Wouldn’t it be nice if that’s all there was to it? We come, we climb, we celebrate, and we go home. If for some reason you’ve missed the news about Everest in the last week, get out from under your rock and catch up. On the face, this is about sixteen Sherpas who died on the now high-profile Mt Everest summit route. But underneath the raw reality of these deaths, it is about politics, egos, money, culture differences and power in the bizarre industry of mountaineering, in the developing country of Nepal, in a still-remote region.
In the first two days after the news broke, I contacted several of my Sherpa climber friends and acquaintances. Most of the rest posted personal updates because they knew everyone would be wondering. A quick scroll down a Sherpa climber’s Facebook page is enough to bring tears. Dozens of calls for reply, news, hopes that everyone they know is okay. And finally, an answer from a daughter or son, thanking everyone for their concern. He is okay. Lakpa Rita, who lives in Seattle, but ran into us on the Everest Highway last year, was on the mountain already when the avalanche happened. According to one report, he was apparently above the avalanche area and descended to the scene and acted as a first responder. He’s been doing that sort of thing for about twenty years. This time he lost five climbing partners from his own team and likely knew the rest. The climbing community is tight. The Sherpa community is more so.
When something like this happens in our culture, when people die, we look immediately for a way to change it, to fix whatever made this happen and to quit it from ever happening again. We like rules and boundaries and expected outcomes. We like safe. So when I talked to my Sherpa friends I asked, in standard Western fashion, how to fix it. Their answers were curious, unassuming, accepting, albeit shrouded in sadness. They said things like:
-It is natural calamities, no one can stop it
-It is all a learning experience with sad outcomes
-Nature is not in our hands and we can’t do anything against natural power to make climbing safer
But there is obviously unrest, and there is hardly any contention out there anymore, that Sherpas are largely mistreated and exploited for the greater climbing community. So I asked my connections in the community what the Sherpas want to happen after a tragedy like this.
“The mountain is the main source of income for Nepal, and the government needs to protect the Sherpas and give them respect. And it should take care of their families if they die.”
“Insurance should be 15 laks (about $16,000 US) coverage, and lost Sherpa’s children should be able to go to school for free. But the government has no interest in protecting the Sherpas as an income source in Nepal.”
“Four hundred dollars is ridiculous. Does not even cover cremation costs.”
If you are a feeling human in the Western world, you are probably asking yourself why the focus is on provisions for future deaths. Don’t we want no more deaths? But both the climbing community and the Sherpa community seem to acknowledge that this is not a realistic expectation.
Everest, and the endeavor of climbing, by definition, is the antithesis of safe. That’s part of its draw. In recent years it has been made less safe by all the unqualified, ego-puffed, money-waving people who desire to stand on top of it. It’s a bucket list item. Prestigious, exotic, extreme. Isn’t that groovy. (And that is one of the main reasons that I’d never attempt it. Even when I was there in 2011 and looked across the Khumbu Glacier to the summit of Everest, I knew I would never desire to climb it.) The endeavor has been described as standing in a chain gang. Hundreds of climbers cling to ropes fastened into the snow, hour by hour, each taking the step of the person in front of him. For the bucket list. More people, more egos, and so it goes, until a mistake or an avalanche breaks the chain. It’s a game of waiting, gambling and pushing the limits in order to reach the summit for your own edification, often at the cost of others around you. You’ve probably read a story or two along that vein, but here’s a good one if you haven’t. In the Hillary-Norgay days, honor was still prevalent enough that people would remove themselves from a team in order to keep the group expedition intact, but those days are long gone, and egos have long since replaced honor. Generally speaking, of course.
But the cultural divide also contributes to the problem, as I see it. We don’t seem to acknowledge that the rift reaches from the brass ring-seeking outdoor Western warrior, across the divide, to an unassuming, naturally talented group that happens to live and thrive just below the brass ring. Forget language, forget talent, forget purpose for just a minute. Look at the two groups of people involved up there, and you’ll get a better idea of why this is so messy.
Sherpas are an ethnic group that lives in the shadow of Mt Everest. As such, they are well acclimated to living above 10,000 feet, and were the natural choice to employ when the first climbers from abroad decided that getting to the top of the world’s tallest mountain should be a thing. It became an industry and a career of choice for Sherpa people when climbers figured out that Sherpas could carry most of their own body weight on their backs while ascending Himalayan peaks when rest of the world, even seasoned climbers struggle to carry a jacket, camera and lunch. Add to that, the local people, having lived there for centuries, know all the routes through, over and around their mountains. It’s their neighborhood. They’re natural guides. And it’s not in their nature not to help you. Furthermore, it’s their custom to take in anyone who passes by their door, care for them, feed them and offer every last scrap (or glove or ice axe) they have. And surprise, though Sherpas make up only half of one percent of the Nepali population, their work, driving the mountaineering industry in Nepal (and everything it feeds), accounts for a significant chunk of Nepal’s GNP. Nepal’s north border is home to 8 of the world’s 10 tallest mountains (K2 and his little brother Nanga Parbat are in Pakistan). So for decades, the well-suited Sherpas have quietly dedicated themselves to this work.
Yesterday when I was deciding whether I should write about this, I spoke to a friend and likened it to the poppy farmers in South America. Let’s assume you can grow papayas or pineapples or coconuts for about $30 per acre, or you can grow opium poppies for $1000 per acre instead. Which would you pick? Fine be a papaya farmer – you like safe. But which would you pick if your annual family income was $500 per year? Yes, you know the risks, and yes, you would grow poppies. Because you want more for your family than you had in your own childhood (your dad was a papaya farmer). You want more than your family has ever had, so you take the more risky venture for their sake. For your family. (Feel free to send me the actual prices, I totally made these numbers up to make my point.)
