Sherpa Deaths Raise Questions About the Future of Everest Guiding

Posted on: April 23, 2014


An unidentified climber scales a final ladder in the the Khumbu Icefall, just below the Western Cwm in April 2005. A large avalanche off the West Shoulder of Everest killed 16 Sherpa men climbing through the Icefall. Several new and existing organizations are set up to aid in this tragedy and to further broader Sherpa welfare: Sherpa Photo Fund, which will send all contributions to the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, The Juniper Fund and the American Alpine Club's Sherpa Support Fund [Photo] Olaf Rieck/Wikimedia Commons

"The avalanche happened all of a sudden. It was just like lightning," survivor Kaji Sherpa told the journalist Rajneesh Bhandari from a hospital bed in Kathmandu.

By the time reports of the serac fall-turned-avalanche on the West Shoulder of Mt. Everest were spreading around the world, rescuers were conducting long-line retrievals of the dead and injured by helicopter. By the end of the day, 16 Sherpa men were still missing amid the debris or confirmed dead. Another nine survived, some of whom were treated at Everest ER.

"There are several lucky walking wounded who were treated at our clinic and are still at Base Camp," Everest ER Founder and Director Luanne Freer told Alpinist on Friday. "The psychological wounds of a tragedy like this are already evident as well."

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Kaji Sherpa had been stalled while traveling up through the Icefall, just below Camp I. A ladder bridging a crevasse had collapsed, causing a mounting traffic jam of load-carrying Sherpa climbers. Kaji Sherpa used a rope to bypass the standstill, then helped a friend cross over.

"Just after that, I saw it coming," he remembers, as reported by The New York Times. A chunk of ice had fallen from the seracs on the West Shoulder, triggering a large avalanche that hit the upper reaches of the Icefall, called the Popcorn Field. "[W]hen I tried to run away, a big chunk of ice hit my backbone," Kaji Sherpa said. "I fell down and became unconscious. When I was leaving, I saw ten dead bodies in one spot. Some hands were lying here and legs were lying there, and there were other body parts, all in one place."

In total, twenty-five were buried in the debris. Thirteen were confirmed dead, according to nepalnews.com:

Mingma Nuru Sherpa and Dorji Sherpa, both from the Solukhumbu (NBC Everest Expedition)

Ang Tshiri Sherpa and Nima Sherpa, both from the Solukhumbu (AAI Everest Expedition)

Phurba Ongyal Sherpa, Lakpa Tenjing Sherpa and Chhiring Ongchu Sherpa, all from Khumjung (Adventure Consultants)

Dorjee Khatri of Lelep (Adventurist Everest)

Dorjee Sherpa of Khumjung (Adventurist Everest)

Phur Temba Sherpa of Yaphu (Adventurist Everest)

Pasang Karma Sherpa of the Solukhumbu (Jagged Globe)

Asman Tamang of the Solukhumbu (Himalayan Ecstasy Lhotse)

Ankaji Sherpa of Sankuwasabha (Everest Chinese Dream Expedition)

Of the three people still missing—Tenzing Chottar Sherpa of the Solukhumbu (AAI Everest Expedition), Pem Tenji Sherpa of the Solukhumbu (Everest Chinese Dream Expedition) and Ash Bahadur Gurung of Gorkha (Everest Chinese Dream Expedition)—one has been found dead, but his name has not yet been released.

Commercial companies on the mountain are required to provide life insurance to their employees, but even the best insurance doesn't leave the families of the dead with much money to survive in the long term. Accident and compensation insurance, The Washington Post reports, is $10,300 for mountain guides, $8,200 for base camp workers and $5,100 for low-altitude porters.

"[Y]ou need to understand that only [some] companies...will pay for the top insurance," Willie Benegas, of Benegas Brothers Expeditions, wrote to Alpinist from Cho Oyu Base Camp, and, he says, many insurance agencies will not cover these mountain workers at all.

Initially, reported The Himalayan Times, a Nepali governmental committee charged with natural disaster relief offered 40,000 Rupees, around $400 USD, to the families of each of the deceased. In response, a group of a reported 300 guides and support staff met in Base Camp. Some attendees vowed to enact a "work stoppage" if their list of twelve demands was not met within one week.

For some Sherpas, the boycott was not a symbol of protest, but one of respect. "We are doing this in honor of our friends and Sherpas who died," Mingma Sherpa told The New York Times.

Some of the group's demands applied directly to Friday's accident—$10,000 for each family of the deceased, full medical coverage for the injured and the creation of a memorial fund, financed by peak fees—but also spoke to a need for better working conditions overall. They asked the government to double the minimum insurance requirements for all mountain workers and provide helicopter rescue in the event that the insurance did not cover those costs.

