Nepal’s Sherpa community is still coming to terms with the deaths on Everest last week caused by an avalanche that claimed 16 lives, mostly from their ranks.
Nepal is home to about 150,000 Sherpas, an ethnic group related to Tibetans but with a distinct language and culture. From the earliest days of mountaineering in the Himalayas Sherpas have served as porters, assistants, and guides for expeditions. Their genetic adaptation to life in the mountains gives them great stamina at high altitudes.
Apart from working for expeditions, Sherpas hold virtually all of the records on Everest for speed, duration, and number of ascents. They are also killed and injured on the great mountain at a rate nearly twice as high as the foreigners who come to climb.
But not everyone in the Sherpa community is distraught. “People die on Everest,” said Dorji Sherpa, who was a climbing sherpa in the 1990s and now lives in Kathmandu. “Everyone who works above base camp signs a waiver and designates a beneficiary for their insurance in case they die. They know the risk.”
A friend listening in said, “It was just an accident. The climbers or outfitters didn’t do anything wrong.”
For the families the losses are tragic and the pain lifelong. This year, however, there are emotions other than pain. Many Sherpas working on the mountain are very angry with the government, mountaineering agencies and foreign climbers.
The anger has been festering for years: This accident was just a trigger. Last year a dispute caused a fight between Sherpas and foreign climbers. In that case, as this year, a group of Sherpas was setting ropes and anchor points for the use of foreign climbers lacking the skill to do so for themselves. See Three Climbers Head Home After Mount Everest Brawl, May 2013.
Sherpas have long felt underappreciated by climbers and underpaid for their work, considering the danger. This year’s tragedy has given them leverage to press for major changes. Their demands include $100,000 compensation for families of the dead and an equal amount for others seriously injured, channeling at least one-third of the more than $3 million collected annually from climbers’ royalties to unspecified “mountaineering relief” and full pay for this season even if they go on strike.
With over a hundred foreign climbers in Everest Base Camp and many more scheduled to arrive soon, the government will have to listen: A high-level team headed by the tourism minister has gone by helicopter to the base camp for discussions. Some concessions have already been offered, but the government team will be bargaining hard for a no-strike clause in the agreement, to try to salvage this climbing season.
It may already be too late for that. The government says that there have been no cancellations yet, but a Kathmandu newspaper Friday listed seven expeditions that they say have packed in, and some mountaineers have already made their way back to Kathmandu and are preparing to go home.