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

EARLY ON APRIL 26, 2013, Chad Kellogg, Damian Benegas and Rory Stark met at the International Mountain Guides (IMG) camp near the base of the Lhotse Face with the intention of trying to fix a modern variation of 1953 route to Camp III. Once the Westerners decided that the route was feasible, two Sherpas—Mingma Tenzing of IMG and one other—joined them. "Everyone was happy," says Benegas. Even though the 1953 route takes longer to fix and has a section exposed to serac fall, it's faster and easier to carry loads up it, Benegas claimed. Others claim the direct route is faster and less dangerous.

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While the three Westerners and two Sherpas were still fixing, Sherpas carrying loads started following them up the ropes, hoping to secure the best spots in Camp III for their teams. Four hours and several hundred vertical meters higher, the team halted at a large crevasse. Unable to circumvent the obstacle, they descended, stripping hours of work along the way.

"When we arrived to Camp II, there was a lot of grumbling from the Sherpa crew that we had wasted a day. They had wanted to fix the lines to Camp III themselves without the 'white eyes,' or mikaru, as the foreigners are known," Chad Kellogg wrote in a blog post. "We came to find out that the fixing of the lines is a matter of national pride for the Sherpas."

One Sherpa confronted Benegas. "He went off, and I went off," Benegas says.

"Pride played a major role in this," his brother Willie Benegas thinks. An awareness of the value of their work has been building within the Everest Sherpa community for years. "When I started climbing Everest in 1999 to 2006 or 2007, the Sherpas were not really pushing to fix ropes. They didn't mind fixing up to the South Col, but not above that," Benegas says.

Back then, from where those fixed ropes ended, Western guides would often haul their own lines, stringing up massive amounts of rope on their clients' summit day. In 2009 Russell Brice guided the south side of Everest for the first time. That year also marked the first time companies discussed fixing ropes up to the top of the mountain prior to summit day. "There was considerable opposition to doing this, however IMG, AAI and HimEx did end up fixing in advance," Brice explains. "This has since become normal practice and much more refined with better rope, same color rope and better quality fixation."

Along with that change came another evolution: Sherpas soon had a major part in rope fixing from the base of Everest's south side to the very summit. Today, their job involves some of the most dangerous labor on the mountain and represents one of the most important pieces of the commercial guiding effort. "It is fair to say that the largest bulk of the work on the mountain is done by the Sherpas," Dawa Steven Sherpa told Ives in May 2012. "Sherpas have also evolved from simply being a 'high altitude porter.' For example, twenty-five Nepalis (mostly Sherpas) received their UIAGM certification this week. As far as qualifications go, they are now on par with Western guides." Ngawang Nima Sherpa, of the Nepal Mountaineering Instructors Association, added, "Most of us know that the 8000-meter ascent is the toughest job in the world, in which our [Nepali and Sherpa] climbers take the international climbers to the top of the mountain."

But while Sherpas' responsibilities have grown, their salaries have generally remained lower than those of their Western coworkers. "In Nepalese terms, the Sherpas are paid very well per expedition, several times more than the average annual [income]. However, the Sherpas are still paid less than the Western guide," Dawa Steven Sherpa explained.

While several companies declined to make their pay structures public, Alpenglow Expeditions shared their numbers with us. Sherpas receive an up-front "signing bonus" of approximately $2,000, Ballinger says, then a $15 daily wage. On top of that, Alpenglow pays a carrying bonus for each load Sherpas haul between camps. In 2013, their bonus was $20 for carrying a 15kg (33lb) load from Base Camp to Camp I, $15 to Camp II, $50 to Camp III, $60 to Camp IV, $500 to the summit. "So for every 33 pounds carried to from Base Camp to Camp IV, a Sherpa made a $145 bonus," he says. "[We pay] an additional $500 for summiting (we actually pay these summit bonuses even if a Sherpa turns around with a client, or stays in Camp IV in support)." Finally, clients are encouraged to give the Sherpas who climb with them to the summit a $500-$1,000 tip.

