Wednesday, April 23, 2014

High Loss… And the Sherpa Voice

It’s been 5 days since thousands of tons of ice ripped off the west shoulder of Mt Everest, cascading down on to the Khumbu Icefall. The impact of that glacial collapse will be felt for generations…emotionally, financially and politically.

As has been duly reported, at the very moment of collapse there happened to be about 50 Sherpa making their way up through the icefall, just a short stroll from Camp 1. They were doing everything they could to limit the exposure to the massive hanging glacier that looms over the left side of the Icefall… early morning departure to avoid the heat of the day and moving quickly through the “shooting gallery” where the objective danger is unavoidable.  Everyone who has stepped foot on Everest knows that this “hanger” rips regularly… so much so that Russell Brice pulled his Himex team off the mountain last year based on the word from some of his most senior Sherpa that this particular hanging glacier was too unstable to travel under.  A year later, Russell seems like a gallowly forecaster.

Clearly a glacier can calve at any moment but typically the chances of a massive collapse are much higher in the heat of the day after the sun has beat down on the surface and had a chance to heat up and change the adhesive qualities of the ice to the rock and itself.  In the game of mountaineering, it’s impossible to eliminate all risk and that is one of the allures of the sport. Living in our insulated and safe cocoon of modern society, it’s refreshing and exciting to enter into a realm that you can’t alter but so much. The mountains make the rules. We simply do what we can to decrease the objective dangers as much as possible. In this tragic incident, the mountain decided to shed its skin atypically, at the worst possible moment. Of the 25 that were hit by the ice, 16 were killed. Three bodies are still buried and will most likely remain that way. This event was twice as deadly as the night that eight climbers died in 1996 (recounted in Jon Krakauer’s, Into Thin Air).

It’s difficult to imagine the degree of impact this event has had on the Khumbu community, primarily from an emotional perspective but also with regards to the economic and sustainability issues of the dangerous work these men perform every spring.

Thirteen of the sixteen killed were from the down-valleys within a couple days walk of Everest. The other three, although carrying the title of high altitude climbing guide, were not from the Sherpa clan and therefore lived further away from the mountain. And although news travels fast in the valleys of Nepal, I’m guessing that we heard of the incident here in the US through news outlets and social media prior to some of the deceased’s families. As the news spread throughout the tight nit communities of the Khumbu and beyond, the anger, tension and frustration peaked from years of watching the lion’s share of the millions of dollars of expedition money end up in the pockets of fat cats from the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism (MOT) and not the men who actually perform the dangerous work. As the dollar has saturated the Khumbu Valley over recent years, so has the disparity of where it goes. With the typical guided client fee coming in around $60,000, lots of people are getting rich… and many of those are not the hardy men that are taking the most risks on the mountain. The “muscle of the mountain” Sherpa typically pulls in between $2,000 and $6,000 for a season on Everest, which stacks up quite well when one considers that the GDP in Nepal is just over $500 annually. That being said, the job they perform is incredibly tough and ridiculously dangerous. Twenty-seven Sherpa have been killed on Everest in the previous 5 years. It has been stated recently that in the past 10 years, Everest-working Sherpa have a death rate 12 times higher than that of US military personal serving in Iraq in the heat of battle there.

When a Sherpa is killed while working on Everest, the family of the deceased is compensated an anemic $10,000 USD from the insurance kitty that is coffered by each of the international guide services. In addition, the MOT provides each family a $400 funeral compensation. This most recent tragedy has brought this issue to a head and created a leverage point for the Sherpa “union.” Their demands are well thought out and worthy.  Some of the thirteen points of demand from the Sherpa coalition…

·      Increase the MOT funeral payout to the families of the deceased climbers from $400 to $1,000.
·      Provide same $10k payout to permanently disabled Sherpa from the most recent incident.
·      Increase death insurance payout from $10k to $20k.
·      Establish a monument in Kathmandu to honor Sherpa that have been killed on the mountain.

My guess is, with as much money that’s at stake here…the Everest outfitters and MOT will gladly buy into these demands. Everyone knows that the mountain would essentially “shut down” without the work of the Sherpa. And if it weren’t for the fact that so many families in the Khumbu Valley depended on the Western dollar, I would say that allowing the mountain to return to its natural state would be a good thing. But alas, far too many stomachs rely on the men setting the way for Western folk to climb the mountain.

On our NFB Everest expedition in 2001, the mountain was a far different scene than it is today.  Fewer teams, less chaos and only couple of “guided” groups. It seemed to be a happier time on the mountain… just prior to the influx of commercial outfitters and novelty climbs. The clown-show that exists now has evolved into a tension filled, oxygen guzzling, conga line of rich folks that feel the draw of climbing the highest mountain in the world.  Westerners now typically consume twice the amount of oxygen as was used 13 years ago which means that the Sherpa have to carry and stock the high camps with large amounts of heavy bottles… both up and down. This translates to twice the number of trips through the dangerous Icefall for the Sherpa than that of the guided clients. Twice as many opportunities to run into a lethal wall of ice.

Last years “brawl on Everest” was another indication that the balance, at least in the eyes of the Sherpa, is out of whack. One gets the sense that after years of performing the backbreaking and sketchy work every year to help the western “climber” (for many, this is a undeserved title) to the summit of the world’s highest mountain, the Sherpa community is finally demanding respect and deserved compensation.

So now there is talk of cancelling the entire Everest season. This is a terrible but yet understandable outcome from a very confusing and tense time in the Valley. Many westerners will forfeit their “one shot” at glory and dozens of Sherpa will go home with only a small percentage of their typical seasonal wage. The Sherpa are waiting for their demands to be met but are also quite hesitant to step foot back on an angry Chomolungma… stepping over the buried bodies of their brothers, cousins and friends. And in an act of trying to save face and show the world that they care, the MOT has dispatched a liaison team to provide diplomacy at Basecamp in hopes of talking the Sherpa guides into finishing the season.

Undoubtedly, there will be many Westerners that will offer to pay willing Sherpa to continue the season in spite of the wholesale opt-out. And undoubtedly, many will take the bait to feed their families with money they had previously counted on. My sense is, the season will go on, albeit in smaller numbers.

It’s a chaotic time within the Nepalese mountaineering community. I can only hope that through this tragedy the Sherpa voice will be louder and the compensation for such badass work will be duly received.

Mingma Nuru Sherpa
Derji Sherpa
Dorjee Khatri
Then Dorjee Sherpa
Phur Temba Sherpa
Ang Tshiri Sherpa
Nima Sherpa
Tenzng Chottar
Phurba Ongyal Sherpa
Lakpa Tenjing Sherpa
Chhring Ongchu Sherpa
Pasang Karma Sherpa
Asman Tamang
Ankaji Sherpa
Pem Tenji Sherpa
AAsh Bahadur Gurung