Labor unrest on Everest is older than you might think

The thin air and vertiginous slopes that exist at 20,000-plus feet above sea level on Mount Everest may not make for the ideal battleground — but they certainly make for a captivating one. So on April 27, when a fight erupted between three mountaineers and a group of Sherpa guides who had been tasked with ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

The thin air and vertiginous slopes that exist at 20,000-plus feet above sea level on Mount Everest may not make for the ideal battleground -- but they certainly make for a captivating one. So on April 27, when a fight erupted between three mountaineers and a group of Sherpa guides who had been tasked with fixing ropes along the mountain's steep and exposed Lhotse Face, news outlets around the world were quick to report the tale of the "highest brawl in history," as the Nepali Times put it.

While the two sides have since settled their differences, it's worth noting -- particularly on International Workers' Day (an official holiday in Nepal) -- that tension between Sherpas and climbers has existed for decades in the Himalayas, interspersed with many inspiring instances of cooperation.

In their book Fallen Giants: The History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes, Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver delve into the colonial roots of mountaineering in Asia. The book provides accounts of Sherpa dissidence as early as 1930, when, during Paul Bauer's attempt to climb Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain, Sherpas went on strike for feeling "ill used and underpaid." Hidden in the footnotes is another telling account of the British Himalayan Committee meeting in London in 1953 to find a way to "control the increasingly exorbitant terms which Sherpas were demanding in return for their services with Himalayan Expeditions."

The thin air and vertiginous slopes that exist at 20,000-plus feet above sea level on Mount Everest may not make for the ideal battleground — but they certainly make for a captivating one. So on April 27, when a fight erupted between three mountaineers and a group of Sherpa guides who had been tasked with fixing ropes along the mountain’s steep and exposed Lhotse Face, news outlets around the world were quick to report the tale of the "highest brawl in history," as the Nepali Times put it.

While the two sides have since settled their differences, it’s worth noting — particularly on International Workers’ Day (an official holiday in Nepal) — that tension between Sherpas and climbers has existed for decades in the Himalayas, interspersed with many inspiring instances of cooperation.

In their book Fallen Giants: The History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes, Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver delve into the colonial roots of mountaineering in Asia. The book provides accounts of Sherpa dissidence as early as 1930, when, during Paul Bauer’s attempt to climb Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain, Sherpas went on strike for feeling "ill used and underpaid." Hidden in the footnotes is another telling account of the British Himalayan Committee meeting in London in 1953 to find a way to "control the increasingly exorbitant terms which Sherpas were demanding in return for their services with Himalayan Expeditions."

Anthropologist Sherry Ortner — who did years of fieldwork with Mount Everest’s Sherpas — notes a pattern to these strikes. Surveying the history of Sherpa dissidence in her book Life and Death on Mount Everest, she observes that "there were many reasons to go on strike or otherwise refuse to cooperate on expeditions, but one pattern in particular stood out: resistance emerged when the Sherpas felt that they were being treated as inferiors." For this reason, "most of the major expeditions of the fifties and sixties had serious strikes."

As the Guardian reports, Jon Griffith, one of the climbers involved in the altercation over the weekend, identified "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." Yesterday, he echoed this sentiment in an interview with NPR, telling host Audie Cornish, "it’s basically a bit of a breakdown of not of trust but of respect that the sherpas feel has happened in the last decade towards them." In fact, it’s a sentiment that stretches back much further than a decade.

Marya Hannun is a Ph.D. student in Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. Follow her on Twitter at: @mrhannun.

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