The Sherpa Perspective—A “Black Year” on Everest

Read ongoing Everest coverage from National Geographic

As we grapple with the tragic loss of 16 Sherpas in an avalanche in the infamous Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest on April 18, we look to the Sherpa community help us better understand what they are experiencing. Karsang Sherpa now lives in Denver and works for a private equity fund. As a child, he witnessed the loss of two uncles and several of his father’s friends and relatives on Everest and other peaks in the Himalaya.

Here Karsang explains the Buddhist belief that this is a “Black Year” on Everest. “With this tragedy, it is normal for Sherpas to believe that this is the year when Miyolangsangma, the goddess of Chomolangma–what the world calls Everest–does not want to be disturbed,” Karsang says. Fair compensation and insurance are top-priority issues. He also illuminates what the international community needs to understand about what the Sherpa community is facing right now.

Adventure:  What is your experience with Everest? 

Karsang Sherpa: I grew up in Khumjung Village, and started my education at the Khumjung School, which was built by Sir Edmund Hillary. I had three uncles, one of whom died on Everest. The second one died on Dhaulagiri. My father was the sirdar [leader] for the ill-fated Japanese expedition on Everest in 1970 when six of his closest friends and relatives died.

A: How have times changed since your uncles and father were guides?

KS: Professionally, the biggest change has been the insurance proceeds for the widows and family members left behind. When my uncle died, my aunt was able to collect about $1,000 and that was after spending about $50 on funeral rituals. She still had more than enough to build a small tea shop on the route to Mount Everest, and take care of her family. Today, the insurance proceeds are about $11,000, but it costs more than $5,000 to follow through on the funeral rituals. The elements of the rituals themselves haven’t changed much–it’s the insurance that hasn’t kept pace with the inflation.

Second, the Sherpa guides themselves have changed quite a bit. While my uncle was a typical guide with a third grade education, and without any exposure to the world. More of today’s Sherpa climbing guides usually have at least basic education,and are technically—and technologically—quite savvy. One of the deceased, Ang Kazi Sherpa, could easily communicate with his Western colleagues and was technically skilled to teach other students as an instructor at the climbing school in Khumbu.

A: You have had opportunities—you live in Denver and work for a private equity fund. How did you get these opportunities?

KS: When six of my father’s best friends and cousins died while he was the sirdar on Everest in 1970, he decided mountaineering was not for him—he also decided it should not be for his children either. Therefore, he stressed education all along, and I was fortunate to start my education at the Hillary School in Khumjung from where I was able to win a scholarship to study at a boarding school in Kathmandu. I subsequently won another scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in England, and then at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania.

A: Can you explain this idea of the “Black Year” on Everest?

KS: Sherpas are Buddhists and we believe in good years and bad years, or even good days of the week and bad days of the week, depending on when someone is born. Similarly, Sherpas also believe that certain years are good or bad for entire villages, or for certain mountain deities. There are these deities that reside in the mountains, and the Sherpas hesitate from polluting the mountains or engaging in any behavior that might upset these deities. This is the main reason why Sherpas have the elaborate puja ceremony at the Everest Base Camp every year before they step on the mountain. With this tragedy, it is normal for Sherpas to believe that this is the year when Miyolangsangma, the goddess of Chomolangma–what the world calls Everest–does not want to be disturbed.

A: What does the international community need to understand about what is happening within the Sherpa community right now?

KS: While we are mourning through this unprecedented level of tragedy in our community, and a few of us are questioning the wisdom of continuing to work as climbing guides, we are not asking for a stop in the mountaineering or trekking business. After all, majority of the Sherpas depend on it. We are simply asking that this is a “Black Year” for Everest, and when we go back to Everest next year, we simply want to make sure that we have adequate insurance coverage and hopefully, slightly safer working conditions.

A: What does the international community generally misunderstand about what is happening within the Sherpa community right now?

KS: While the international community has been sympathetic and supportive to the tragedy on April 18, there is little understanding that the suffering for the remaining family members will continue for a long time. Most of these guides were the only breadwinners for the family, and each one supported not only his wife and children but very often his parents, and extended family members. These families are now immediately thrown from a comfortable middle class into destitution. Currently, there are no sufficient support systems in place for the grieving family. With the $400 for the grieving families from the government and the meager insurance payout of $11,000, these families will continue to struggle financially for a long time.

The Sherpa community will now have more young widows and many children who will grow up without fathers. My own cousins grew up calling my dad “Uncle Papa” since their own father had perished on a mountain. After almost a century of losing people and broken families, who are thrown into destitution overnight, we believe that this is the time for a change. This cycle needs to end.

The Sherpas feel that the international community is aware of the role of the Sherpa guides on mountains, and the extraordinary risks that we assume. However, we feel that our roles are not acknowledged enough, especially financially.

