Everest’s Lost Season

Everest

Much has already been writ­ten and said about the events that took place on the South Side of Mt. Ever­est on April 18. That’s the day that an avalanche swept down the slopes of the moun­tain, claim­ing the lives of 16 Sher­pas in the process. That hor­ri­ble acci­dent turned what had been an ordi­nary day, into the dead­liest in the his­to­ry of a moun­tain that has seen more than its fair share of tragedy over the years. It is also quite pos­si­bly the day that climb­ing Mt. Ever­est changed forever. 

Stand­ing 29,029-feet (8848 meters) in height, Ever­est is the tallest moun­tain on the plan­et. That des­ig­na­tion alone makes it a pop­u­lar tar­get for adven­ture seek­ers look­ing to add a bul­let point to their resume. Each spring, hun­dreds of climbers descend on the moun­tain with the inten­tion of stand­ing on the high­est point on Earth. Most of them would nev­er have a chance it it weren’t for the assis­tance of their Sher­pas –the  hardy indige­nous peo­ple who call the Himalaya home. 

Through­out Ever­est’s his­to­ry, the Sher­pas have been employed to help sup­port climb­ing expe­di­tions. Their abil­i­ty to seem­ing­ly work tire­less­ly, even in the thin air of the Himalaya, has made them an invalu­able resource on Ever­est, and else­where. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, those same abil­i­ties also put them in the unen­vi­able posi­tion of being asked to com­plete the most dan­ger­ous of tasks, such as shut­tling gear to the high camps, fix­ing ropes, and main­tain­ing the dif­fi­cult route through the Khum­bu Ice­fall, the most dan­ger­ous sec­tion of the climb. As a result, more Sher­pas die on the moun­tain than for­eign climbers, as they con­tin­ue to put them­selves in har­m’s way.

avalanche

In the days that fol­lowed the avalanche, there was a great deal of chaos and con­fu­sion in Ever­est Base Camp. Many of the Sher­pas  were griev­ing their fall­en com­pan­ions, while oth­ers rose up in anger over the fact that they once again been asked to pay a heavy price for the ambi­tions of oth­ers. But unlike in 2013, when a high pro­file fight between Sher­pas and west­ern climbers caused fric­tion with for­eign­ers, this time the anger was direct­ed at the Nepali Gov­ern­ment, which prof­its nice­ly from the sale of climb­ing per­mits, entry visas, and tourism in general.

The Sher­pas under­stand the role they play on the moun­tain, and see it as a means to an end. It is sim­ply how they make their liv­ing, and there is a cer­tain amount of risk involved with their jobs. But fol­low­ing the death of their 16 com­pan­ions, they sent a list of demands to the gov­ern­ment that need­ed to be met before they would con­tin­ue climb­ing. Those demands did not include a raise in pay, but were instead focused on increas­ing insur­ance ben­e­fits for those who had died in the line of duty. They want­ed to ensure that the fam­i­lies of the fall­en could car­ry on with­out their loved ones. 

There were oth­er demands as well, includ­ing pay­ing for the med­ical treat­ment of those who were injured in the avalanche, offer­ing pay to the injured who would­n’t be able to con­tin­ue work­ing, and pro­vide heli­copters for sup­port dur­ing future emer­gency oper­a­tions. They also asked for the dou­bling of insur­ance cov­er­age for Sher­pas oper­at­ing on the mountain. 

Ulti­mate­ly, the Nepali Gov­ern­ment con­ced­ed to most of the demands, with the hope that the climb­ing sea­son could be saved. But ten­sion in Base Camp, and a sense of dread over what had already been labelled a “Black Year” by the Sher­pas, even­tu­al­ly forced a  com­plete shut down of climb­ing oper­a­tions on Ever­est’s South Side. There have been reports that a vocal minor­i­ty of Sher­pas were putting pres­sure on oth­ers who wished to stay on the moun­tain, some­times using threats of vio­lence to cajole them into leav­ing. Sol­i­dar­i­ty runs strong through their ranks, and while some wished to con­tin­ue work­ing with their west­ern clients, they even­tu­al­ly had to give into the pres­sure, and con­cede that the sea­son was indeed lost. 

What hap­pens from here remains to be seen, but it seems clear that things will nev­er be the same on Ever­est. The Sher­pas now find them­selves  in a posi­tion of pow­er, and they are using it to request a big­ger slice of the pie. They have asked for bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions and high­er insur­ance pre­mi­ums already, a raise in pay seems to be the next log­i­cal step. The local guides have shown that they can, and will, walk off the moun­tain, and as much as they need their jobs to pro­vide for their fam­i­lies, the Nepali Gov­ern­ment and most for­eign climbers, need the Sher­pas more. It seems they have quite a bit of job secu­ri­ty at the moment.

Sign

There are already rumors that in future climb­ing sea­sons, the Sher­pas and their clients could be shut­tled up from Base Camp to Camp 1 by heli­copter, com­plete­ly bypass­ing the dan­ger­ous ice­fall and the region where the avalanche occurred. If this is true, that alone would change the very nature of the climb, remov­ing some of the dan­ger, and mak­ing it arguably eas­i­er over­all. The added expense of oper­at­ing a heli­copter at that alti­tude would prob­a­bly mean an increase in climb­ing fees as well. Con­sid­er­ing the aver­age Ever­est expe­di­tion already exceeds $65,000, it is dif­fi­cult to know if a few thou­sand dol­lars more will make any difference. 

The one con­stant about Ever­est is that no mat­ter what hap­pens there, some­one will always want to climb it. If recent his­to­ry is any indi­ca­tion, lots of peo­ple will always want to climb it. The busi­ness of Nepal is Ever­est, and busi­ness is good. The gov­ern­ment isn’t about to let a labor dis­pute get in the way of future rev­enue. Their busi­ness is evolv­ing at the moment, and they are learn­ing that if they keep their work­ers hap­py, it’ll make for a bet­ter envi­ron­ment for the clients as well. This was a lost sea­son on the moun­tain, but the coun­try has a vest­ed inter­est in mak­ing sure that nev­er hap­pens again. Expect the cli­mate to be very dif­fer­ent there next year, as labor and man­age­ment learn to work togeth­er in the months ahead.