April 23, 2014
Sherpas Issue List Of Demands After Deadly Avalanche On Mount Everest
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Less than a week after the single deadliest accident on Mount Everest claimed the lives of at least 13 of their own, dozens of Sherpa guides have packed up and walked out, taking steps to close down the mountain for the season.
This year, the avalanche that claimed more than a dozen Sherpa lives was, as the proverb goes, likely the straw that broke the camel’s back. The move to shut down the mountain also includes demands that the government share proceeds from what has become a multimillion-dollar business.
Nepali officials today responded to a petition presented by a representative body of the Sherpa climbing community to the Ministry of Tourism – the government agency that oversees mountain climbing in the region.
Included in the petition was 13 demands that the Sherpa claim must be met before they continue the climbing season for hundreds of eager explorers from around the world. The Sherpas are expecting an answer no later than April 28 to avoid a strike, which will render any summit attempts impossible.
The government said it would honor several of the demands, including raising the value of medical and life insurance policies for each Sherpa working on the mountain, paying for education of the children of the deceased and building a memorial to honor them. However, many of the demands would not be met, including the guaranteed pay for all Sherpas even if the climbing season is canceled.
Tensions erupted during a meeting on Tuesday at Mount Everest’s base camp, with two-thirds of the Sherpas canceling planned ascents. While many climbers packed up their belongings for the long trek out of the Himalayas, two veteran expedition leaders left camp to meet with Nepalese officials in an effort to avert the shutdown.
“I would like to go back to my Sherpas and say, ‘Look, guys, I got what you wanted,’” said Phil Crampton, the owner of Altitude Junkies, a mountaineering company, in a telephone interview with the New York Times. “We want the Sherpas happy, we want the government happy and we want our clients happy. The bottom line is that if at the end of the day the Sherpas aren’t happy, we will comply and cancel our expedition.”
Since not all demands are to be honored by the government, it seems likely a shutdown may not be averted.
A BETTER PAYCHECK
One of the biggest issues is lack of decent pay. With as many as 300 foreigners ascending on the mountain each year, big money is being paid out to get the chance to climb Everest. Professional Western guides get as much as $100,000 per climber for an easier climb up the mountain. Altitude Junkies, for example, charges $42,500 for a two-month expedition, which includes many amenities, including “two personal Sherpas on summit day.” Of that, $11,000 goes to the Nepalese government for licensing fees, netting the government upwards of $4 million annually.
Mountaineering companies then pay Sherpas to assist climbers up the mountain. While the average income per capita in the country is around $700, Sherpas can make as much as $5,000 in a season, supplemented by bonuses if they reach the summit.
However, many risks are involved and in the past Sherpas have expressed frustrations as mountaineering has changed in recent years. All too often climbers come with deep pockets but with little technical training and end up forcing Sherpas into dangerous situations because of climbers' lack of experience.
While many Sherpas are battling the government for better policies and better pay, others are still in mourning for the deaths of the 13 Sherpas in Friday’s avalanche, the largest single-day loss on Mount Everest in its history, dealing an unprecedented blow to the Sherpas’ way of life.
Another big issue is the fact that the government failed the Sherpas by only offering a mere $140 (US) as compensation to the families of the dead. Mukunda Bista of the Nepal Youth Foundation said tempers flared on Monday when a group of Sherpas marched in procession with the bodies of six of the deceased guides.
“When it ended in the middle of town, they were very, very angry with the government,” Bista, who is based in Katmandu, said in a telephone interview with the Times. “This time, it really is a crucial moment. If the government is not taking it seriously, there might be more agitation and fighting.”
While Altitude Junkies is trying to help bring the Sherpas and the government to strike a deal, two other guide operations are packing up and calling it quits. Adventure Consultants, which lost three Sherpa guides, and Alpine Ascents International, which lost five guides, have pulled the plug on their expeditions this season. More teams are expected to follow suit and if the larger teams, which include Himalayan Experience and International Mountain Guides, abandon their efforts, then it will likely lead to a sure end for the climbing season.
It is these larger outfitters that provide the majority of Sherpas with the most experience and if they pack up and go there will not be enough Sherpas available for any of the teams to try and reach the summit as well. All teams have reportedly said they will abide by the wishes and needs of the Sherpas, whatever the outcome.
