Last week’s avalanche at the Earth’s highest peak, the deadliest disaster in mountaineering history, revealed the pittance that Sherpas and their survivors are paid for undertaking a dangerous and often demeaning job, writes Kevin Hackett
Everest guides deserve respect
“Everest closed for business” has to rank as one of the headlines of the year, doesn’t it? The world’s biggest cash register has, for the moment at least, stopped ringing and the human rights of Sherpas – the people who do the really hard work during any attempt at Everest’s peak – are now firmly under the world’s spotlight. The Sherpas have had enough and, until their demands are met, they’re not going anywhere,
Their discontent is perfectly understandable. A week ago today, 16 of the mountain guides perished during an avalanche that crashed down on an area just above Everest’s base camp, which is situated at an altitude of some 5,800 metres above sea level. It is the worst disaster in modern mountaineering history. Sherpas know full well that theirs is an incredibly dangerous job and, during the three-month-long climbing season on the mountain, the more experienced ones earn up to the equivalent of Dh29,000. To put that into some perspective, the national minimum wage in Nepal works out at Dh3,960 (that’s per year), so the rewards are viewed as high.
The actual income received by Sherpas, when one considers the risks involved and the unimaginable hardships they go through, is still pitiful, but that’s not the issue causing them to down tools and commence what’s tantamount to industrial strike action. The bone of contention is the payout to surviving family members when a Sherpa is killed during an expedition (a million rupees sounds like a lot, but actually works out at Dh37,300), from the insurance policies their employers are required by law to have in place. The ultimate collective slap in the face for the Sherpas, however, was when the Nepalese government offered Dh1,500 to the families of those who perished last Friday, to cover their funeral costs.
Everest is a perpetual cash cow for Nepal’s government and the Sherpas are well aware of this. Consider, for a few seconds, the sums involved. This year alone, more than 700 individuals have signed up for expeditions to Everest’s summit and each one will have paid somewhere in the region of Dh370,000 for the privilege – 10 per cent of which goes to the authorities for permission fees. That means an income of Dh25,690,000. For them to offer a paltry Dh24,000 to cover all funeral costs for the families of those dead Sherpas was, perhaps, the final straw for them.
Tensions have been running high for some time now. A year ago, three western climbers had to abandon their attempt after a mob of 100-or-so Sherpas attacked them near Camp 2. One of the trio, a Brit named Jon Griffith, told The Guardian: “We were terrified, but we knew if we ran they would be after us. We got kicks and punches and Ueli [Steck, a Swiss] got a rock in the face. One of the Sherpas pulled a knife on Simone [Moro, an Italian], but he managed to turn and the knife hit his hip belt. There was a 50-minute period where we all thought we were going to get stoned to death.” The reason for this outpouring of anger? Words had been exchanged between Moro and a Sherpa higher up the mountain, with Moro using an unrepeatable insult in anger.
After returning to base camp, Griffith said he had been talking to commercial expedition leaders and Sherpa community leaders about what happened.
“There’s an underlying feeling among the Sherpas that they’ve been treated quite badly by westerners and that clients don’t have any respect for them. If you look around at how incredibly luxurious some base camps are, you can see their point,” he said. “This is 10 or 20 years of frustration spilling out. Mob rule shouldn’t happen anywhere, let alone Everest, but something needs to change.”
Not many people would argue with that sentiment, for Everest has become an extremely crowded place in recent years and, just maybe, the mountain could do with a few years’ rest. It’s littered with human bodies, human waste, empty water bottles, oxygen tanks, discarded climbing equipment and camping gear – so much so that this year the Nepalese authorities made it a condition that any climber venturing beyond base camp must bring back 8 kilograms of litter with them, excluding their own refuse.
It’s obvious that the more people who climb Everest, the more problems will arise. Language and cultural barriers can be difficult at the best of times, but when you’re many thousands of metres up a deadly mountain, they can become a recipe for disaster. For any Sherpa (the native pronunciation is shar-wa and literally translates as ‘people of the east’), who as a group face what is widely termed “grinding poverty”, spending time with wealthy and sometimes obnoxious westerners who treat them as little more than slaves must be horrific.
A generally peaceful, hardy and stoical people who have become, over the centuries, well adapted to living at altitude, they provide climbers with invaluable assistance when guiding them up Everest. And that assistance often translates as “doing absolutely everything for a tourist except breathing for them”. Many mountaineers climbing the world’s highest peak have nothing more in their rucksacks than a water supply, lunch and a camera, while the Sherpas drag everything else to the top. They transport ladders, tents, oxygen bottles, food and medical supplies, clothing, ropes and everything else needed for an expedition. They fix the ropes ahead of climbers, they guide them every step of the way, sometimes having to carry them on their own backs to the top and yes, they are in constant danger from the elements, as they’re always first on the scene.
While climbing Everest has become, in certain circles, nothing more than a bragging right or PR stunt (“First person with pink hair and wearing a tuxedo ever to climb Everest” is a headline that would surprise no one these days), for the Sherpas it’s the only way of putting food on their families’ tables. For three months a year, they make just enough to scrape by till the following climbing season, when they go through it all over again. Familiarity in this instance can breed contempt.
However, the huge fees paid by climbers don’t generate huge profits for anyone apart from Nepal’s authorities. After they’ve taken their 10 per cent, the costs just mount up. Each tent can cost up to Dh18,000 and some teams will supply five for each climber. Dh36,000 goes on each climber’s oxygen, masks and hypothermia chambers and that’s before you consider the financial outlay for satellite phones, radio equipment, clothing for all team members (including the Sherpas themselves), ropes, insurance, helicopter bonds, environmental levies and other fees – the list is practically endless and that’s not including the staffing costs incurred by the companies who arrange these trips, who spend six months preparing them.
Suffice it to say, there aren’t too many wealthy tour operators involved, but the Sherpas don’t get a dime if they don’t get to climb, and this also needs to be addressed as Everest becomes an even more popular tourist haunt.
Ralf Dujmovits, widely regarded as one of the world’s most experienced climbers, was horrified two years ago when he was making a solo descent after having to turn back in unexpectedly severe weather conditions. “I was at around 7,900 metres,” he said after getting home, “and saw in the distance on the Lhotse face a human snake, people cheek by jowl making their way up. There were 39 expeditions on the mountain at the same time, amounting to more than 600 people. I had never seen Everest that crowded before.
“I was thinking how absurd the scene was. Watching them, I had a strong feeling that not all of them would come back, and I wrote as much in my internet diary.
“That leaves you with a really oppressive feeling that some of the people in the picture would soon be dead. I was also filled with sadness [for] this mountain, for which I have immense respect together with the experienced Sherpas, that a great deal of that has been lost. People nowadays treat the mountain as if it was a piece of sporting apparatus, not a force of nature.”
His words proved prophetic – four people died on the mountain that weekend.
For the Sherpas, Everest is a holy place, not just a source of income, and both the mountain and they deserve huge levels of respect. And while Everest is no doubt breathing a sigh of relief now that the climbing has come to a stop, the Sherpas have some serious decisions to make.
The government, terrified that the money will stop flooding in, has dispatched officials to try to negotiate with the 400 Sherpas on strike and the feeling is that they will soon be back in business. Their demands for better compensation to families (they want it doubled) and a relief fund for injured parties are not unreasonable. But the prospect of having no money at all if they continue their protests is what will ultimately drive them to carry on carrying up the mountain.