Sherpas On Strike

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After threatening a work stoppage over unfair pay and grueling work conditions, the Nepalese mountaineers who clear the way for recreational climbers on Mount Everest have voted to leave the mountain and cancel the 2014 climbing season entirely out of respect for the 16 sherpas who died in an avalanche last Friday – the worst climbing accident in Everest’s history. Svati Kirsten Narula looks into how much more dangerous the mountain is for sherpas than for the climbers they serve:

There has always been a divide between Sherpas and Western summit-seekers, but these tensions have increased in recent years as Everest has become more accessible to unskilled-but-well-heeled climbers. The world’s tallest mountain has become much safer for the average Joe than ever before. For the people who live in its shadow, though, and must return to it again and again to earn a living, the risks haven’t declined in the same way. …

Western expedition leaders are acutely aware of this sobering reality [that being a Sherpa is more dangerous than being an American soldier during the Iraqi insurgency], and many have established funds for the families of fallen Sherpas. It’s difficult, though, to assuage the guilt of leaving the mountain with fewer people than you brought there. Melissa Arnot, the Eddie Bauer-sponsored American mountaineer who has summitted Everest five times, had a Sherpa die on an expedition of hers in 2010. Reflecting on this in 2013, she told Schaffer: “My passion created an industry that fosters people dying. It supports humans as disposable, as usable, and that is the hardest thing to come to terms with.”

Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disasterelaborates on what makes the job so dangerous:

Sherpas aren’t provided with nearly as much bottled oxygen, because it is so expensive to buy and to stock on the upper mountain, and they tend to be much better acclimatized than Westerners. Sherpas are almost never given dexamethasone prophylactically, because they don’t have personal physicians in their villages who will prescribe the drug on request.

And perhaps most significant, sherpas do all the heavy lifting on Everest, literally and figuratively. The mostly foreign-owned guiding companies assign the most dangerous and physically demanding jobs to their sherpa staff, thereby mitigating the risk to their Western guides and members, whose backpacks seldom hold much more than a water bottle, a camera, an extra jacket, and lunch. The work sherpas are paid to do—carrying loads, installing the aluminum ladders, stringing and anchoring thousands of feet of rope—requires them to spend vastly more time on the most dangerous parts of the mountain, particularly in the Khumbu Icefall—the shattered, creaking, ever-shifting expanse of glacier that extends from just above base camp, at seventeen thousand six hundred feet, to the nineteen-thousand-five-hundred-foot elevation. The fact that members and Western guides now suck down a lot more bottled oxygen is wonderful for them, but it means the sherpas have to carry those additional oxygen bottles through the Icefall for the Westerners to use.

Although the sherpas say their decision to sit out the season is about mourning their colleagues, Bryce Covert examines the labor dispute:

Somewhere between 350 to 450 Sherpas work above Everest’s base camp during the season, which lasts two months. Despite the fact that climbers each pay a $10,000 peak fee to Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism and tens of thousands to commercial climbing guide companies, Sherpas usually get about $125 per climb for each legal load, although some take on more to earn more. They usually haul about $3,000 to $5,000 a season, although given that the average yearly salary in Nepal is about $700, many are drawn to the pay. But Western guides can make $50,000 to $100,000. …

The demands include an immediate payment of 40,000 rupees, or about $400, to the families of the victims, covering the costs of treatment for the injured, and a payment of 10 million rupees, or about $100,000, to those who won’t be able to continue working on the mountain due to their injuries. It also calls for allowing expedition teams to call off the season’s climbing and refusing to fix ropes and ladders this season, plus perks and salaries paid to the Sherpas if climbing is suspended. They have called for the creation of a relief fund through 30 percent of the royalties from issuing permits, something guides and Sherpas have called for for many years, as well as doubling their current life insurance policy payments from the current million rupees, or $10,000, to two million rupees, or $20,000.

Update from a reader:

Thanks for this curation of good reads. Here’s another gorgeous, intimate read from a young female Sherpa. It’s the point of view we too rarely see in Western media.