Everest's Sherpas Are Right To Revolt

After sixteen of their number were killed on the mountain, Everest Sherpa’s are threatening to strike, unless they are paid more to risk their own lives taking care of rich, inexperienced climbers.

Desmond Boylan/Reuters

“What is economics? A science invented by the upper class in order to acquire the fruits of the labor of the underclass.” 
August Strindberg, 1884

Sherpas on Everest have said they will abandon this year's climbing season, in honor of sixteen of their colleagues who died on the mountain last Friday. Their announcement today came after Nepal agreed to set up a relief fund for Sherpas who are killed or injured in climbing accidents. Everest’s Sherpa guides and support staff had threatened to strike if a list of demands they presented were not met following the deaths of the sixteen Sherpas.

Last Friday, at 7 a.m., a huge block of ice fell off the West Shoulder of Everest, creating an enormous avalanche that covered a large area of the route through the Khumbu and hit 25 Nepalis working for guided climbing teams. The tragedy of 16 Sherpas killed was the biggest single loss of life in the history of climbing Everest. Many of the other Nepali Sherpas working on the mountain witnessed the avalanche as it covered their friends and fellow workers.

On Sunday night, 300 Sherpa guides and support staff held an emergency meeting at Everest base camp and worked out a list of 12 demands to be met by the Nepal government within a week. Among the demands were for the state to provide 10 million Nepalese rupees ($103,600) each to families of the deceased and critically injured, along with initiatives to increase the overall support infrastructure for local guides working in the Himalayas.

Following the Sherpas’ ultimatums, The Nepalese government considered calling off the 2014 climbing season on the world’s highest peak, in which case the $10,000 fee for all 334 permits would have to be reimbursed. “This is an unprecedented situation,” the Tourism Ministry spokesman Madhu Sudan Burlakoti told journalists. “We do not know what to do if they want their tax back. We will hold further discussions before deciding anything on this issue.” However, today guide Tulsi Gurung said from base camp: "We had a long meeting this afternoon and we decided to stop our climbing this year to honor our fallen brothers. All Sherpas are united in this."

As a consequence of Friday’s tragedy, the underlying resentment many Sherpas feel towards many western climbers, clients and the western owned companies that profit from those clients, erupted into the open. A blog post by Tim and Becky Rippel, who own and operate Canadian based guiding company Peak Freaks, said, “Sherpa guides are heating up, emotions are running wild and demands are being made to the government to share the wealth with the Sherpa people…Things are getting very complicated and there is a lot of tension here and it’s growing,” adding of the Sherpas: “They are our family, our brothers and sisters and the muscle on Everest. We follow their lead, we are guests here.”

It is an old story currently being re-told on the earth’s highest mountain through the prism of the exotic and esoteric business of guiding clients to the top of Everest who are incapable of climbing it on their own.

For climber, guide and client alike, Everest is always dangerous and difficult and clients are currently paying guide services between $50,000 to over $100,000 for the chance to try. Since 1953, when Nepal’s Tenzing Norgay and New Zealand’s Edmund Hillary became the first humans to reach Everest’s summit, more than 3500 people have managed to get there, some of them, usually guides, several times. The top of Everest was visited by 234 people in 2012 on the same day, most of them paid clients.

More than 260 people have died attempting to climb or descend from Everest, 90 of them Nepali Sherpas who do almost all the grunt, dirty, dangerous work that literally and figuratively paves the way for climber and client alike to reach the top.

But the crucial factor of this old story being re-told is in the number of clients paying up to $100,000 to be guided (on occasion, hauled) up he world’s highest mountain which is most easily accessed by one of the world’s poorest countries, Nepal. At this writing, 334 permits to climb Everest have been issued for this spring season. In addition to whatever each guiding service charges clients, the Nepal government charges $10,000 for every permit. Most of those are for clients, not independent climbers. One need not be an economist (though a calculator is handy) to appreciate that in a nation where the average yearly income of a worker is $700, climbing Everest is big business in Nepal. A Sherpa guide can earn as much as $6000 in a good season, so the allure of work on Everest is easily understood, despite its hardships and dangers.

Still, in this dynamic, the lower class Sherpa/natives are working a dangerous, demanding job to make a better life for their families for a pittance compared to what the upper class foreigner/tourist is paying for the present experience of and future cocktail bragging rights of having stood on the highest point on earth, a place they could never reach on their own. The Sherpas not only do the most difficult labor of fixing ropes, ladders and bridges through the Khumbu Icefall and the most dangerous section of the entire climb, but they have to go through it numerous times, while clients and guides usually go up but once and down but once. And the Sherpas are usually carrying the heaviest loads and thereby moving more slowly and spending more time on each trip in the danger zone carrying oxygen, food, equipment for the, in all too many cases, disdainful foreigner.

There is resentment and reward, pride and profession, and there is inequality.

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A year ago Ueli Steck, perhaps the best climber in the world, and his partners were violently attacked by an angry mob of Sherpas who were reacting to a perceived breach of etiquette on Steck’s part. In an hour Steck had climbed above and around the Sherpas who had spent some five hours fixing ropes for their clients.

Steck said the confrontation was serious enough that Steck feared for his life and the lives of his climbing mates, serious enough that perhaps the finest climber in the world left Everest, perhaps forever. Steck told Tim Neville of Outside Magazine, America’s leading outdoor lifestyle and adventure travel magazine, “People speak of an unwritten rule that you have to wait for the Sherpas who are up there, but if you don’t use their ropes, what’s the point? If there’s good weather?”

Elizabeth Hawley, the well known chronicler of Everest told Steck later, “…guys, you shamed that lead Sherpa, and in Asian culture this is the worst thing that can happen.” Steck told Neville, “This is not over. It will be a big problem for commercial expeditions in the future, and maybe next time someone will get killed… Climbing Everest is so big now, with so much money involved, and the Sherpas are not stupid. They see this, and they want to take over the business and kick out the westerners. This is a big fight… I’m pretty sure next time people will get killed if they don’t change the system.”

It is likely that by threatening to strike the Sherpas will get some concessions from the government and the guide services. They will not get everything they demand, but they will go back to work and the climbing and the underlying, unequal social/economic dynamics will continue. Changing the system that creates these dynamics is a much bigger issue than the climbing business of Mount Everest.