Photograph by Aaron Huey, National Geographic
Published April 18, 2014
Last spring the Sherpa news that dominated the headlines was a brawl that took place on Everest when a group of Sherpas fixing ropes got into a fight with three Western climbers. That incident, which was reported all over the world with much hand-wringing about its significance, set off a wider discussion about who the Sherpa people are and how their roles on the mountain have changed since Tenzing Norgay accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary to the summit in 1953.
Now that brawl seems nothing if not trivial in light of Friday morning's news that a massive avalanche of ice and snow swept off Everest's West Shoulder and killed 13 Nepali mountaineers—10 of them Sherpas—near the top of the treacherous Khumbu Icefall. Three more Sherpas and a climber of the Gurung ethnicity are still missing. The death toll makes Friday the worst day in the history of climbing on the world's highest mountain, topping the tragedy of 1970 when six Sherpas were killed on a Japanese expedition.
For the tight-knit Sherpa community in the Khumbu—roughly 3,000 live in villages built in the valleys immediately below Everest—Friday's death toll is on a scale that is difficult to imagine, a sort of nature-inflicted 9/11 perhaps.
Long History on the Mountain
Sherpas have been working in the mountains professionally for more than a hundred years, and are so deeply associated with Himalayan climbing that "sherpa" with a small "s" has come to signify anyone who carries loads.
Many of the Sherpas who in previous generations had menial jobs as porters now work as highly skilled professionals, supplying the essential support without which Western expeditions would be unable to shepherd hundreds of high-paying clients a year to the summit.
Sherpa teams fix ropes through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, up the Lhotse face, and along the summit ridge. They set up the small Internet-enabled city that every April and May is Everest Base Camp. They carry tents and ropes and food to camps higher on the mountain. They are the backbone of mountain rescues. They serve as climbing guides, and today, unlike 20 or 30 years ago, many of them are better mountaineers than their Western clients are. Most of the 5,000-plus people who have climbed Everest in the past 50 years could not have done it without the Sherpas.
Climbing Out of the Khumbu
Certain flagship villages in the Khumbu—Khumjung, Phortse, Thame, and the "Sherpa capital" Namche Bazar—have supplied the bulk of the Sherpas working on Everest for decades. Every villager knows how dangerous the job is, though in the early days after Hillary and Norgay's ascent, Sherpas were more worried about not getting hired than about the dangers of the job.
With the enormous growth of interest in Everest and the large amounts of money generated by tourism, Nepalis from outside the Khumbu are vying for jobs on Everest. And it's hard today to find a Sherpa man who goes to work on the mountain without some ambivalence and an anxious wife, sister, or mother at home worrying he won't come back.
The lure of the money is strong. Sherpa compensation rates vary among outfitters, with high-end expeditions paying top sirdars (head Sherpas charged with hiring porters and and quarter-mastering expeditions, often for Western guiding companies) $25,000 to $30,000 a season and inexperienced porters earning $4,000 to $5,000. But even at the lowest end of the scale, the amounts can be life-altering in a country where the per capita income is roughly $700 a year.
Even so, the longer Sherpas have worked on the mountain, the more liable they are to confess they would gladly do something else if they had the opportunity.
Many Sherpa veterans of Everest campaigns put a premium on education for their children precisely so their kids don't have to follow them to the mountains. This ambivalence has been part of the Sherpa mountain culture Westerners seldom consider or even see.
It was nearly 25 years ago that anthropologist James F. Fisher interviewed eight of the Khumbu's "most experienced and illustrious" sirdars and noted that they "unanimously agreed that virtually the only reason they climb is that they need the high income they cannot earn in any other way. Even though they enjoy the camaraderie and the scenic views and take pride in a job well done, these reasons alone would never motivate them to move up a mountain."
A New Generation of Sherpa Climbers
But a younger generation of Sherpas has been influenced by Western mountaineers. In some ways the Sherpas of the Khumbu villages who depend on seasonal work on Everest are analogous to the residents of a western American mining town where old-timers want to get out of the mines and young people are eager to have a crack at a high-paying job.
