Everest Tragedy Highlights Plight of Sherpas
Image Credit: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

Everest Tragedy Highlights Plight of Sherpas

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The avalanche that struck on Mount Everest on April 18 was the deadliest in its history, claiming the lives of 16 Sherpa guides, among them several of the most skilled and experienced climbers on the mountain. The loss has devastated local communities, and has left the climbing season in disarray.

The avalanche hit the guides while they were busy to preparing the way for the paying climbers, performing tasks such as fixing ropes, carrying equipment and preparing the route for the climbing season, which begins in the last week of April and ends in late May. This year has seen heavy snowfall on Everest since the third week of April.

Sherpa guides have been an indispensable part of Everest expeditions for six decades. The conditions in which they work are extreme, and the work is arduous. The April 18 avalanche is the latest in a very long line of accidents on the mountain, the world’s highest, dating back to 1922, when seven Sherpa died during an early and unsuccessful attempt to reach the summit. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally scaled the mountain in 1953.

Since those early attempts on Everest nearly a century ago, nearly 250 people have been killed on the mountain, the majority of them local guides. Perhaps the most notorious year was 1996, when a storm killed eight people and 15 climbers in total died during the season. The disaster was the subject of the Jon Krakauer bestseller Into Thin Air.

But while disaster is an ever-present threat for Himalayan mountaineers, the tragedy this year has shone a light on the particularly harsh conditions under which the Sherpa labor. At the same time, it has put the government of Nepal under growing pressure to act.

One issue is insurance. Despite the extreme risks they face, insurance coverage for Sherpa guides is woefully inadequate. Under pressure, the Nepal government has announced that it will raise coverage of mountaineering workers from the current $10,000 to $15,000. If it was hoping that would satisfy the guides, it will be disappointed: the Sherpa are demanding that the amount be doubled.

Nepal generates considerable income from Everest expeditions, very little of which is used for the welfare of Sherpa and their families. This year, the government took in $2.9 million from Everest alone, from permits granted to dozens of expeditions. Authorities have announced that they will allocate 5 percent of this revenue to establish a Sherpa welfare fund, although the details remain to be determined.

The Sherpa are internationally renowned for their skills on the world’s highest mountains. In addition to guiding clients, they handle numerous tasks from fixing ropes to carrying gear. On average, a Sherpa will earn $4,000 in a climbing season. Reports of unscrupulous trekking and guide companies exploiting their Sherpa workers and failing to pay are not uncommon. Others will hire very inexperienced workers and pay them a pittance.

In 2013, Nepal government took several measures to regulate Everest climbs. In a bid to clean up the mountain, authorities have started enforcing a rule requiring climbers to bring their waste back down the mountain with them. The government also decided to decrease the permit fee this year, while giving permission to allow more ropes to be fixed along the route, to relieve the notorious congestion at bottlenecks like the Hillary Step. Authorities have also established a permanent office at base camp to enforce its regulations.

However mountaineering agencies and Sherpa guides alike have criticized authorities for their failure to address the demands of Sherpa. They claim that the government is keen to increase its revenue, while ignoring the plights of those who work on the mountain.

“We are facing more than a dozen problems but there has not been any initiative to address them,” Lama Kaji Sherpa told The Diplomat by telephone from Everest Base Camp.

Immediately after the avalanche, Sherpa guides and support staff suspended all expeditions for a week. The Nepal government was forced to finally respond to some of their demands.

Others are meanwhile calling for a memorial park to be created in Kathmandu in the name of the workers who lost their lives. They also demand that the government provide free education to the children of those killed, and employment opportunities for family members.

The provision of permanent pensions for Sherpa guides is another demand, and few are optimistic it will be met. The Nepal government has also promised to take of the children of the victims, but the Sherpa point out that similar commitments in the past remain unfulfilled.

The government has said that it is committed to mountaineering reforms and will engage in a dialogue with stakeholders. Since the avalanche, many Sherpa have indicated that they may leave guiding and return to farming. Many guides at base camp say they have already faced pressure from their families to quit, believing that the work is becoming increasingly risky. If the government fails to act, it could end up losing revenue from the lucrative mountaineering business.

Since the 1950s, Mount Everest has made a substantial contribution to tourism in Nepal. Data from the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation Authority shows that the number of mountaineers visiting Nepal had been growing steadily each year, with a corresponding rise in employment opportunities for local communities. The climbing industry benefits airline charter operators, tour agencies and local hotels and resorts. However, more climbers means more risk, and a greater need for better regulation.

Last year, a record 467 climbers successfully scaled Everest from the Nepal, or south side. (The mountain can also be tackled from China, via a less popular route.) In 2003, the number was just 159. This year, roughly 300 climbers from 41 countries have been given permits to climb the mountain. Among them are five septuagenarians, 13 sexagenarians and three teenagers.

Given the discontent among their Sherpa guides and porters, many of whom are leaving base camp, there are doubts that many of them will make it up the mountain.

Bhattarai is a Kathmandu-based journalist. He frequently writes in the international media on Mount Everest, Nepal’s peace process and constitution drafting process. 

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