Grayson Schaffer: Outside’s Senior Editor On the Surprising Death Rate of Sherpas on Everest

Grayson Schaffer

Since before Edmond Hillary stood atop Mount Everest in 1953 the Sherpa people of Nepal have assisted climbers hoping to summit the tallest peak in the world. In an economy with limited prospects for financial gain many Sherpa have few choices but to face the rigors of commercial climbing expeditions in order to feed their families. And when these men die while performing extremely hazardous tasks, their surviving family members are not only left without a primary wage earner but they seldom receive adequate insurance benefits to help compensate for their loss. 

In his feature report, “The Disposable Man,” which appeared on the cover of the August 2013 edition of Outside magazine, senior editor Grayson Schaffer explores the reasons behind the startling one percent mortality rate (later we’ll show you why that’s really high) of Sherpa guides and reveals some of the cold realities surrounding this deadly profession.

In an occupation with one of the highest death rates in the world, are commercial climbing operators and their clients asking the Sherpa to pay too high a price for their adventure experience?

Below, The Clymb talks with Grayson Schaffer about some of the issues involved in creating a Sherpa safety net:

The Clymb: Can you describe the circumstances that brought the issue of Sherpa safety to your attention and what prompted you to write about it?

Schaffer: In the spring of 2012 I was at Everest base camp with an Eddie Bauer team and from the first day that I got there, Sherpa were dying. Last year I think there were three, maybe four. It seemed like there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to these deaths. Then all of a sudden on May 18th we had six western climbers die and the world news media went into overdrive. The cable news channels started erupting. I began doing a lot of interviews from base camp and it stuck in my mind that there was this missing piece.

grayson-schaffer-disposable-man-featured2Every few years you have these big disasters, like in ’96 or in the David Sharp year, which was ’06 over on the north side, where western media does this sort of hand-wringing thing where we wonder whether Everest is safe enough for people to climb. And yet there’s this denial and steady bloodletting, this trickle of local workers’ deaths that doesn’t get reported. 

I became curious about what happens to their families when they die and what the safety net looks like. Nepal is verging on being a failed state. They’re still operating without a parliament. The types of infrastructure that they have—like healthcare and life insurance—is very weak in the rest of the country. I was curious to know how far that lack of safety net intruded into the climbing world as well. So I went back last October and November with Melissa Arnot to the Khumbu to try to meet some of these families that had been affected by the climbing industry.  

The Clymb: In your article you compare the dangerous work that Sherpa do with that done in the most hazardous professions in the U.S., specifically commercial fishing. What is it about Himalayan climbing that makes people not raise a greater sense of outrage over a one percent mortality rate?

Schaffer: The thing about that mortality rate is it’s hiding in the numbers. The reason that people aren’t outraged about it I think is because the actual number of dead is fairly small. But the reason for that is because you’re getting those casualties in the span of one to two months in the spring and then maybe a few months in the fall among a very small workforce. So you’ve got this local population of Sherpa that are right around 100,000. Of those maybe about 10,000 are registered as work climbers or sirdars, and among those only a small percentage are working. And they’re working only about two months out of the year in these dangerous places. But in that amount of time, in those dozen or two dozen laps that they’re making through the Khumbu icefalls and up the Lhotse face carrying loads there is a very high percentage of mortality. When you take a look at how much time they are actually spending there and how often they’re having serious accidents that’s where that 1.2 to 1.5 percent mortality rate becomes significant.

We’ve heard these numbers for years given as a sort of chest-thumping claim among mountaineers. Whenever somebody writes about Everest we hear that only one percent of people who go up the mountain die. Those numbers are adventure stats for people who are going there to climb and go for the summit and climb for the record. But they are workplace safety stats for the people who work there, the Sherpa who are carrying the loads. The thing that we don’t do is make that next logical step to say that the guys who are helping these westerns get to the top as part of their job are subject to the same forces, the same dangers as the guys who choose to be there. 

The Clymb: What’s fascinating about this is looking at this as a workplace safety issue as if were any other job, in any other industry. Do you suppose that is one of the failings in recognizing the importance of a one percent mortality rate?

