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SECOND OPINION: Sherpa politics and Everest's future
Shame. I experience considerable shame when I travel. I cannot help but compare all that we have in this culture to what the majority of the world does without and the contrast means that guilt feelings are often my predominant souvenir. This spring I wanted a different experience, one that was physically demanding but less emotionally perplexing; a holiday to a place of my dreams where I could use the body but turn off the mind. A destination that satisfied those criteria quickly became a trip to Everest base camp.
I was excited beyond belief. In my dreams, I stand on the top of Everest. The dream will sometimes percolate into consciousness as an appetite or thirst unfulfilled, and I picture myself, ice axe above my head, smiling for the photo.
This trip was to be a reconnaissance of Everest, a chance to get to the base of the mountain, climb a much smaller peak while there, and check out whether an Everest expedition could be a possibility in the future.
Everest had other plans. It had demanding lessons to teach but these had nothing to do with the egotistic goals I stuffed in the duffle bag with my crampons, glacier glasses and summit fever. They were, instead, lessons previously gleaned in other poor countries, those that profile how westerners exploit the lives of the less fortunate. Everest is just a different take on the same old story -the Canadian clothing factories in Bangladesh paying their employees $1a day, the Chinese workers assembling cheap computers or the displaced New Guinea villagers whose land and livelihood has been lost to oil companies. The list goes on.
All are different versions of the same old exploitative relationship the developed world has towards the under developed one, justified to fulfill our meaningless desires at a cheaper cost. In the last place I expected to feel this way, I came home from Everest filled with angst, my duffel bag of Western shame still a heavy burden as I resume my comfortable First World life.
Sixteen Sherpas lost their lives and nine were injured on Everest’s Khumbu glacier while I was in the area, enjoying myself. Their airlifted bodies dangling from the underbellies of buzzing helicopters were taken from the ice to their village homes, in some cases met by bewildered families who thought their men were still climbing the mountain.
In the biggest disaster of Everest’s history, the lives of countless Sherpa families changed in a second. One has to ask, for what?
The Nepali government took the fallout. Nepal takes in $10 million per season from issuing permits to Westerners climbing Everest. The Sherpa were outraged when the government gave each family $400 per dead son to pay for burial and nothing more. In such a country where roads, sewer and infrastructure are at a premium, the fact that no safety net exists in the form of life insurance, Worker’s Compensation or medical coverage to buffer the effects of such a disaster should not come as a surprise. The American Alpine Association immediately jumped into the fray setting up a fund for the families of the lost Sherpa by soliciting donations from climbers and interested parties abroad.
As I watched the scenario unfold it was the questions that were unexpressed that I found much more disagreeable, for muffled in the resounding silence was the culpability of each of us who were there. No Sherpa pointed a finger at the West yet the Sherpa were there for us and few in our number had a chance on Everest or any other Himalayan peak for that matter, without them. What was our individual and collective responsibility for the dead?
In North America, it is the primarily the employer’s responsibility, not the government’s, to have adequate insurance in place to cover an employee in the face of a workplace accident or death. Did any of the companies that took climbers to Everest provide funds to the Sherpa families after the accident? It takes well over an hour to stroll through the tents of the various climbing companies at base camp and wealthy corporations populate Everest as do other companies that collect from $40,000 to $110, 000 per person for the right to climb. Each of us was a part of such an organization.
Do such organizations have insurance coverage for the Sherpa that are put in harms way? Western guides may be paid $25,000 or more for their work on Everest whereas a Sherpa guide makes between $2,500 and $5,000. Why are the experienced climbing Sherpa paid so little for a season on Everest when a western guide is paid so much more for so much less risk?
None of us had contemplated these questions. We were there to enjoy ourselves while the Sherpa fed us, packed our gear, set up the tents, doctored the ice ladders in the treacherous icefall, packed gear to high camp and helped us on climbs when we could go no further. What about the Sherpa who survived on the mountain but are permanently disabled ? What is in place to look after them, knowing they live in a poor country with a corrupt government and little health care?
And further, why were donations solicited from abroad when these funds should come, at least in part, from the companies where the Sherpa are employed?
I did not hear these questions asked, let alone receive answers. It felt that the story was spun to implicate the Nepali government and thus avoid all the unpleasantness that the questions would raise in the collective guilt that westerners should feel knowing, once again, that we have not done the right thing in the first place.
I cannot answer the questions that I have posed but the death of 16 Sherpa and the future of climbing Everest will demand the answers. Solutions need to come not from the Nepali government but from the individual integrity of those who love the Himalaya and the companies we pay to take us there. Doing the right thing will be costly but it needs to be factored into the cost of doing business.