Everest Avalanche Calls Attention to the Lives of Sherpas

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 A Sherpa porter rests whist carrying a heavy load up the Everest trail May 25, 2003 in the Solu Khumbu region, Nepal.
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On Friday, Mount Everest faced its deadliest disaster in history. An avalanche roared down a climbing route of the world's highest peak, killing at least 13 Nepalese guides and leaving three others missing.

These Sherpa guides are members of an ethnic group renowned for their skill at high-altitude climbing. They earn $3,000 to $5,000 a season, which runs two to three months, and put them at great risk for affluent clients.

When the avalanche occurred, the Sherpa guides, who have centuries of history in the Nepal's alpine region, were working at just under 21,000 feet fixing ropes and preparing the path for climbers ahead of peak mountaineering season.

Once more, the tragedy raises the question of Everest ethics within a profession that is deeply entrenched in Himalayan mountain life. As the Sherpas mourn their family members and those lost in the accident, the group is considering an unprecedented strike.

On Sunday, disappointed at the Nepali government’s offer of 40,000 rupees (about $408) as compensation for the families of the dead, some Sherpas gathered at Everest’s base camp to propose a “work stoppage” that could disrupt or cancel the 334 expeditions planned for the 2014 climbing season.

Joining The Takeaway to weigh in is Ellen Barry, South Asia bureau chief for our partner The New York Times. Barry says that while Sherpas have lived with these conditions for many years, last week's accident has changed things. 

"I think just the magnitude of the loss of life from Friday's accident has prompted very unusual decisions from a group of Sherpas who met last night at the base camp and essentially voted to propose a work stoppage that could conceivably end all expeditions for 2014," she says.

Barry says that climbers have depended on Sherpas for more than half a century since Sir Edmund Hillary became the first person to reach the top of the world's highest peak in 1953. The Sherpas have traditionally served as guides, but their role has evolved over time.

"Increasingly, the serve perhaps more as workhorses—carrying gear up from the base camp up to the camps up the mountain," she says. "I think the vast majority of those Sherpas working on the mountain this season are carrying loads or fixing lines. The Sherpas who died on Friday were carrying loads."

While the avalanche showed the risks of the profession, Barry says that the potential work stoppage may be coming as a result of a negotiation between the Sherpas and the Nepali government regarding issues of compensation, insurance, and distribution of income generated from expeditions, which can bring in millions of dollars of profits.

"Some Sherpa organizations have made specific demands for hiking the level of compensation to a little bit more than double what the government is offering now," she says. "It's a very powerful, emotional moment."

Barry says that the deaths of the Sherpas have caused some to rethink their expeditions. The Discovery Channel had been planning to air a live jump off the summit of Mount Everest on May 11, but has announced that they will cancel the jump as a sign of respect to the families of the fallen Sherpas.

"The sum costs—economic and psychological—of canceling an expedition are really quite staggering," she adds.

According to Barry, the Sherpas were crossing a perilous passage called the Khumbu Icefall, which is one of the most hazardous areas on Mount Everest, when the avalanche occurred. The Sherpas, who are responsible for securing the Khumbu Icefall for international climbers, routinely cross this dangerous area.

"Everyone who crosses that area tries to do it as fast as possible," says Barry. "On this occasion, we were told by a survivor yesterday that there were a couple broken ladders so you had a backup; basically a traffic jam. They just couldn't get through that very dangerous place fast enough. One thing that you could talk about is how to make these passages safer for these Sherpas that spend much more time there than international clients. But most people regard an avalanche as bad luck, and I've heard that from many people as well."