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The changing face of Everest

Rajeev Ravisankar | Updated on May 14, 2014

First dibs: Tenzing Norgay, the world’s best-known Sherpa, at the Acropolis in Athens with his daughters and niece in 1958.   -  The Hindu Archives

Is the quest for the summit dearer than a Sherpa’s life? Can Everest really be conquered? A recent avalanche forces Nepal and the world to ask tough questions

The avalanche at Everest that claimed the lives of 16 high-altitude expedition workers, most of them from the Sherpa ethnic group (and one each from the Tamang, Gurung and Khatri communities), has engendered a sombre and tense atmosphere at the Base Camp, and drawn attention to the fissures in mountaineering today. Demands for increased compensation for families of victims and better medical and life insurance policies have been followed by calls to cancel the climbing season, despite opposition from government officials, mountaineering associations and some expedition companies. A subsequent round of avalanches in the same area has all but ensured that the season will not go forward.

Dignity of labour, particularly in terms of standard workplace concerns of wages and safety, as well as issues of recognition and identity have emerged as the primary themes in the media coverage of the tragedy. Considering the $3.3 million in revenue generated by the government from climbing fees and the thousands of dollars charged by expedition companies, Nepali high-altitude workers feel they should get a greater share of the benefits. This feeling is also shaped by one’s place in the hierarchy of a team that includes guides, porters, kitchen staff and other helpers.

A look at what has changed over the years, and what hasn’t, provides a framework by which to assess the current situation. A few of the key trends in recent years include the rise of commercial expeditions and the sharp increase in the number of expeditions and climbers, some of whom are not entirely equipped for this enormous physical task. Mountain guide Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, president of the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association, who started working here as a porter at the age of 16 and has scaled the Everest on six occasions, estimates that of every 300 or 400 aspiring Everesters only about 100 are actually prepared for the climb. “Almost 60 per cent of the climbers need more training and altitude experience,” he says. “Similarly, of 200 odd guides, barely 50 are professional; the rest are mostly rookies. And of the many companies that operate here, only about 10 are well-experienced.”

The outcome of this is that guides, porters and others who provide essential support to expedition teams are forced to work harder. For instance, although the norm is to carry 15kg from Base Camp to Camp 2 and 10-12kg above 7,000 metres, it’s not unusual for porters to carry more. And yet, Nepal is no stranger to strife in the mountains. Friction during expeditions and the threat of strikes by high-altitude workers have always been a part of the country’s mountaineering history.

“Things have certainly been unfair (to Sherpas) for a while now, especially when compared to other countries,” claims Shailee Basnet, who was part of the ‘First Inclusive Women Sagarmatha Expedition’, a team of eight women who reached the summit in 2008. “Here, the strength of the national economy has determined the climbing culture of the country, rather than nature or the mountain.”

Basnet, who earlier worked as a journalist, is one of the members of the Seven Summits Women Team that aspires to scale the tallest mountain in each continent. In the light of her mountaineering experience in other parts of the world, she feels “porters in Nepal are expected to do everything. They are carrying all the load and taking all the risks. The safety net of Everest is made up of their bodies!”

While the Nepal government’s response has come under the scanner, particularly due to the level of compensation offered and their desire to ensure that the climbing season stays uninterrupted, according to Lakpa Sherpa, the situation is ripe for government-initiated standardisation policies. An internationally certified guide, general secretary of the National Mountaineering Instructor Association and co-convener of the Welfare Committee of the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), Lakpa says, “Expedition companies are paying different rates. Some are competing on the basis of quality, others on price. It has become imperative to set rules and regulations, fix salaries and a minimum wage.” “Earlier [in the ’90s] less money was involved… Now that the stakes are higher (typically, guides earn between $2,000 and $6,000 in season), we must get the government and stakeholders like labour unions and the Minister of Labour to sit together and determine proper salaries for 6,000 metres, 7,000 metres, for guides, climber-workers and so on.”

From Lakpa’s standpoint, the risk of accidents can be minimised by ensuring international certification for lead guides, enhanced training and equipment, and by reducing the pressures for high-altitude workers to go ahead even when it’s not safe. He advocates welfare measures like funds to support families and children’s education in addition to pension policies.

On the flip side, however, expectations of those who have paid handsomely for the privilege of reaching the summit, are just as high. But as Lakpa puts it, “Not all who are rich can make it to the summit. They need a minimum amount of experience, and they must climb 6,000 metres and train. If I am a certified mountain guide, I’m a decision-maker. Others on the expedition may have paid a lot of money, but you have to say ‘no’ sometimes.”

Lakpa should know. “In 2004, I was leading a Dutch expedition, a single group. There was snow up to the waist, but they wanted to climb to 7,500 metres. I was the sardar-leader, and I had to abort the trip because of the snow and the probability of avalanches. They didn’t accept it initially, but I told them it was my final decision; there would be no bargaining.”

Dolma Sherpa (name changed on request) also rues the conditions on Everest now — “It’s changed from a place where you did things on your own to where everything is done for you if you can pay the price.” But her focus is on Sherpa identity and how it has been reduced to a narrow mainstream representation of someone who provides labour in the mountains. The blog she started last year, ‘Reclaiming Sherpa’, and its companion Twitter account, have both garnered attention recently. Together they are a response to the appropriation of the word ‘sherpa’ by a range of entities including mountaineering businesses, foreign companies and international institutions. They also reflect “a sense of feeling powerless about how you’re defined and not being able to challenge it.” In Dolma’s view, this issue is about asking who is a Sherpa and recognising the hierarchy in the industry.

“This is about defining an entire group of people, erroneously. It highlights a certain aspect of Sherpas as a group, overshadowing all the rest, all our history. It tells us what our nature should be like and gives anyone the right to be a Sherpa, just because they have these prescribed qualities. We don’t need to be defined by anybody… and there are other ethnic groups involved in this labour.”

The recent avalanche has revealed longstanding, underlying issues ranging from labour to identity, however, resolving these will be anything but straightforward. Although some may already be looking forward to next year’s climbing season, hoping that the concerns will blow over, this could well be a catalysing moment to spur the much-needed changes.

The list of demands issued by the Nepal National Mountain Guides Association, for instance, calls for additional emergency rescue services and no negative repercussions if the ‘icefall doctors’, who fix ropes and ladders and set expedition routes, determine that a route is too dangerous based on the conditions. “It’s also crucial to institute an annual mountain safety analysis, forecasting of the Khumbu icefall conditions and identifying the most dangerous part for seracs and crevasses,” adds Pemba Gyalje.

Only time will tell if Nepal's mountaineering community recovers from this huge blow. Until then, one can only hope that Sherpas and other high-altitude workers reclaim the respect and recognition due to them.

Rajeev is an Assistant Editor with Himal Southasian, Kathmandu

Published on May 09, 2014

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