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Climbing Sherpas from Seven Summits Trekking Camp make puja (prayer0 before ascending the Khumbu IceFall to retrieve gear from Camps 2, 3, 4 and a body from near the summit of Everest

Sherpas from Seven Summits Trekking Camp make puja (prayer) before ascending the dangerous Khumbu Icefall to retrieve gear from Camps 2, 3, 4 and a body from near the summit of Everest in May 2013.

PHOTOGRAPH BY AARON HUEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published April 18, 2014

A deadly avalanche on Mount Everest that left 13 Sherpa guides dead and three missing Friday morning shines a light on a remote community of workers that routinely takes on high risk to support foreign climbers.

Seattle-based National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey has documented remote Sherpa communities around Mount Everest over the past year. We asked him how the communities respond to the risks.

How important a role do Sherpas play in the climbing ecosystem?

There are two different climbing worlds that exist. There are the professional climbers who can operate on their own in any conditions around the world, and then there are commercial expeditions, groups of wealthy but inexperienced climbers who would not be able to climb without the work of the Sherpas. Everything in that industry is built on their backs.

The Sherpas cross through the Khumbu Icefall, which includes an area called "the popcorn" [where the avalanche happened Friday] many more times than anyone else. That is one of the most dangerous parts of the mountain besides the summit push. They have to set the ladders that cross through house-size ice blocks. I wouldn't shoot photos in the Icefall if Nat Geo paid me $100,000—it's too big of a lottery.

Ang Kaji Sherpa was one of 13 climbing guides killed Friday in an avalanche on Mount Everest. He was working with a team of elite Sherpa, who were setting up ropes to prepare the way for their clients to follow in the days to come. In 2012 he served as a guide for of the National Geographic/The North Face expedition to Everest and was the first member of that team to reach the summit.

What do the Sherpas do to minimize the risks?

Move really fast. And pray, literally. And try to understand the snow conditions. (Read "The Sherpas" in National Geographic magazine.)

Is the danger greater this early in the season?

I'm not an expert on the conditions on the mountain, but I would guess that it would be because nobody has seen the conditions yet with their own eyes. As groups are advancing, every step into the unknown is dangerous because nobody knows what's there.

Photo of sherpas.
Danuru (orange helmet) and Panuru Sherpa move between Camp 1 and Camp 2 on Ama Dablam.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AARON HUEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

How do the Sherpa communities deal with the risk?

The majority of the Sherpa climbers I talked to don't really want to be doing this business, but when you live in this super-remote mountain valley where there is this highway of money coming through, you go out and risk your life.

Before commercial expeditions, there were only three things: yak, buckwheat, and potatoes. When you can make 30 times as much money carrying loads up icefalls and setting up tents on Everest, you're going to not do the buckwheat. A lot of these guys are just trying to do it long enough to get their kids in a private school in Kathmandu and build a teahouse in their village, where they can retire.

There is a slice of the community that lives to climb and go from mountain to mountain, just like my Western friends who do that, but those guys are in an extreme minority. Most do it because it's the only real business. That's one thing a lot of people don't think about.

The only way to make real money is to cater to commercial expeditions, including providing lodging, food, or mountain needs, and the more risky the job the more it pays. (See "Sherpa Perspective Explored in New Everest Film.")

Diagram outlining how avalanche happened on Mount Everest.
Mapping the killer path of Friday's Everest avalanche.
Juan Velasco, NG Staff. Photograph by Mark Jenkins

Does that relationship have negative impacts on the Sherpa communities?

For the most part I think it is pretty positive. With that money these communities can have access to electricity, better clothes, and other things they need. But there is a tradeoff: Way more people risk their lives to get that comfort. There is a good relationship between the Sherpa communities and Westerners who pass through, but it is risky and they are gambling a lot more than we are.

If they survive and make it home, it is a great deal for them because they can really take care of their families with this money. The problem is that sometimes they don't make it home.