Jugging the fixed ropes on the Lhotse Face. Griffith, Moro and Steck free soloed the ice to the left of these lines before trying to cross them on April 27, 2013. [Photo] Adrian Ballinger

At the end of the season, Sherpas will return home from Everest with $6,000-$8,000, Ballinger says. "Western guides have a much bigger range. There are many guide companies, including most of the big-name US companies (not Alpenglow) that do not pay their first-time guides anything. Only their expenses are paid on their first season. From there, wages run the gamut. I have heard of Western guides making as little as nothing and as much as $50,000 for the two-and-a-half month season. The major company I worked for from 2007-2012 paid between $18,000 [and] $30,000 [to Western guides] depending on experience for the Everest season. Alpenglow has a similar range based on AMGA/IFMGA level of certification and previous Everest experience. Overall, no, Sherpa and Western guides are not paid similar wages."

Ballinger cited Nepalis' lower cost of living and training expenses as reasons for the discrepancy. "AMGA/IFMGA certification [can cost] $25,000 while the Khumbu Climbing Center costs less than $100. Of course not all Western guides have their AMGA/IFMGA guide's qualification, and not all Sherpa have been to the KCC. I believe these qualifications should be required of both groups, as a minimum for guiding and working on Everest," he says.

Looked at from another perspective, one might note that, with a few exceptions (Russell Brice told the journalist Ed Douglas that he pays one of his Sherpas, Phurba Tashi, the same amount as Western guides receive), certain Everest workers who have similar years of experience, who are confronting life-threatening risks and who are entrusted with significant levels of responsibility, don't have the same opportunities to earn higher wages and advancement as their peers do—mainly because of their nationality.

Although there are a few Sherpa-owned guiding companies, Luis Benitez, an 8000-meter peak guide from Colorado, points out that Sherpas sometimes lack the access to medical, business and technical education—as well as the financial resources or the Internet marketing skills—to break away from their dependence on Western outfitters and to attract their own international clients or sponsors.

In 2010, a client hired Benitez and a Sherpa, Lakpa Rita, for Broad Peak and K2. "Lakpa lives in Seattle," Benitez says, "is a senior guide, leads expeditions with Westerners as assistants, has climbed the Seven Summits and still doesn't get paid every trip as much as the Western guides he works with." During their Broad Peak/K2 trip, Benitez made $2,000 more than Lakpa Rita because he handled the logistics and because the client was his contact. "Is that difference worth 2k?" Benitez asks. "Lakpa Rita did carries to high camps on Broad Peak and K2. In reflection I would say that [his work] more than made the argument for equal pay, yet here I sit as guilty as anyone else. Until Sherpas get that medical/business/social media training, this disparity will continue. The guiding community needs to change the game by changing the questions they are asking themselves: How willing are we to lean in and provide Sherpas with a different kind of education and support?"

Everest, by "Fair Means"

THE 2013 SEASON STARTED OUT as the most promising in years for lightweight adventure climbing on Everest, a historic endeavor oft-forgotten amid modern lamentations about overcrowding and dangerously inexperienced clients. While the first ascent of the peak set a precedent for large sieges, other early aspirants, such as Eric Shipton, had argued for the value of smaller groups and more minimalist styles. In 1978 Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler finally proved it was possible to climb the world's highest mountain without supplemental oxygen. Two years later, Messner returned for an alpine-style solo of the North Face. Everest climber and historian Ed Webster calls Messner's 1980 summit, "the purest ascent of Everest possible."

"Messner and Habeler had raised the bar," Lincoln Hall recounted in 2008. "An oxygenless first ascent was the next big challenge and we embraced it" (Alpinist 27). In 1984 Hall's five-man Australian team established a new Everest North Face route, White Limbo, with the help of Nepalis Tenzing Sherpa and Narayan Shresta. None of the climbers used supplemental oxygen. After fixing ropes to 7400 meters, Tim Macartney-Snape, Lincoln Hall, Greg Mortimer and Andrew Henderson continued in a single push up icy rock and loose snow. Jim Wickwire, who watched their progress from a distance, called it, "One of the most amazing achievements yet on Everest" (1985 American Alpine Journal).

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