Why the deadliest day on the world’s tallest mountain won't change the lives of Nepal's sherpas.
In January, when actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin arrived in Nepal, it seemed like they might provide the big headline for this year's Everest climbing season. They were in the country to shoot a blockbuster due out in 2015, based on Jon Krakauer's best-selling book Into Thin Air. The book is a firsthand account of the mountain's deadliest year: 1996, when eight climbers died in a freak storm, along with seven others from falls and other events.
In January, when actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin arrived in Nepal, it seemed like they might provide the big headline for this year’s Everest climbing season. They were in the country to shoot a blockbuster due out in 2015, based on Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book Into Thin Air. The book is a firsthand account of the mountain’s deadliest year: 1996, when eight climbers died in a freak storm, along with seven others from falls and other events.
Then last week, on the morning of April 18, as some of this year’s first climbers lumbered through the dicey terrain between 18,000 and 21,000 feet, an avalanche throttled down the mountain and killed 16 men. All of them were sherpas, the local staff who take climbers up the mountain. Their name is derived from the ethnic group Sherpa, which lives in the valleys ringing the mountain’s southern slope; some but not all Everest workers come from this group.
In a matter of minutes, Everest, an annual staging ground for record breaking, had broken its own record for the deadliest climbing season in the peak’s history.
Deaths on Everest, the world’s highest peak, are not uncommon, even among the most skilled and experienced climbers. People slip and fall into crevasses, avalanches happen without warning. But this is not the whole story.
As support staff on expeditions, sherpas go up the mountain earlier and more often than their clients, passing through treacherous terrain such as the Khumbu Icefall (where the recent avalanche occurred) with camping gear, food, and oxygen bottles on their backs. In other words, if it’s a game of glacier roulette, sherpas hold the gun to their heads many more times than their clients. Charts produced by Outside Magazine in 2013 showed that working as a sherpa on Everest was far more deadly than serving as an American soldier in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. Yet many sherpas’ names are not known, their lives — and deaths — quickly buried beneath the lore of Everest: stories of foreigners who climb the fastest, with the least oxygen, or for some far-away charity or noble cause.
Promises to improve the sherpas’ situation — to compensate them better, to ensure that they are better protected during climbs, to develop their communities — have long been hollow. In the wake of the recent disaster, sherpas have threatened to strike: that is, not take people up the mountain. The government has hastily pledged to increase financial support to working sherpas and to compensate the families of the deceased, but doubts remain that there is the will for this to actually happen. Indeed, after the initial outcry dies down, business as usual is likely to continue on the world’s tallest peak.
In an interview on Tuesday, Madhusudan Burlakoti, chief of Nepal’s Tourism Industry Division of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, insisted, "The expeditions will continue up the mountain. There is no reason to think it’s unsafe now because of this natural disaster that happened. These things happen in cycles, and we will address them as they come."
Pressed on whether the government thought Everest was overcrowded with commercial climbers, as a famous 2012 photo exposed, and whether that put staff unnecessarily at risk, Burlakoti explained, "If it’s overcrowded, we will rig another rope and have two lines so everyone can go up."
He clarified: "The sherpa workers can rig another line of ropes."
Everest is also no stranger to controversy, especially when it comes to disputes between Nepali staff and foreign clients. As anthropologist Sherry Ortner of the University of California, Los Angeles writes in her iconic ethnography, Life and Death on Everest, "[M]ost of the major expeditions of the fifties and sixties had serious strikes" by workers. Perhaps most famously, three top European climbers exchanged blows in 2013 with a group of sherpas after the trio overtook the Nepali rope-rigging crew, allegedly kicked down some ice upon them, and then shouted local slurs.
In the days since this most recent tragedy, the sinewy politics of rich clients climbing a risky mountain in a poor country have festered, as a community mourns and wonders what’s next. Some sherpas left the mountain swiftly to conduct funeral rites for their fallen friends, while others stayed at base camp to negotiate the season’s next move. Following a meeting of 500 expedition workers at base camp, more than a dozen groups packed up, declared this season a "black year," and vowed to not continue their climbs out of respect for the deceased.