Did the fight that took place between Sherpas and Western climbers in late April 2013 exemplify growing tensions?

This is a high-stakes environment; there's going to be friction sometimes. I don't think it is a marker of anything substantial.

But Westerners and Sherpas see the mountains in a different way. Sherpas have a kind of reverence for the mountain that most commercial clients and Western athletes don't. A lot of Sherpas really commune with the mountain. There is an experience there on a deeper level that is different from people who are rushing to the top for a Facebook post or a world record.

Photo of sherpas.
Climbers make their way to the summit of Mount Everest in May 2013.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AARON BALLINGER, ASSOCIATED PRESS

What do you think Friday's accident will mean to the Sherpa community?

This is a huge blow to the community. This will be spoken of for generations in these communities. It will be something that the young people think about when they know it's their turn.

A lot of these guys start at 16 years old. In their minds they are going to ask, "Is that going to be me? My father died, or my uncle died, [and] I remember what happened in 2014."

It's going to be a marker. There's going to be more people saying, "I do this because I have to, not because I want to."

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

Have you ever been to Mount Everest? Share your experiences in the comments.

25 comments
sushil kashyap
sushil kashyap

Nepal government is making money just out of its multi cror himayan expedition industry.. 


Recently they have planned to give their peaks to the private companies on rent to flourish tourism industry but it is unbelievable that the same government is not aware about  this professional hazard .. 


we all appeal to the this nepal government to think for the future of his own people and the future of several people who are connected with field directly or indirectly to save life and the dreams in their beautiful minds........



Ashok Sinha
Ashok Sinha

Is there an insurance system in place?


Life is not fair but things should be done by the govt or unions (do they have one?) to protect them. 


There are many workers doing hazardous jobs. Khumbu Ice Fall is known to be one of most dangerous places in the world.


The work conditions should have safety and security for the  family - it is not possible to make the work place any safer. But there also, is there any agency monitoring the ice conditions and warning of avalanche risk? Weather risks?


National Geographic will do the Sherpa community a great service if they do an article on the on the hazards and what is being done/ not done about them.

Suzy Ryan
Suzy Ryan

It is heartbreaking. 


We know the gap between the haves and the have nots is a timeless truth, but what can we do to make it more fair and just?  Can the adventure industries be required to pay life insurance if they hire sherpas? The costs will increase, but that's the price to pay for hiring guides who protect your life at the risk of theirs.

Naren Pradhan
Naren Pradhan

The Sherpas are guide and master of The Himalayas.

And they have served to the whole community of people who make expedition on The Everest.

We must acknowledge and compensate  to their sacrifice to the mankind and to the nature!

On this deadly accident and the mishap, we pray to The God for the recovery of the losses and putting the system back to normal.

These Sherpas are the real mountaineer and their life belongs to the mountain.

Jai Gorkha! 

khanh nguyen
khanh nguyen

It's sickening to know that climbers pay people to carry their bags and to help them with climbing.

Susan Foster
Susan Foster

My friends Dawa, Ang Pasang and Kami Tsherring are safe.  But so many families have lost husbands and fathers; the sole breadwinners.  Please let us know where and how we can donate to help these surviving families.  Perhaps through the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation?? Or, through the National Geographic??

Cassandra De Silva
Cassandra De Silva

Was at the base camp about 2 weeks ago for the first time in my life...I agree with the writer...almost all the Sherpas I met in my travel told they do this because there is nothing else to do...and some of them get addicted to climbing like we get addicted to our office work...and gradually losing the sense of danger they step in...

Kashyap Kumar
Kashyap Kumar

Is there some compensation for the families of the Sherpas who lost their lives so that their sacrifice to give their families a better life is not in vain?

Gutsy Guy
Gutsy Guy

They are the real heroes of the Himalayas, without them it's almost impossible to climb for anyone to the Mt. Everest (Sagarmatha).

