The recent news of the 16 Nepali sherpa guides who died in an avalanche on Everest has left me with a mix of emotions. I grieve for the men and their families and the Nepalese community as a whole, and I am incensed at the callous reactions of some climbers and some expedition leaders, as well as some western media outlets reporting of the incident. I am outraged by the blatant exploitation, and I also wonder what effect this will have on the future economy of the region.
I knew very little about the sherpas until I added Everest Base Camp to my bucket list of world hikes. It wasn’t until I began to research that I learned what these men do season after season. Forging ahead weeks prior in order to secure the roping and set up camp. Multiple trips up and down, first rigging and then delivering supplies. All this even before attempting to reach the summit. It is not just the summit that is dangerous. Every day these men set out they are risking their lives on behalf of their clients. Risking their lives in hope of a better future since the wage of a sherpa far exceeds anything else available.
So to decide not to proceed this year in the wake of the tragedy could not have been easy and it must thrust their immediate future into sheer uncertainty. How must it feel to lose several friends or family members and then walk away from your entire annual wage?
Yet there are many that still only see these men as a commodity. In a capitalistic effort to maximize profit, expedition operators effectively squeeze out the sherpa. While clients will pay anywhere between $50k – $100k to climb, a Nepali sherpa will only make a fraction of that at around $5k while others still only receive $1k. Yet a western guide may receive around $10k – $35k. One might justify that their wage is excellent by Nepali standards and therefore “fair”, but the blatant inequality is simply not right by ethical standards.
Nor are these men given any credit for their expertise. The Nepali sherpas are the true world leaders in mountain climbing. They don’t rely on the ropes. They set the ropes. They don’t rely on someone to make camp and cook supper for them. They do it for everyone. They don’t rely on someone else to motivate them to the top. They push themselves AND their clients. And they do it every year. So they don’t just summit once. They summit multiple times and are the ones to hold the true world records. Yet they receive little to no world recognition for it.
“My passion created an industry that fosters people dying. It supports humans as disposable, as usable, and that is the hardest thing to come to terms with.” ~ Melissa Arnot, American Mountaineer
Instead, all we hear about are the goals and dreams and achievements of the westerners. The sherpas are referred to as merely ‘support crew’, but the reality is that westerners could never make it without them, which was proven this year.
So it incenses me when I read accounts like this one in The New York Times that paints the sherpas as natives turning savage. It incenses me that the focus would be on the monetary loss and unrealized dream of the western climber, one who considers himself to be “… worse off than most…” because he chose to quit his job and sell his apartment. Even if he made it to the top of Everest he still would not have a job nor a home to return to. But a job and an apartment can be easily regained. The lives and livelihoods the sherpas provide cannot. When I read accounts like these I can’t help but feel we as a society have gained no more consideration than George Mallory when he callously informed the group after a 1922 avalanche that killed 7 sherpas that “All whites are safe”.
To Live vs To Conquer
The motivations for a Nepali sherpa and western mountaineer are vastly different. The Nepali sherpa has no desire to put himself at risk and reach the summit. He has simply chosen the best paying job available in order to provide a suitable standard of living for his family and to provide education and a better future for his children. The sherpas do not seek social standing and indeed do not glamorize their profession. A ‘better future’ means not having to climb.
Nevertheless, the sherpas will do everything in their power to help their clients succeed. But why do westerners feel this need to risk death and dismemberment to summit?
I think what so many climbers truly want to conquer is not the mountain but themselves. To overcome perceived weaknesses and come out on top is what drives them most, and I believe those with a greater need to prove themselves will be willing to take greater risks. They will always be seeking more, to be more, and relish the external validation and recognition.
But the locals do not share this need or desire to climb.They are able to find a sense of inner peace elsewhere. They do not have to be on the edge of existence to feel alive. They are satisfied reveling in the beauty and majesty of the mountain from its base. They recognize this is not a place we belong. They respect, and embody the power the mountain contains from afar. So I can only imagine how senseless it must seem that others need to conquer the unconquerable.
The Future of Everest
The recent tragedy has finally caused great enough unrest among the sherpas that things are bound to change. Hopefully they will be able to command an equitable wage and life insurance contract, but these additional costs will undoubtedly get passed along to the climbers. This increase in cost will, in all likelihood, reduce the number of climbers each year. Since the government currently gets paid a fee per climber, this will also likely decrease earnings and subsequent support in the region.
I am not an economist and do not want to analyze and speculate. But there is no doubt that the days of Everest are changing. I just hope those changes include a greater appreciation and respect for those that risk the most.