Some Western climbers took a different view. Joby Ogwyn, a Hollywood stuntman who was slated to jump from the summit in a wingsuit live on the Discovery Channel, tweeted soon after the avalanche: "Today is a brighter day. We are staying on the mountain to honor our friends and complete our project." David Roberts, a climber and writer, told the New York Times over the weekend, "[R]ight now at base camp they are saying, ‘This is a tragedy, but we have paid all this money to get here.’ … There is even this macho sense of getting back on their horse."
But then protest marches were held in Kathmandu and sherpa leaders handed a list of 13 demands to the government: increase compensation from the roughly $400 offered to families of the avalanche victims, bolster insurance plans, and filter some of the massive profits the government makes from Everest permits back to the communities from which laborers come — an ask they have been making for years.
By early this week, even Ogwyn had packed up his wingsuit and left the mountain.
On Tuesday, the government announced that an agreement had been struck with sherpa representatives and industry conglomerate Nepal Mountaineering Association so that expeditions could proceed. Burlakoti explained, "We have met all of the sherpas’ demands as they wished," and headlines in Kathmandu lauded the resolution. But despite these orders from the capital, and reports that Western clients are going tent-to-tent at base camp to find support for continuing their summit attempts, some sherpas insist they will not oblige. The climbing season, for now, has sunk into a tense calm that Outside Magazine has described as "in limbo."
Whether expeditions start up soon or not, the governmen
t’s promises to increase support to sherpas and their families come across as little more than big words in a country where, even with a budgetary surplus in recent years, roads sit in disrepair, electricity is scarce, and a quarter of the population lives on less than $2 per day. Repeated calls on the government to demand protections for the millions of Nepali citizens working in slave-like conditions abroad — in the Middle East, for instance — who send back one quarter of the country’s GDP in remittances have provoked only tepid responses, such as an age limit for migrant women. What’s more, in a signal of just how little attention or respect is given to Everest workers and the ethnic group from which their name comes, last year the government celebrated Sherpa New Year on the wrong day.
Indeed, some see the attitude that these men are little more than disposable labor as one that runs even deeper than the climbing industry. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, a lecturer in anthropology at Penn State University, says they have been excluded from decision-making in a variety of areas. "At a workshop in Kathmandu a few years ago, I listened to plans to help make Khumbu" — the region where most ethnic Sherpas live — "more resilient to climate change," she said. "I raised my hand and asked how the development agency planned to include Sherpas in the process of understanding the issues and deciding the solutions. They said, ‘We will hire Sherpas to carry irrigation pipes up into the mountains.’"
Professor Sherpa is not confident that the latest demands for better standards for sherpa workers and communities will stick — especially given how much income Everest expeditions rake in. "There’s too much money lined up in it," she said. "The clients feel like they can get away with anything, demanding to have a right to ascend because they paid for it. And the government has its eyes on the money, not the men who make the industry possible."
In Into Thin Air, Krakauer wrote, "Everest has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics, and others with a shaky hold on reality." Last year’s commercial client records included the first Saudi woman (while the country debated whether women should be allowed to drive), the first person with no hands, and the first openly gay person — rainbow flag in hand — to reach the summit. This year’s hopefuls include the first Kenyan, the first blind European, and the first black African woman.
These are the people bringing in the money and making triumphant headlines. Eventually, movie stars just might commemorate their conquests.
It remains to be seen what will happen in the wake of the avalanche tragedy. Krakauer has predicted, "It will come as no great surprise if most of the sherpas now grieving intensely for their absent companions resume their dangerous work." In the meantime, however, there aren’t casting agents rushing out to find actors to play Mingma Nuru Sherpa, Dorji Sherpa, Ang Tshiri Sherpa, Nima Sherpa, Phurba Ongyal Sherpa, Lakpa Tenjing Sherpa, Chhiring Ongchu Sherpa, Dorjee Khatri, Then Dorjee Sherpa, Phur Temba Sherpa, Pasang Karma Sherpa, Asman Tamang, Tenzing Chottar Sherpa, Ankaji Sherpa, Pem Tenji Sherpa, and Ash Bahadur Gurung.
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