Rajib Ghose
Rajib Ghose

The story goes on, last year at the same time the Sherpas were the villains this year they are heroes. No one gives a damn about their lives. They are just pawns in a multi million dollar industry.

Lorretta Rollinson
Lorretta Rollinson

Sir Edmund Hillary had the decency and respect for the sherpa's to set up foundations to ensure access to health , education and skills, what have all the"I been to the top " claimants  ever done for the locals after they have "climbed the Summit ?

Gregory Liebau
Gregory Liebau

It's rather astounding to consider what kind of an industry this is that the Sherpas are involved with. People around the world take the modern adage "you can do anything you set your mind to" very literally. Yet, if they actually tried to climb Mount Everest on their own, as "amateur" climbers, they would not be capable of doing so and would likely die or fail very quickly. Still, such folk continue to indulge in their fancies and are willing to part with enough money that some desperate (and albeit skilled) locals are more than willing to lend a hand in exchange. So many people have died or been seriously injured attempting to climb the Mountain in these groups of inexperienced climbers; mostly since this mentality has arisen and led to such ridiculous notions of self-empowerment. Holy hell. /rant

Sharon S.
Sharon S.

I think the "climbers", are superficial idiots.  Not looking to the environment, indiginous people, WHY do this.  I have seen a video where a group of climbers filmed a climber they happened on, freezing to death. they said f*** it, I'm going to the top.  On the way down sure enough the guy was dead.  Mt. everest is littered with dead bodies, o2  canisters, and any kind of climbing equiptment that gets left where it's dropped. 

The sherpa"s are not educated to go out and do something else, they have family" to support.  When a lot of money is waved in front of them, they jump on it for the sake of their family.  Why else, other than to get a education for their kids would they do this climbing???   they don't have malls, or fancy cars and houses.  I am again disgusted by the human race.

Jessica Valdebenito
Jessica Valdebenito

It is sad that they have to do this work because there is no option of a better job at where they live. The more risk, the more money they get...that shouldnt be like that, a life is a life.  

Pisit Shine Luckyboy
Pisit Shine Luckyboy

ความจิงอันโหดร้ายของ การพัฒนาการท่องเที่ยว .............

Jay Kerr
Jay Kerr

Rant on!


Another tragedy for Sherpas on Everest.


Really annoys me that rich westerners with summit fever drive a requirement for poor Nepalese climbers to do the hard work for them, putting themselves into exposed situations driven by corporate deadlines.


If you need £15k, an adventure tour company to plan everything, 20 guys to fix ropes and carry your gear for you, loads of O2, oh and a guide to show you the way to the top, you're not mountaineering you're a tourist!!!


Book on a coach tour instead and stop ruining a place of deference with your egotistical motives.


Rant off.


shelly goupil
shelly goupil

I feel sad for the whole community,it would seem  the climers have not done the Sherpers   agreat deal of good .  It  is like the climbers(, probably on some sort of schedule,) are buying the  lifeblood of the people.

Roomy Naqvy
Roomy Naqvy

It is always very sad to learn about human deaths, particularly untimely, natural disaster ones.

Marty Coleman
Marty Coleman

@Susan Foster The American Alpine Club, has a legitimate IRS approved charity that is aimed at assisting the people injured this disaster. The American Himalayan Foundation, another IRS approved charity has established a fund to provide assistance. You can google either.

Marty Coleman
Marty Coleman

@Kashyap Kumar Normally, the only compensation is an insurance policy that is purchased for Sherpa's by the company that they work for.. This year the required amount was raised. The 'approximate' current numbers are $10,000 for a high altitude climbing Sherpa and $5,000 for a cook or porter. Shortly after this tragedy the Nepal govt proposed to provide aprox $400 immediately. That would only pay the cost of the funeral. In the padst few days, the Sherpa's have given the Nepalese govt a list of 13 demands to improve the situation.

Gregory Liebau
Gregory Liebau

@Jay Kerr Holy shoot, Jay. I just made such a similar rant and only now got to your post. It's insane, right?

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