Death on the Peak

Rightly termed as the sin­gle dead­li­est dis­as­ter on the Ever­est, the death of 16 Sher­pas has left their com­mu­nity an­gry and re­sent­ful.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sam­ina Wahid

On April 18, six­teen Sher­pas suc­cumbed to death, killed by an avalanche near the base camp at the per­ilous Khumbu Ice­fall. The de­ceased mostly in­cluded guides and work­ers, par­tic­u­larly eth­nic Sher­pas. The men in ques­tion were haul­ing gear up the moun­tain for their for­eign clients at the crack of dawn when dis­as­ter struck. Rightly termed as the sin­gle dead­li­est dis­as­ter on the world’s high­est moun­tain, the tragedy has left the Sher­pas an­gry and re­sent­ful. In the days fol­low­ing the tragedy, the Sher­pas an­nounced that they had de­cided to can­cel this year’s moun­tain climb­ing sea­son. Hot on the heels of this can­cel­la­tion fol­lowed the in­evitable la­bor dis­pute that had been sim­mer­ing in the re­gion for a while.

Sher­pas com­prise less than one per­cent of Nepal’s pop­u­la­tion of 26.5 mil­lion. Many of them can be found in the moun­tain­ous re­gions of the coun­try and have builts that are nat­u­rally suited for the pro­fes­sion. Their strengths lie in their nim­ble­ness at high al­ti­tudes where the thin air slows down even the most hard­ened moun­taineers; many sher­pas don’t even need ar­ti­fi­cial oxy­gen to reach the peak.

An eth­nic group that is also known as a com­mu­nity of guides and porters, the Sher­pas make a sub­stan­tial amount of money. Re­ports show that ev­ery climb­ing sea­son, the Sher­pas makes thou­sands of dol­lars, a lot more than what they would make from farm­ing. Even so, the re­ward isn’t as great as the risks posed. Con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mates sug­gest that a Sherpa is 12 times more likely to die than a sol­dier in Iraq, with avalanches be­ing the num­ber one cause of their death.

In the wake of the re­cent dis­as­ter, Sher­pas are adamant

about re­ceiv­ing fair com­pen­sa­tion from the govern­ment. They have al­ready re­fused the ini­tial fu­neral award that the govern­ment gave to the fam­i­lies of the de­ceased – a mere $400. They have also de­manded that the life in­sur­ance money that the fam­i­lies will re­ceive should be dou­bled to $21,000, which is still a frac­tion of the cost a for­eign climber would pay for his en­tire trip.

On the other hand, Sher­pas also re­main di­vided amongst them­selves. While some have been in­sist­ing that they leave the moun­tains for re­li­gious rea­sons (they con­sider moun­tains to be sa­cred), oth­ers are de­ter­mined to stay back dur­ing the climb­ing sea­son so that they can make enough money to sur­vive through the year.

As it is, the clo­sure of the sum­mit has led to many Sher­pas strug­gling to make ends meet. A num­ber of them are al­ready say­ing the de­ci­sion to not climb is go­ing to be tough on ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing the econ­omy that ben­e­fits from it. Dur­ing the two to three month sea­son, guides earn any­where be­tween $3,000 and $6,000 - a rel­a­tively good wage in a coun­try where hun­dreds of thou­sands of oth­ers are forced to go over­seas in search of work.

The prob­lem is that Nepal’s tourist mar­ket is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly un­sus­tain­able and is ad­versely af­fect­ing the safety of Sher­pas as well as the climbers. In fact, the la­bor up­ris­ing is more com­plex than the usual set­tler­colo­nial nar­ra­tive. The Sherpa guides have been an or­ga­nized group for a long time, with their own union and a his­tory of la­bor-left mil­i­tancy as part of the Gen­eral Fed­er­a­tion of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT).