The younger generation of Sherpas who share some of the Western passion for mountain climbing are less constrained than their elders by the Himalayan Buddhist belief that climbing high mountains and putting one's life at risk is irresponsible "non-dharmic" behavior. But it may be that the unprecedented scale and shock of this latest tragedy will deeply affect the balance of risk and reward that every Sherpa family weighs before they send their breadwinner to the mountain.
It's one thing to put your own life on the line, another to have people putting theirs on the line on your behalf. Whether Friday's tragedy will change the the dynamic of the client-guide relationship or cause any serious reflection on the nature of the business on Everest is an open question.
Recreation vs. Vocation
Do foreigners—or mikaru (white eyes), as the Sherpas call them—really understand what their recreational dreams on Everest can sometimes cost local people who have been coaxed, if not coerced, into a hazardous vocation by economic necessity? What possible pleasure can this season's climbers take in a successful ascent of the mountain after such a terrible loss?
It will take putting on some maniacal blinders to be able to press on as if reaching the summit meant something. Indeed, the Sherpas themselves may be too pragmatic, and have too much at stake, to let the awful toll destroy the entire climbing season.
But they are under no illusions about the blinders of the Western mind. Every afternoon at the Namche coffee bar known as Cafe 8868, Nyima Tshering Sherpa screens a 2009 documentary about the Sherpas of Everest. The interviews with Sherpas are mostly in Nepali, but the script has been translated into English subtitles—well, all of it except for one line at the end that the English distributor apparently didn't think the English-speaking market wanted to hear. It's a Sherpa guide saying: "The Westerners are very grateful for our help climbing the mountain, but then they go home and pretend they did it all by themselves."
It should be pointed out that while, as the article says, many working Sherpas make only about $4,000 to $5,000, this is not much relative to the average per capita income in Nepal of $700 per year (as the article also points out). In fact, the situation is even grimmer than at first glance.
Firstly, the per capita income in Nepal is actually $1,600 per year according to most authoritative sources, including the World Bank and the Government of Nepal, so $4,000-$5,000 is not that much of a step up.
Secondly, in the typical extended families in the remote mountain regions of Nepal, a money earning Sherpa will typically support many family members beyond his immediate nuclear family. So it will be quite typical for anywhere from 5-10 people to depend on that $4,000-$5,000 annual wage.
Hardly life changing, but quite possibly life ending, alas.
These salaries are cruel inducements to the poorest of the poor to risk their lives hugely; people who are isolated geographically from all other economic wage earning possibilities, but for potato-farming.
The whole situation of the wealthy so-called climbers "conquering" Everest is just morally grotesque. I agree with Kenneth Lane below.
The Sherpas should unionize.
The below is worth reading too. The son of Tenzing Norgay, the sherpa who with Edmund Hilary climbed Mt. Everest first, has a factual take on the whole matter.
It is a source of constant amazement to me that the criminal aspect of Capitalism is so well hidden by everyone involved. Fair wages and fair conditions for all people. Unionize the planet!
westerner leave litter and rubbish all over this Sacred Mountain , and think that if they pay them enough , it is "helping " the Sherpa's.
they do not think of just donating the huge sums of money they spend on being taken to the top of this Mountain to help the locals . once again it is all about using some to "achieve " a feat they ( the westerners) are actually incapable of doing .. unless it is on the, literally , backs of the sherpa's.
The above well written article is to be enjoyed, because it is well written so thank you for that, Chip.
Those Sherpa families who lost loved ones are suffering terribly now, and for their future, a big question is 'what'. Hearts bleed for them, but what good does that do? Something must be done, there can be no 'full stop' to those, who live on. j.e.s.......
Follow the link to help raise funds for the families of the departed Sherpas.
I am humbled by the Sherpa people. I am also sad at this tragedy. I hope that someday soon, we the "westerners" will loose our arrogance toward less fortunate peoples, and instead will join our efforts and cooperate with them in bettering their lives and turn our globe into a better world for all.
Feed the World
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
Latest From Nat Geo
When two sisters were cured of blindness, what did they see? Find out >>
Saturn's gravity pillages moonlets, a solar storm births auroras, and space explorers come home in the week's best space pictures.