2013 Everest Report: A Curse, a Fight and the Aftermath


Mt. Everest showing (1) South Col/Southeast Ridge original route (Hillary-Tenzing Norgay, 1953). (2) Modern variation of the 1953 route favored by some for its decreased exposure to rockfall compared with the direct variation. (3) Modern direct variation fixed by commercial teams in 2013, favored by others for its efficiency and decreased exposure to serac fall. (4) Griffith/Steck/Moro's line of descent from Camp II. [A] (Not shown.) Everest summit (8848m). [B] Lhotse (8516m). [C] Nuptse (7864m). [D] South Col (7906m). [E] Geneva Spur. [F] Lhotse Face. [G] Western Cwm. [H] Khumbu Icefall. [I] 2013 Camp I (6100m). [J] 2013 Camp II (6500m). [K] Location of argument with fixing team (7100m). [L] 2013 Camp III (ca. 7500m). [M] 2013 Camp IV (7906m). CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE. [Photo] Dick and Pip Smith/Hedgehoghouse.com

According to Richard Salisbury, who wrote the famed Himalayan Database with Elizabeth Hawley, seventy-three Sherpas and other indigenous high-altitude workers died on Everest between 1950 and spring 2012 alone. Untold others have suffered disabling injuries from mountain accidents or long-term health problems from prolonged hard labor at high altitude—at times leaving their families without a breadwinner. In 2012 Dawa Steven Sherpa wrote to Ives, "Sometimes the Sherpas' huge efforts, loyalty and bravery is taken for granted. I have seen the physical and emotional toll that their work has on them, and it isn't true that Sherpas don't suffer on the mountains.... Sherpas do have fears on the mountain, do hurt in the thin air and do miss their wife and kids back home."


Amanda Padoan, mountain historian and co-author of Buried in the Sky, retells scenes from the early days:

Far from Everest, inside the pleasant temperature-controlled basement of the Royal Geographical Society, a photograph taken by John Noel in 1922 illustrates high-altitude labor relations. In the image, an Englishman points to a blank spot in a notebook while a Sherpani, bracing a toddler on her hip, juts out an inky thumb to roll a print. An anonymous Sherpa man, labeled "Coolie" in the library catalog, stands beside her. The woman and baby are his dependents, and, if he dies on Everest, the paymaster knows whom to give the Sherpa's last wages.

A Sherpani leaves her thumbprint with her husband's employer before his Everest expedition in 1922. If he dies, she and her child will receive his unpaid wages. [Photo] (c) J.B. Noel/RGS-IBG

By the 1930s, Sherpas had formed quasi labor unions, negotiating fairer wages and working conditions. They organized general strikes in 1933 and 1935. Ang Tharkay, who joined Eric Shipton's reconnaissance of Everest in 1935, described one dispute in Memoires d'un Sherpa. "We got an order for each of us to carry a load of seventy pounds from Gangtok to Lachen. Since, in principle, carrying loads wasn't something Sherpas did before base camp, we protested, deciding unanimously to strike." En route to base camp, load carrying was relegated to members of other local ethnic groups, while the Sherpas dominated the more-lucrative upper mountain work. Occasionally a Tibetan Bhote, such as Tenzing Norgay, would break through and adopt a Sherpa role and identity, but the Sherpas' influence was so robust that their ethnicity became synonymous with the profession.

Both collaboration and conflict between Sherpas and Westerners have long been part of Everest mountaineering, and the 1953 first ascent of Mt. Everest was no exception. Tenzing Norgay recounted how, at the launch of the expedition, the Sherpas were offered the hard floor of a garage to sleep on, while the sahibs enjoyed beds inside the British embassy. Tenzing Norgay, a full team member, refused his bed and chose to stay among the Sherpas as a sign of solidarity. The garage had no latrine, so the Sherpas urinated in front of the building in protest.

"[M]y story is not 'official,'" Tenzing Norgay cautioned in his autobiography, Tiger of the Snows, co-authored with James Ramsey Ullman. "I am not an Englishman but a Sherpa." The "unofficial" story goes on to describe Tenzing Norgay's humiliation at a press conference soon after he and Edmund Hillary became the first to stand on Everest's summit. Colonel John Hunt, the leader of the expedition, called the gathering to debunk rumors that Tenzing Norgay had reached the top ahead of Hillary. Hunt "lost his temper and implied that, far from being a hero, I wasn't even, technically, a very good climber," Tenzing Norgay explained. To the Nepali and Indian journalists, Hunt was "pouring kerosene on a fire." Despite the myriad honors and recognitions Tenzing Norgay received after the first ascent of Everest, those two insults haunted him for the rest of his life.

During the 1963 American Everest Expedition, Sherpa members began regularly ferrying loads to high camps unaccompanied by their Western employers. And in the expedition account, Americans on Everest (1964), the US journalist James Ramsey Ullman recorded a sense of blending roles. Sherpas members argued successfully for the same access to oxygen use and the same number of sleeping bags as the Americans. "[The Sherpas] are dedicated," Ullman noted, "to what they conceive to be their rights." Once a few Sherpas were selected to be part of a summit bid, the American team members started to accord them the same status as "climbers." Of the load hauling from Advance Base Camp, Ullman recounted:

The real job, during this phase of the climb, was being done by the Sherpas up on the Lhotse Face, and there was a glumly recurrent, though scarcely realistic, vision of their going on all the way to the top of the mountain while the sahibs cooled heels and behinds in the Western Cwm. THIRTEEN SHERPAS REACH SUMMIT OF EVEREST; AMERICANS GREET THEM ON DESCENT WITH CHEERS AND HOT TEA would be a fine message to send out to Kathmandu and the world beyond.

Twenty-eight years later, an event similar to that imaginary headline finally occurred. In 1991, ten Sherpas carried out the first Sherpa-only expedition to the summit of Everest—with a few Americans, including Athans, as support members to film and observe. Though the ascent has received relatively little media attention, it marked an important change in the perception of Sherpas on the mountain. "Sherpas were gaining more experience," Athans says. "They could do all the work themselves.... [The goal of the Sherpa Everest Expedition] was to show that the role of Sherpas was changing beyond the image of Sherpas as only capable of carrying loads while the Westerners fixed the ropes. Summit day was a really great moment. The Sherpas had fixed the whole route, done all the decision making."

The cold, gusty weather had tested their resolve, Athans recounted in the American Alpine Journal report: "A team composed of anyone other than Sherpas certainly would have chosen descent rather than continuing in the maelstrom of stinging, blinding snow." At the top of the peak, the three summiters, Sonam Dendu, Apa and Ang Temba attached white prayer flags to an old yellow oxygen cylinder. A year later, their expedition leader Lopsang Sherpa explained to National Geographic, "We want to take pride as a people apart," while Sonam Dendu said the ascent was intended "for all the Sherpas."

In the decades after the expedition, Athans recalls, "We started to see Sherpas taking on greater and greater roles and responsibilities.... [There was] an increase in skill and proficiency. In some cases, they began doing all the guiding process."

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