- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
The Mount Everest avalanche that killed 13 mountain guides Friday may have an upside for the Sherpas who make their living guiding foreign trekkers up the world’s tallest peak: A better safety net. Following the tragedy, the Sherpas are threatening a total boycott — unless the government provides better insurance compensation and more emergency aid for guides.
Friday’s avalanche hit a group of 50 climbers — mostly Nepalese Sherpas — as they were preparing camps along one route, in advance of the climbing season. It’s the worst accident on Everest since 1996, when eight climbers disappeared into a storm. According to data compiled by Himalayan Database, a group that tracks mountaneering in the region, 87 Sherpas died on Everest between 1924 and 2013. Add the 13 fatalities from over the weekend and that number jumps to 100.
The graph below tracks those deaths up to 2013, when Sherpa fatalities spiked.
Of those, more than two thirds perished while preparing climbing routes for paying mountaineers.
The job is risky. Sherpas handle everything from repairing ropes and ladders ahead of paying climbers, to cooking meals and hauling heavy equipment during the ascent. While the job pays comparably well with other jobs in Nepal, the pay is paltry given the risks involved with each ascent. A Sherpa can take home up to $6,000 per climbing season, compared to Nepal’s per capita income of $700.
This spring, more than 300 foreign climbers are scheduled to ascend Everest, virtually all of them with the help of Sherpas. But their plans may be waylaid by the unrest surrounding this latest tragedy. Shortly after the avalanche, Nepal’s government offered the families of the deceased a paltry $415 of emergency aid to help cover funeral costs. And while the families can eventually expect another $10,300 in accident and compensation insurance, the Sherpas say it isn’t enough. They argue that they bear most of the risk for foreign expeditions and want a minimum of $20,800 for each death on the mountain.
They have a point. Nepal’s government makes upwards of $3 million a year just on royalties alone, according to CNN, while foreign climbers can spend a small fortune in a single attempt to reach Everest’s Summit. A mountaineering permit alone costs $25,000, while a permit for a team of two is $70,000. Add to those figures the cost of equipment, transport, guides, and other support, and the total cost of a single expedition can run up to $100,000 a person. And while Sherpas make considerably more than the average Nepalese worker, their earnings are a drop in the bucket for an expanding industry that depends utterly on their labor.