But this is roughly equivalent to climbing for Sherpas. The average annual income in Nepal is $500. Yes, all year long. But as a Sherpa guide or porter on an Everest expedition team, they climb for about 52-60 days and can earn from $2000 to $6000 in that time by guiding clients to the top of the highest mountain in the world. And though the average cost to attempt an Everest summit is about $50,000 to $80,000 US, it’s not commonplace for Sherpas to be covered by a life insurance policy. Should anything go wrong, the family loses its breadwinner, who is often supporting three generations. For rough reference, each time I traveled to Nepal, I was gone for a month and purchased travel insurance in case I needed helicopter evacuation (due to elevation sickness or broken leg), luggage replaced, hospital, emergency, or d&d. It cost less than $250 to insure me against all of that for a month.
So the Sherpas want either the tour operators or the government to acknowledge their value by insuring them to pay out between $11,000 and $16,000 (depending on who you ask and how you calculate exchange) to family upon death.
Seems simple enough, but that’s still only looking at it with Western eyes. Imagine you went to the trouble to summit Mt Everest. You incurred the expense, went through months of training, purchased thousands of dollars in gear, international air tickets, mentally prepared, sacrificed two months from family, work, home, and dodged the perils of traveling in a developing country, to stand atop this tallest of mountains. You did it. And no one acknowledged you. The part I can’t effectively convey here, is how different that feels when your culture reveres honor and respect as much as (or more than) money. When your life’s work is measured by more than your annual salary, and still you are not respected for your endeavors, you might imagine how that feels. This is the sort of acknowledgment that the Sherpas are looking for. From their government and from the climbing clients who they guide.
Many Sherpas would say that the avalanche, the deaths, was God punishing people for recent events and past incidents on the mountain. Mt Everest is the Goddess Mother to the Sherpa people. The spirit that lives in the mountain makes it holy, and climbing the mountain without respecting the goddess brings misfortune. Every expedition that leaves base camp for the summit performs a puja, a ceremony asking the spirit in the mountain for permission and safe passage. They show respect while they climb. Sherpa rules of climbing are simple: no alcohol, no sex, be honorable and be respectable. As you might guess, with hundreds of people stuck at base camp for days and weeks (waiting out weather or waiting for their Sherpas to take their gear up), Westerners don’t necessarily adhere to those rules. Many of them don’t bother to learn the things that are considered disrespectful. Others, even famous, book-writing climbers outwardly brag about their breaking of those rules. So you can imagine how that makes the reverent local who carries your load feel.
No matter how you slice it, it seems to me a horribly selfish goal to drag a dozen locals up a mountain with you, have them carry your stuff, make your food and fix your ropes, so you can stand “up there.” Regardless of how much you paid them. Regardless of whether they had life insurance policies or not. If you could do it by yourself, different story. But this is the way it’s done. This is the culture of the climbing community, by and large. Challenge-blinders-goal. And remember, it’s not in the Sherpa’s nature not to help you. And the money is enticing for a Sherpa guide to do this work. And so it goes. But where does the responsibility fall? Who picks rules for the mountain? Who decides if there needs to be more rules, or fewer people or only experienced climbers?
AC Sherpa is a tour operator based in both Nepal and Seattle. When I asked him what he hopes will come of this tragedy, he framed it in terms of the responsibilities of each person involved, from the client to the Sherpa guide, to the Nepal government. These are his top desires:
-Restrict the mountain to only experienced climbers and tour operators
-Require insurance for all members of a team (whether through tour company or government)
-Hiring local Sherpas as rangers, reporters and weather personnel, like the US National Parks Service does.
That last one is a larger problem than it sounds. News agencies send city folk to 17,000 feet to report about everything Everest. Inside of a couple days the lowlanders are sick, sent halfway down the Everest Highway, and holed up in high-end hotels where they are still paid government salary to report about what they can’t see or hear. So hire Sherpa people to do that work, instead of the lowlanders. Seems simple, but, because of politics, it’s not.
The central government in Nepal is still a work in progress. They’ve emerged from ten years of civil war in 2008, and have been trying to convert from a monarchy (which lasted 240 years) to a parliament of 603 members since then. Never, since the war ended, have all of the cabinet positions been filled. There have been seven Prime Ministers since 2008. And here’s another thorn. Nepal is officially a Hindu country, but the Sherpa and their near tribes (Tamang, Gurung, Tibetan) are Buddhist. And as hard as they’ve tried to remove it, the caste system is still very much alive. Chhetri and Brahman are the high castes, and they are the ones seated in government. They are the ones who get first crack at high profile jobs. The Buddhist castes are largely kept at a distance from government, news and attention. Except those darn Sherpas who keep showing up on that tall mountain.
So the power play for respect looms large. With the government turn over, no one in power cares to take ownership of the Sherpas on Everest. And there are no Sherpas in the government to advocate for them. So their own leadership often sweeps them under the rug. And so this is the sort of thing they are asking for when they ask for respect.
There are no simple answers to Everest. Too much is at play to blanket rules and decisions. But the Sherpas, who can survive and thrive where few others can, show promise of being tenacious enough, patient enough, and now visible enough to gain the respect they’re due.