Mount Everest is closed as its guides seek better protection in the globe's deadliest workplace
In January, when actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin arrived in Nepal, it seemed like they would provide the big headline for this year’s Everest climbing season. They were there to shoot a blockbuster based on Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book “Into Thin Air”. The book is a firsthand account of the mountain’s deadliest year: 1996, when eight climbers died in a freak storm, along with seven others from falls and other events.
Then just over a week ago, as some of this year’s first climbers lumbered through the dicey terrain between 18,000 and 21,000 feet, an avalanche tore down the mountainside and killed 16 men. All of them were sherpas, members of the ethnic group that lives in the valleys ringing the mountain’s southern slope.
In a matter of minutes, Everest had broken its own record for the deadliest climbing season in the peak’s history.
Deaths on the world’s highest peak are not uncommon, even among the most skilled and experienced climbers. People fall into crevasses, avalanches happen without warning, the altitude causes fatal embolisms. But this is not the whole story.
As expedition support staff, sherpas go up the mountain earlier and more often than their clients, trekking up treacherous terrain such as the Khumbu Icefall (where the recent avalanche occurred) with camping gear, food and oxygen bottles on their backs.
In other words, in this game of glacier roulette, sherpas hold the gun to their heads many more times than their clients. Yet many sherpas’ names are not known, their lives – and deaths – quickly buried beneath the lore of Everest: stories of foreigners who climb the fastest, with the least oxygen, or for some faraway charitable cause.
In the wake of the recent disaster, sherpas have threatened to strike: that is, not take people up the mountain. The government has hastily pledged to increase financial support and to compensate the families of the deceased, but doubts remain that there is the will for this to actually happen. Indeed, after the initial outcry dies down, business as usual is likely to continue on the world’s tallest peak.
In an interview last week, Madhusudan Burlakoti, Nepal’s tourism industry chief, insisted, “The expeditions will continue up the mountain. There is no reason to think it’s unsafe now because of this natural disaster that happened.”
Pressed on whether the government thought Everest was overcrowded and whether that put staff unnecessarily at risk, Burlakoti explained, “If it’s overcrowded, we will rig another rope and have two lines so everyone can go up.”
He clarified: “The sherpa workers can rig another line of ropes.”
Everest is also no stranger to controversy, especially when it comes to disputes between Nepali staff and foreign clients. Perhaps most famously, three top European climbers exchanged blows in 2013 with a group of sherpas after the trio overtook the Nepali rope-rigging crew, allegedly kicked down some ice upon them, and then shouted local slurs.
In the days since this most recent tragedy, the murky politics of rich clients climbing a dangerous mountain in a poor country have festered, as a community mourns and wonders what’s next. More than a dozen sherpa groups packed up, declared this season a “black year”, and vowed to not continue their climbs out of respect for the deceased.
Some Western climbers took a different view. Joby Ogwyn, a Hollywood stuntman who was slated to jump from the summit in a wingsuit live on the Discovery Channel, tweeted soon after the avalanche: “Today is a brighter day. We are staying on the mountain to honour our friends and complete our project.”
But then protest marches were held in Kathmandu and sherpa leaders handed a list of 13 demands to the government: increase compensation from the roughly $400 (Bt12,900) offered to families of the avalanche victims, bolster insurance plans, and filter some of the massive profits the government makes from Everest permits back to the communities from which labourers come – an ask they have been making for years.
By early last week, even Ogwyn had packed up his wingsuit and left the mountain.
Whether expeditions start up soon or not, the government’s promises to increase support to sherpas and their families come across as little more than big words in a country where, even with a budgetary surplus in recent years, roads sit in disrepair, electricity is scarce, and a quarter of the population lives on less than $2 per day.
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, a lecturer in anthropology at Penn State University, is not confident that the latest demands for better standards for sherpa workers and communities will stick. “There’s too much money lined up in it,” she says. “The clients feel like they can get away with anything, demanding to have a right to ascend because they paid for it. And the government has its eyes on the money, not the men who make the industry possible.”
In “Into Thin Air”, Krakauer wrote, “Everest has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics, and others with a shaky hold on reality.” Last year’s commercial client records included the first Saudi woman (while the country debated whether women should be allowed to drive), the first person with no hands, and the first openly gay person – rainbow flag in hand – to reach the summit.
These are the people bringing in the money and making triumphant headlines. Eventually, movie stars just might commemorate their conquests.
Krakauer has predicted, “It will come as no great surprise if most of the sherpas now grieving intensely for their absent companions resume their dangerous work.” In the meantime, however, no casting agents are rushing out to find actors to play Mingma Nuru Sherpa, Dorji Sherpa, Ang Tshiri Sherpa, Nima Sherpa, Phurba Ongyal Sherpa, Lakpa Tenjing Sherpa, Chhiring Ongchu Sherpa, Dorjee Khatri, Then Dorjee Sherpa, Phur Temba Sherpa, Pasang Karma Sherpa, Asman Tamang, Tenzing Chottar Sherpa, Ankaji Sherpa, Pem Tenji Sherpa and Ash Bahadur Gurung.
Kyle Knight is a journalist based in Bangkok.