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.
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.