. “A bunch of vigilantes are to blame for this,” he said of the work stoppage. He also said that despite most everyone’s pleas that they stay and work, the sherpas were going home.
In a historic move, the sherpas shut down the Nepalese side of Everest, but given the lack of job opportunities in the mountainous regions of Nepal, and the history of deeply entrenched exploitation, I’d be willing to bet we’ll see a return to business as usual soon enough. I hope I’m wrong.