The tragic death of 16 Sherpas on the Nepal side of Mount Everest last Friday is having immediate repercussions on the business of climbing the world's highest peak. Today, Nepali officials responded to a petition presented by a representative body of the Sherpa climbing community to the Ministry of Tourism, the government agency that oversees climbing and trekking in the Everest region.
The petition lists 13 demands that the Sherpa say must be met if they are to continue facilitating the climbing season. If their demands are not met by April 28, they say, Sherpas on the mountain would declare a general strike, rendering any summit attempts by the expeditions assembled at Everest Base Camp impossible.
The government said today that it would agreed to several of the demands, including raising the value of medical and life insurance policies for each Sherpa working on mountain. It also agreed to pay for education of the children of the deceased and to build a memorial to honor them. But it did not agree to other demands, notably the request for guaranteed pay for all Sherpas even if the climbing season is ultimately canceled.
Meanwhile, at Base Camp, clients, guides, and Sherpas are still in mourning after the deaths that occurred on April 18 when an avalanche swept over several dozen Sherpas fixing ropes through the notoriously treacherous Khumbu Icefall. No Western climbers were injured.
Two well-known Everest guiding operations, Adventure Consultants, which lost three Sherpa team members, and Alpine Ascents International, which lost five Sherpa team members, have pulled the plug on their expeditions and will be going home. More teams are expected to follow suit. If the larger teams, such as Himalayan Experience or International Mountain Guides, abandon their attempts, this could de facto end the season.
Sherpas drawn from many of the teams coordinate their efforts to string the ropes that expedition clients use to climb the mountain. It is the larger Everest outfitters that provide the majority of rope-fixing Sherpas and the Sherpas with the most experience. If these large teams decide to leave, there might not be enough Sherpas available for any teams to try for the summit. Reports indicate that all teams will abide by the wishes and needs of the Sherpas, whatever the outcome.
The Sherpas' petition was signed by 25 people, most of whom were top Sherpas, but the signatories also included Western guides, including Russell Brice, owner and operator of Himalayan Experience, the largest guiding service on Mount Everest, and Dave Hahn, lead guide for Rainier Mountaineering, who holds the non-Sherpa record for the most Everest summits (15). (Related: "Climbing Finished on Everest After Deadly Avalanche?")
Speaking by phone from Everest Base Camp yesterday, Hahn said that the Sherpas, who are essential for guided climbing on Everest, are only trying to leverage what they deserve. "This has been a horrific accident for the Sherpa community," he said.
Nepal's Ministry of Tourism has issued permits to 334 climbers to attempt 29,035-foot (8,850-meter) Mount Everest or its neighbors, 27,940 (8,516-meter) Lhotse or 25,790-foot (7,861-meter) Nuptse, this spring. For Everest, every climber has already paid a $10,000 peak fee to Nepal's Ministry of Tourism. Almost all of this money disappears either into the opacity of the Nepali bureaucracy or into the pockets of government bureaucrats.
Conrad Anker, 51, a three-time Everest summiteer and leader of the 2012 National Geographic/the North Face Everest expedition, described Nepal's Ministry of Tourism as a "bloated, dysfunctional bureaucracy."
"I'd bet less than one percent of the three million dollars in permit fees collected each year goes back to the mountain," he said.
This manifesto explicitly states that the government set aside 30 percent of peak fees—which would amount to roughly one million dollars a year—to a mountaineering relief fund. Guides, outfitters, and Sherpas have been asking for the creation of this fund for many years, but the ministry has previously ignored the request.
In 2006, Nepal, a country of 26 million people, one-quarter of whom live in poverty, ended a ten-year civil war between Maoist insurgents and forces loyal to the country's monarch. As part of the peace agreement, the monarchy was abolished and a coalition government was created. The past eight years, however, have been deeply troubled, with belligerent political parties failing even to write a new constitution. Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times, once described Nepal as "not having a government" and the political parties as corrupt and feckless.
In February, Nepal elected a new prime minister, Sushil Koirala, who has vowed to fight corruption and poverty, but he will have to overcome intense geopolitical division in the newly elected 601-member Constituent Assembly, the Nepali parliament.
Last year the death compensation for Sherpas killed working on the mountain was raised from 400,000 rupees ($4,000) to one million rupees ($10,000). The sixth point in the Sherpa manifesto asks that this be raised to two million rupees. This increase relates directly to the cost of traditional funerals—pujas—which are often very expensive in Nepal, where by custom, the size and lavishness of the puja indicates social status. The Nepali government requires all outfitters to purchase this insurance for their Sherpas and pay the premiums.
Presently there is little financial support for Sherpas who are injured on the mountain, and outfitters often help pay for their hospital bills; the government would pay these costs if the terms of the agreement are accepted. Outfitters also often pay for emergency helicopter flights for injured or deceased Sherpas, and additional rescue services are requested in the demands. Permanently disabled climbers aren't provided for currently.
Every expedition pays the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, essentially the city council of Everest Base Camp, for two direct services: first, to have human waste collected in barrels and removed via yak from Base Camp; and second, to compensate the "ice doctors," a highly trained group of Sherpas, who each season identify and fix the route through the icefall, which involves putting in ropes and ladders for climbers to traverse it. If the ice doctors deem the Khumbu simply too dangerous this year to establish a route, the manifesto requests that they not be punished.
Finally, if this spring climbing season on Everest is in fact canceled, Sherpas want to be paid regardless.
Taking Greater Risks
It is indisputable that Sherpas bear the brunt of the hard work on Everest—carrying the loads of fuel, food, ropes, oxygen tanks, and tents—for climber clients. They also take the greatest risks, moving through the dangerous Khumbu Icefall 30 to 40 times in a given season. Therefore, the reasoning goes, they should be paid well for this very difficult, risky task. The per capita income in Nepal is less than $800 a year, and a Sherpa will make on average $5,000 for two to three months of work.
But Western guides, who lead and manage the expeditions, can make $50,000 to $100,000 guiding on Everest, so, at least on the surface, Sherpas seem to be severely underpaid. But this comparison fails to take into account the cost of living. Sherpas make five times the average income in Nepal, which is about what mountain guides make in their profession at home.
"I actually think there's some parity," said Guy Cotter, owner of Adventure Consultants, a global guiding service that leads expeditions to Everest. His operation depends on Sherpas, and it employed three of the Sherpas killed in the latest tragedy. "If you look at what a Sherpa can buy with his money in his village—a house, for example—compared to what a mountain guide in New Zealand or Switzerland can buy with his income, things kind of balance out," he said.
Many will argue, correctly, that Sherpas are taking far greater risks than guides on Everest. But Cotter and others point out that risk cannot be so easily parsed. The nature of mountains is unpredictable. The 13 Sherpas died in the Khumbu, but a large number have been killed or injured on other parts of the mountain. And in past years, guides and clients have also died.
Unlike in the old days, when white "sahib" climbers basically told Sherpas what to do, Sherpas today make the majority of the decisions on the mountain, said Cotter. "They decide where the route will go. They decide where the ropes and ladders will go. They decide when they're going to carry and when they're going to rest."
As long as there is guiding on Everest, Sherpas will be doing the heavy lifting and taking the greatest risks. They know this and accept this reality. They do not want to stop working on Everest. As the recent manifesto states, they simply want to be fairly compensated for their very risky labor.
The government has not yet responded to this list of requests, and it will likely take some time for the process to play out. In the meantime, the thousand or so people remaining at Everest Base Camp are in limbo, looking into their hearts and trying to decide whether climbing Everest is worth the risk for themselves and for their Sherpa team members.