Schaffer: That is the central failing because you can’t look at a one percent mortality rate in any workplace and say “that’s great.” It’s only when you dress it up in this historical context of old-school siege-style expeditions with noble ambitions that you can will away the cognitive dissonance. I think it’s helpful looking at that number and comparing it with the jobs we know to be dangerous, that we make reality TV shows about, that trumpet and celebrate the dangers. Looking at military jobs is another one. Statistically the dangers of working on Everest are probably more dangerous than being a soldier in Iraq and probably a little less dangerous than being a soldier in Vietnam. That should give you a good idea of how dangerous it is working in that environment. 

The Clymb: Despite the enormous fees that Himalayan tour companies charge clients for an Everest expedition why is it that they cannot secure better salaries and benefits for their Sherpa employees?

Schaffer: It’s really expensive to climb Everest. And that’s not just because of the permits. You’ve got to fly and carry everything you need those 35 miles from Lukla to base camp. It takes a lot of manpower to get the route set and get the mountain to where a mid-level westerner that’s decently fit but probably not a brilliant climber can make it to the top. It’s $60,000 to $80,000 when you break down the cost and you’re paying a Sherpa workforce $4,000 to $6,000 for the spring. You get to these climbing rates between $30,000 and $100,000 with the big difference between those being the level of creature comforts that people have at base camp and the level of experience of the western guides. If you were going to pay the Sherpa workforce the same as your western guides across the board it would probably cost closer to $200,000 to put a western climber on the summit of Everest. So there’s a cost issue.

The Everest economy hinges on having cheap labor to help get all the gear and equipment up the mountain. I think that one of the things we will see changing here in the next few years is these local outfitters are going to get bigger and more powerful. I think already there’s a company called Seven Summits Trek that’s come out of nowhere and will probably became the largest company operating on Everest. In the next couple of years it’s going to become locally owned and locally run. That can really complicate things. On the one hand you’d think that we’d be in favor of local Nepalese and Sherpa taking ownership of the industry and becoming capitalist working for themselves and making more of the profits. On the other hand, as I wrote about last year, the safety record of a lot of these local outfitters is not yet close to where it needs to be compared with your top western outfitters like Alpine Ascents or Rainier Mountaineering.

I think you’re going to see prices falling as some of these larger local companies assert control. But I also think you’re going to see casualties probably rise among clients and among Sherpa as guides who are less well trained and clients who are less well prepared are tackling the mountain. At the same time, the Sherpa families whose husbands are working for these local outfitters by far are worse off than the ones working for the top western outfitters. I think some of that is cultural where the local outfitters, the Sherpa-baser outfitters, have a somewhat more fatalistic view of the dangers of working on Everest: If it all goes well you’re going to make a lot of money. If it doesn’t you’re going to die. There’s an insurance payment and that’s about it. That’s basically what I saw on the ground last October. If a climber had died working for one of these local outfitters they felt bad about it, but the level of additional help beyond the basic government-required insurance payment was pretty minimal.

The Clymb: What does the future hold for the improvement of work safety conditions or at least a better safety net for Sherpa?  Will sweeping government regulation of the business make a difference?

Schaffer: I was pretty heartened by the government’s decision to bump up the insurance rates last June. That was right when we were going to press with this story and it shocked us. We didn’t expect the government to get involved and act. When they did that, the biggest pushback that they got was not from the western outfitters but from the local outfitters. As far as building up a safety net that’s where it really needs to be done. When a lot of these local companies have problems, whether it’s with their clients or with the workers, there’s not really a very big PR cost for them to pay. But when people like me are snooping around and writing about every mistake that the big western outfitters make there is a real penalty but the local outfitters can kind of slide under the radar.

I think having those stiffer mandates is important. I think there will continue to be growing pains with local companies continuing to be able to out-compete western outfitters on price. Western climbers want to climb Everest, but so do Indian climbers and clients from all over Asia—the demand is not just from the U.S. and Europe any more. Looking at price is one of the ways that they’re shopping and I think there is still an assumption on a lot of people’s part that one Sherpa guide is as good as the next. There is no real understanding of how widely the skill levels vary and what you’re actually getting. Things will continue to be in flux, but I think they will be able to get it together and offer a trip that’s safe for the workers and safe for the clients, where they’re dealing with object hazards and less with human error.

Read “The Disposable Man” from the August 2013 issue of Outside online here.