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Sherpas are ‘disposable humans’: the bitter truth of Everest climbing business

When Everest takes a life, it also keeps it. Mount Everest is the enigma that lures people by thousands into Nepal every year. While quite many climbers make it to the summit, professional or paid, there is no denying the irrefutable fact: without the brave and strong Sherpas as a support, very few would reach even halfway up the Everest.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Christian Kober/Robert Hardi/REX Shutterstock (1267899a) Climbers on an ice wall, Island Peak 6189m, Solu Khumbu Everest Region, Sagarmatha National Park, Himalayas, Nepal, Asia Nepal VARIOUS
Climbers on an ice wall, Island Peak 6189m, Solu Khumbu Everest Region. Photo credit: Christian Kober/Robert Hardi/REX Shutterstock

Sadly though, they are quite often treated as the disposable humans, whose only work is to make the climb easier, and quite often possible. They are the shadows that follow mountaineers, guiding them with their instinctive knowledge about mountains. It’s a folly to think of them as personal servants, relegating them to carry food and personal stuff.

Sherpas, an ethnic group of Tibetans that live in Nepal’s Khumbu-valley are proud, hard-working and fearless men who make scaling the Everest possible. While the average fit person falls flat after reaching 3,000 meters, the Sherpas have the natural advantage and remain strongest up to 8,000 meters; they are likely to face problem only after that. Around 600 Sherpas work during the climbing season; the work vary from simple yak handlers to highly-experienced mountain professionals.

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Sherpas, an ethnic group of Tibetans that live in Nepal’s Khumbu-valley are proud, hard-working and fearless men who make scaling the Everest possible.

With more advanced technologies,the Sherpas nowadays have to often jostle for an expedition. Although a few of them fly globally and purchase the best equipment, a majority of them still rely on their mountain instincts.

With the influx of climbers, there is a growing resentment among the Sherpas that has been brewing for long. In 2014, in a sort of firsts, an angry mob of 100 Sherpas picked up fight with three well-known Western climbers at 21,000 ft. The reason: the climbers tried to break the traditional law of climbing on the Lhotse Face by literally crossing the line, while Sherpas were still working to make the wall passable.

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Each year, a group of Sherpas known as the Icefall Doctors are hired by Nepal’s government, through the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee. The Doctors are responsible for a single, dangerous job: snaking a route through the Icefall, stringing ropes and placing aluminum ladders over the crevasses and up the cliffs.

Until recently, the statistics were nearly one in four climbers dies attempting to reach the summit. As of 2011 about 1,000 climbers a year attempt to reach the summit, and on average 15-20 perish. Over a 10 year period ending in 2014, the mortality rate for a climbing Sherpa was more than 4%.

Last year’s Himalayan Eartyhquake claimed 22 lives, the greatest disaster till date. In 2014, 16 Sherpas died in a communal grave in an avalanche in one the most dangerous spot, Khembu Icefall.

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In 2014, 16 Sherpas died in a communal grave in an avalanche in one the most dangerous spot, Khembu Icefall.

Most Sherpas die around this lower altitude spot, while working on the Khumbu Icefall, trying to pake this passage passable for the climbers. Deaths at higher levels mostly happen to commercial climbers and Western guides. More than 50% of deaths above 8,000m occurred after climbers had summited and were on their way back down. Just a grisly reminder that “Every climb up, also leads to a climb down.”

American data says that the life risk of this mountain-climbing ethnic group is much, much higher than an average Iraqi soldier. While a Sherpa would earn anything between $5,000-10,000 (Rs 34,000-68,000) a season. Considering Nepal’s economy, this is a lot of money. But if we consider the risks involved, and compare it with the earning of a western guide, we would cringe in embarrassment. There’s no other service industry in the world that so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by PACIFIC PRESS SERVICE/REX Shutterstock (74862d) CLIMBERS ON MOUNT EVEREST MOUNT EVEREST, HIMALAYAS - 1979
Climbers On Mount Everest in 1979 Photo by Pacific Press Service

The Sherpas are hugely exploited by foreign agencies. They need to complete the round trip with their clients, no matter what the extreme conditions are, to claim their payment. A little deviation from the norm might lead to cancellation of their permit, or the wage. While the native climbers throw away their lives for a mere few thousands, the foreigners go on to set records, or fulfil their long-cherished dream.

Why Sherpas have an edge over the Westerners are because of their natural adaptability to low levels of oxygen, and the lack of summit fever. They go up because it’s their livelihood.

About the author

Rubi

Whether it’s women issues, politics or the paranormal, Rubi has an opinion on everything. Art and entertainment interest her, too. Hindu College alumni, she has written for The Hindustan Times and The Financial Express. Every now and then, she loves picking up her camera to capture life and its various shades.

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