Con­se­quently, the Sher­pas have led cam­paigns in the past for strin­gent mea­sures that pre­vent tourist trash­dump­ing and take into ac­count the cli­mate change in the re­gion to draw at­ten­tion to their bru­tal work­ing con­di­tions and high rates of death and in­jury. An ar­ti­cle pub­lished in The At­lantic on the is­sue points out that the Sher­pas are more likely to die from avalanches than climbers be­cause they are the ones re­spon­si­ble for pre­par­ing the route, car­ry­ing the gear and set­ting up equip­ment for the climb. “It’s a stark re­minder that there are two classes of Hi­malayan moun­taineers – those who pay to climb and those who get paid to sup­port them,” reads the ar­ti­cle. Sim­i­larly, there is a huge class di­vide in the whole trek – af­ter con­quer­ing the sum­mit, the climbers go home but for the Sher­pas, the re­gion has al­ways been home.

Mean­while, the GEFONT Sec­re­tary, Ramesh Badal has said that work­ers have de­manded long-term eco­nomic sup­port for the fam­i­lies of the vic­tims, guar­an­teed so­cial se­cu­rity and aware­ness cam­paigns per­tain­ing to cli­mate change in the re­gion. It must be men­tioned here that con­di­tions on the moun­tain have been de­te­ri­o­rat­ing in re­cent years and it’s a change that co­in­cides with tem­per­a­tures in the Hi­malayas ris­ing at nearly twice the nor­mal pace.

The Min­istry of Tourism has agreed to the de­mands of the Sher­pas but when these mea­sures will be im­ple­mented

In the wake of the re­cent dis­as­ter, Sher­pas are adamant about re­ceiv­ing fair com­pen­sa­tion from the govern­ment. They have also de­manded that the life in­sur­ance money that the fam­i­lies will re­ceive should be dou­bled to $21,000.

re­mains to be seen. Ex­perts be­lieve that the whole af­fair could cause the in­sur­ance lim­its to go up along with the wages of the Sher­pas. More­over, they say there could be some sort of equal­iza­tion in their stature since many of them have re­ceived qual­i­fied guide cer­ti­fi­ca­tion as per the U.S. and Euro­pean Union stan­dards. Thus, their word means some­thing when climbers pre­pare for a trek. Even so, their wages re­main mea­ger and the risks are far too great.

As the mood at the base camp re­mains somber, the fu­ture of this year’s climb­ing sea­son is in the dol­drums. Many clients were away from the moun­tain ac­cli­ma­tiz­ing on other peaks so that they could at least avoid the dan­gers of the Ice­fall. Sher­pas have cat­e­gor­i­cally pointed out that if Rus­sell Brice’s Himex and IMG (both com­pa­nies that ar­range for treks), which be­tween them have over a hun­dred Sher­pas work­ing on the moun­tain, pull out, then some of the smaller com­pa­nies would fol­low suit.

The col­lec­tive anger and re­sent­ment ex­pressed by the Sher­pas af­ter the April 18 in­ci­dent is un­prece­dented. On April 20, Tim and Becky Rippel, the own­ers of a guide com­pany called Peak Freaks, which lost a Sherpa named Mingma Ten­z­ing to a fa­tal case of HAPE ear­lier in the month, stated, in a blog post: “As we sug­gested in a pre­vi­ous post, the Sherpa guides are heat­ing up, emo­tions are run­ning wild and de­mands are be­ing made to share the wealth with the Sherpa people on the ta­ble.

Now that there are more Sherpa oper­a­tors to­day on Ever­est, they’ve come to learn how much the govern­ment of Nepal makes in rev­enues from Ever­est ex­pe­di­tions and they are ask­ing for a share. This is their time and un­der very un­for­tu­nate cir­cum­stances… In any case things are get­ting very com­pli­cated and there is a lot of ten­sion here and it’s grow­ing… Peak Freaks is in sup­port of the Sherpa people any which way it goes. They are our fam­ily, our broth­ers and sis­ters and the mus­cle on Ever­est. We fol­low their lead, we are guests here.”

If the Nepalese govern­ment and the Sher­pas do come to an un­der­stand­ing with re­spect to the new de­mands, the lat­ter may even­tu­ally re­sume work. While most people be­lieve that this is highly likely, for now they are griev­ing in­tensely for the com­pan­ions they lost.

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