On April 18, 2014, an avalanche on Mount Everest tumbled down upon the nearby Everest Base Camp—at the altitude of 1,900 feet above sea level—killing 16 Nepalese guides. The victims of the deadliest accident on Mt. Everest ever recorded were mainly Sherpa mountain guides.
After Tenzing Norgay helped Sir Edmund Hillary reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, this ethnic group came to be associated—at least in mainstream Western imagination—with expeditionary mountaineering. In fact, more than half a decade after Norgay, many Sherpas still make their living from this perilous occupation. As part of their tasks, Sherpa guides often embark on 20-25 round trips carrying climbing kit and supplies to base camps closer to the summit. This physically demanding and dangerous activity exposes those working in this tourism sector to great risks.
Historically, people living along the Himalayan ranges used to make their living carrying goods between Nepal and Tibet and exchanging them for wheat and sugar. Although Sherpa guides recognize that they are working in an immensely dangerous job, they also admit that work in other sectors are difficult to come by. Despite that not a year goes by without at least one death; in a country where the average annual income is $700 USD, an opportunity to make up to $5,000 USD in three months is indeed hard to turn down. Furthermore, an expedition to the summit may cost up to $90,000 USD for those wishing to undertake it.
Thus, despite the inevitable dangers that multiple journeys up Mount Everest entail, many find it an indeclinable chance to quickly earn a living. The Sherpas, once among Nepal’s poorest communities, have been benefiting from visitors to the world’s highest peak. Tourism has allowed this once isolated ethnic community to form their own middle-class. Nevertheless, as trail preparers as well as porters, Sherpa guides face much higher risks than their co-expeditionary clients. Being the first on every journey to scout the trail and having to break the ice and deep snow, to lay ropes and to carry heavy equipment, in case of an accident, the guides are much more likely to bare the brunt of it. Other potential risks include altitude sickness, the lack of oxygen, hypothermia and avalanches.
Tourism—now Nepal’s largest industry as well as a major source of foreign revenue—decidedly has been beneficial for Nepal and the Sherpa community in certain aspects. Many Sherpa families now own trekking companies and only work in well-paid high-altitude expeditions. As for Nepal itself, although tourism attracts more than 700,000 foreign tourists annually—most of whom visit the Himalayan nation for trekking—the country has been dramatically transformed from the remote Himalayan kingdom that Sir Hillary encountered to a republic bustling with tourists on the crossroad of two global economic giants.
As for the Sherpa community, following the tragedy that struck their community, many are demanding better compensation as well as higher insurance payments for the lives lost in the avalanche. The Nepalese government has so far offered only $400 USD to the families of the guides perished in the incident. Nevertheless, is the money earned from trekking worth the risks that frequent trips up the world’s highest mountain pose? Although Mt. Everest’s tourism industry brings much prosperity to the Sherpa community and to Nepal as a whole, the guides have to put their own lives and the livelihood of their families at what would, in “more regular circumstances,” be considered unacceptable risks. $5,000 USD during the climbing season—approximately three months in duration with multiple journeys involving a wide range of dangers and annual fatalities—would certainly not be considered a sufficient remuneration in high-income countries. What then makes the lives of the Sherpa guides less valuable? The exchange rates and the cost of living?
– Peewara Sapsuwan