A: What are the pros and cons of calling off the climbing season?

KS: The biggest pro is that every Sherpa family who has their family members on Everest and are worried to the core will be relieved. Most Sherpas sincerely believe that this is a “Black Year” for Everest and if people continue, there will be more deaths. Even without that psychological and the religious factor, the reality of having loved ones climbing on an area that was so recently unstable is terrifying in itself. So, it only makes sense that the families would want to see their sons and husbands back home safely. As for the climbing guides, the thought of walking over the glaciers with their friends still buried underneath (three guides are still missing) is very unsettling. The fact that many think the Sherpas should continue their work on Everest is simply put, disrespectful.

Another pro, will be that the parties with interest in the business of climbing Everest will have more time for discussions and will be able to find solutions to this long-lived problem.

The cons are largely for the Western clients who must have spent couple of years training and already spent large sums of money for this attempt. But, Everest is always going to be there, and they can always come back later. The other con is for the climbing guides, whose earning potential this season will drop but that would be a small sacrifice, if they believe by continuing they are putting their lives and in turn their families’ future in danger. But, we hope that the financial support that is pouring in from all around the world will be put to good use and benefit the grieving families and also those who will lose their earning this year.

A: Is the Sherpa community united in their opinion on if the season should end?

KS: I am currently based in the United States, but communicating with my Sherpas friends and families via phone, emails, and through discussions on social media sites, I have not found any Sherpa who is not sad and who is not supportive of this decision.

A: Could the clients and teams manage their way up the mountain without Sherpa support?

KS: I am not sure how that would be possible. Even the celebrity Western climbers such as Ueli Steck, who tried to claim that he could climb Everest without Sherpa help, last year, still used the ladders and ropes the Sherpas laid down and had fixed between the Everest Base Camp and Camp II, through the Khumbu Icefall, the most dangerous part of climbing Everest. However fit or strong the western climbers are, we haven’t seen anyone carrying their own gears inside the death zone. Most of these climbers don’t carry more than fifteen pounds while Sherpas carry about 80 pounds. I just don’t know if these climbers could haul all the gear, food and clothing items themselves, while also fixing the route ahead.

A: Would the local village communities suffer from vanished tourism?

KS: The communities as a whole largely benefit from the 35,000 “trekking” tourists that come to the region each year. There are only a few hundred people, who attempt Everest and the other high peaks. The majority of the income from mountaineering goes to the government in the form of permits and fees, the rest goes to the travel agents, who profit the most, and comparatively only a small portion of the money that could be made goes to the local communities. So, mountaineering alone if reduced in volume would have less impact on the village communities but for the individual climbing guides.this would mean a significant loss of income.

A: Would the current Sherpa and Nepali guides be out of luck for their pay this year?

KS: Hopefully, the current negotiations between the representatives of the guides, the government and the travel companies will result in something fruitful for the climbing guides. But we also hope that the large sums of money being collected around the world would also benefit those guides who lost their pay.

A: Do the Sherpa/Nepali guides climb for the income only? Do they enjoy climbing? Probably some do and some don’t?

KS: I think that most of them get into the job purely for the income. However, there is a saying among the Sherpas that once you start mountaineering, it’s very difficult to quit. This seems to be the case with even successful Sherpa climbers who don’t necessarily have to climb for income. Kazi Sherpa, one of the casualties, was financially successful enough that he didn’t have to go to Everest this year, and had even promised his daughter this was going to be his last trip up to the mountain.

A: How likely is the Nepal government to move quickly to improve the compensation and insurance for Nepali guides?

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KS: The trekking company owners have much bigger influence on the Nepali government than the climbing guides, so my guess is that the Nepali government will act quickly, but will propose only a small increase on the insurance coverage. It might also be important to highlight that the government, as the media are reporting, continue to deny there is even a problem.

A: How should the international climbing community support the Nepali guides?

KS: The international climbing community should always ask the international outfitters what the exact insurance coverage is for Nepal guides, for injuries or deaths. They should also allow the Nepali guides to have more decision-making power up on the mountain if they are the ones taking most of the risks. It is not unusual for a Sherpa guide to be pressured to go into the mountains even when conditions are not favorable. The international climbing community should be aware of the huge disconnect between what the clients pay vs what the Sherpas get paid. They obviously recognize the role of the climbing Sherpas, and maybe they should also appreciate the Sherpas more.

A: How can people help the victims of the recent tragedy?

KS: These organizations have a good track record of helping Sherpa people, and they have already set up specific funds to help the families of the climbing guides who recently perished on Everest:

American Himalayan Foundation (United States) (select “Sherpa Family Fund”)

Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation

American Alpine Club Sherpa Fund

Himalayan Trust (New Zealand)

The Juniper Fund

Read ongoing Everest coverage from National Geographic

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