Last Friday 16 Nepalese Sherpas were killed in an avalanche on the “shores” of Mt. Everest, a stormy sea known for its exacting toll of victims.
Sherpas are a cultural group native to Nepal; the word also connotes specialists in mountain climbing. In a team of Sherpas the person in charge is referred to as a sirdar, literally meaning “leader.”
I have traveled to the Himalayas four times, to climb and trek and to enjoy village life and culture. Where else in the world can you take an (admittedly very long) day hike and summit an 18,000 ft peak once you are acclimatized to the altitude?
In May of 1996 I was descending Mera peak when a furious storm nearby killed eight climbers caught on the slopes of Everest. We only became aware of the disaster when we walked into the village of Lukla days after the incident to see the rescue effort underway.
I remember then being amazed at the care with which the vast majority of Sherpas treat their clients and the utter lack of safety that they employ for themselves.
On Mera we spent two nights at a high camp at 19,000 ft before descending to base camp along a sloping ice field.
Climbers were roped up and I happened to be in the front position walking behind the sirdar who was out in the lead. On this occasion he was on the rope but usually he was not.
Without warning he simply disappeared. We dropped to the snow and dug in as the rope instantly pulled taut. Our combined weight held his and the other rope team moved up to find him dangling in a “bottomless” crevasse. Any other time he would have simply been gone.
On the way down from the summit we spent hours trudging across a pristine plain of snow under a blistering sun with no shade. It was truly a desert environment. By 11 a.m when we finally reached the high camp, one climber and two Sherpas were suffering from severe heat stress, nearly unable to continue. I have never wanted shade more in my life.
Everest climbers pay up to $100,000 to western companies who then pay Sherpas a fraction of that for their services. Many Sherpas depend on tips for work that amounts to life-and-death activity.
A friend asked me the other day if I was at Everest Base Camp, would I insist on the climb after such a tragedy?
Of course not, but I have no interest in climbing Everest where up to 600 people can be hanging around base camp.
Everest is not a wilderness experience but rather an elite and dubious merit badge of accomplishment as the path to success is paved by Sherpas receiving pennies an hour to place ropes and ladders for the sahibs coming behind.
Sherpas deserve more money and they need a better safety culture, too.
What has happened on the mountain in the last few days amounts to a strike as Sherpas are refusing to work there this season.
Good for them. A strike is the quintessential union action of last resort and a union is exactly what they need.