The petition to the government was signed by 25 people, most of whom were top Sherpa guides. The petition was also signed by Russell Brice, owner and operator of Himalayan Experience, by far the largest of the Everest outfitters. Dave Hahn, lead guide for Rainier Mountaineering, who holds the record for most non-Sherpa summits (15), also signed the petition.
Speaking to National Geographic by phone at base camp, Hahn said the Sherpas are only trying to leverage what they deserve.
"This has been a horrific accident for the Sherpa community," he said.
Conrad Anker, a three-time Everest mountaineer and leader of the 2012 National Geographic/the North Face Everest expedition, said Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism is a “bloated, dysfunctional bureaucracy.”
"I'd bet less than one percent of the three million dollars in permit fees collected each year goes back to the mountain," he told NatGeo’s Mark Jenkins.
Sushil Koirala, a new Nepalese prime minister elected in February, has vowed to fight corruption and poverty in the country, but he may have a difficult road ahead swaying the minds of the Nepali parliament’s newly elected 601-member Constituent Assembly.
Sherpas’ death compensation had been raised from $4,000 (US) to $10,000 last year. The new petition seeks another raise to $20,000 (two million rupees). This increase relates directly to the cost of traditional funerals, which are very expensive in Nepal. Currently, the Nepal government requires all outfitters to purchase this insurance for their Sherpas and pay the premiums.
Currently, there is little financial support for Sherpas who are injured on the mountain, and outfitters often step in to help pay for hospital bills. If all of the terms of the petition were to be met, the government would instead step in and pay these costs. Outfitters also currently pay for emergency helicopter flights for both injured and deceased Sherpas and additional rescue services are outlined in the petition. As well, disabled Sherpa guides are not financially supported, another demand in the petition.
Guy Cotter, owner of Adventure Consultants, said his operation, as others, depend on the Sherpas.
"If you look at what a Sherpa can buy with his money in his village—a house, for example—compared to what a mountain guide in New Zealand or Switzerland can buy with his income, things kind of balance out," he said.
Many argue that Sherpas are taking far greater risks than the outfitters’ guides on Everest. But Cotter pointed out to NatGeo that the risk cannot be easily quantified. Everest is an unpredictable place. While 13 Sherpas died in Friday’s accident, far more have been killed or injured on the mountain from other incidents. And in past years, both guides and clients have died while following their dreams.
In the old days, climbers basically told Sherpas what to do. But today, the Sherpas make the majority of the decisions on the mountain, said Cotter.
"They decide where the route will go. They decide where the ropes and ladders will go. They decide when they're going to carry and when they're going to rest," he said.
As long as there is guiding on Everest, Sherpas will be doing the most work and taking the greatest risks – and they know and accept this. He said they do not want to stop working, but they do want to be treated fairly and be compensated appropriately for the job they are doing.
It is hard to say if the government will succumb to any more, or all, of the demands listed in the petition. But for now, thousands of people are still at Everest base camp playing the waiting game.
Crampton, who has climbed Everest 11 times, said he was hoping that he and his clients would not be forced to leave the mountain. If this season’s ascents are canceled, he said, the government would keep all fees already paid and the fear of losing future investments may deter foreign climbers for years to come.
Many of the climbers have already had to forfeit most or all of the money they spent on a chance at reaching the summit – some losing in excess of $75,000, the AP reported.
“It is just impossible for many of us to continue climbing while there are three of our friends buried in the snow,” Dorje Sherpa, an Everest guide told the AP. Three of the 16 are still missing and presumed dead. “I can’t imagine stepping over them.”
During an emergency meeting scheduled for Wednesday morning, Crampton said he would remind the Nepalese government that “we put an awful lot of money into the economy, and we feel that the Sherpas have been given a very, very hard time in the past.”
“We had a historic accident, and now we’ve got a historic moment, where we could close down the whole season,” Mr. Crampton said in a statement to the New York Times. “I feel like I’m doing something I should have done a long time ago.”
Sherpa Pasang, general secretary of the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association said the group would also try to negotiate with the Sherpas and the Nepalese government because a total boycott would harm the country’s mountaineering industry in the long term.