Most notable, however, is the series of demands that would result in a stronger Sherpa voice in safety-related decisions. They want the authority to cancel a climbing season without having to return through dangerous terrain to collect equipment and without losing a paycheck.

Yesterday, an official at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation announced an increase in the minimum insurance coverage of Sherpa support staff and guides—about $16,000 in life insurance and up to $4,000 for injuries—and the creation of a relief fund for mountain workers.

Meanwhile, in Base Camp, writes Freddie Wilkinson, a "loosely organized" memorial ceremony morphed into a platform for several young Sherpa men to reiterate their demands to the government and announce a season-long cancellation of climbing on Everest.

"The government has taken their demands seriously and most of the agitating members have sent a positive note," Madhu Sudhan Burkakoti of the Ministry of Tourism said in an interview with The Himalayan Times. "All climbing activities will surely resume in a day or two."

However, many of the Sherpas from the Khumbu region who went home after the avalanche have not returned to the mountain. And, says General Secretary of the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) Lamakaji Sherpa, the Icefall Doctors have ceased their work fixing ladders and ropes through the avalanche debris. Already, several of the guiding companies have decided to leave the mountain for the season.

"[April 18] was a day that will likely — hopefully — be remembered as a worldwide awakening to the welfare of Sherpa, climber responsibility and the fragile future of the highest mountain on Earth," writer Chris Weidner wrote for the Boulder Daily Camera.

Eleven hired mountain workers died in an avalanche on Kanguru in 2005, another 10 in a slide on Manaslu in 1972, six on Everest in 1970 and seven on Everest in 1922. Now 16 have died. "Hired personnel in particular have born the brunt of some of the deadliest avalanche accidents," statistician Richard Salisbury wrote in The Himalaya by the Numbers. But he cautions against assumptions made about high rates of Sherpa death on Everest in recent years.

"It would be like saying that the overall danger of flying has suddenly increased for everyone if there were a large commercial airline crash yesterday," he wrote in an email to Alpinist. "It is difficult to draw conclusions, especially when you are relying on the occurrence of one event. If recent 16 deaths were the result of several separate avalanches, then it would be more likely that there was a fundamental change in the icefall conditions."

Nonetheless, Salisbury says, we can still extrapolate useful information from the numbers. "Four of the seven Sherpa deaths in 2012 to 2013 were due to non-AMS [acute mountain sickness], which is quite unusual for Sherpas. Perhaps the recent increased demand for climbing on Everest is inducing the use of Sherpas [who] are not as healthy as [they] were in the past."

"Himalayan climbing is a dangerous game and no group bears this burden more than the Sherpa of Nepal," Conrad Anker wrote on his Facebook page soon after the avalanche took place. "To stock the high camps with food, fuel and oxygen the Sherpa will make multiple carries through the Khumbu Icefall...exposing them to much greater hazard."

Tim Rippel, a Himalaya guide of 20-plus years, has wondered whether these objective hazards might increase with the effects of climate change. "What I'm seeing here is exactly why we no longer climb on adjacent Ama Dablam...and later Mt. Pumori," Rippel wrote on his company's blog.

The accident raises other questions, too. Why isn't avalanche training and the use of transceivers more prevalent? Rippel says his is likely the only company that provides avalanche training to expedition members, but that does not include hired Sherpas. (Some receive training from the Khumbu Climbing School.)

How much stuff do expeditions really need to carry from camp to camp? How can those items really be worth risking a Sherpa life with another trip through the Icefall?

If ascents on Everest continue to be a multimillion-dollar business—as the Times reported today—can the pay and treatment of the laborers who do the hardest work and take the most risk become more equitable and more humane?

If the oft-repeated justification of commercial guiding on Everest is its contribution to the local economy, can it be restructured to benefit those communities in a sustainable way rather than disproportionately enriching the Nepali government and commercial guiding companies?

"When these types of tragedies have occurred in the past, it was a reset button and a re-assessment of risk for nearly everyone," remembers Freer, who founded her Base Camp medical clinic over a decade ago to subsidize free and low-cost care for Sherpa people. "Some go home to hug their families and realize they are not willing to pay that price," like the injured Kaji Sherpa, who vows never to climb Mt. Everest again. "Some continue on after paying their respects. Unfortunately, some, the Sherpa, feel they have no option to quit, as this is their only source of livelihood to support their families," Freer said. "It is for these people that I feel so badly—some have lost their brothers and friends and have no option to head down [without risking impoverishment]. It must be awful to strap on crampons and head up the same path that just killed so many."

But if the vocal few Sherpa in Everest Base Camp are heard, the option might finally be theirs.

Sources: Guillermo "Willie" Benegas, Luanne Freer, Becky Rippel, Richard Salisbury, Emily Turner, Jan Sacherer Turner, The News York Times, Men's Journal, The Himalayan Times, Boulder Daily Camera, The Washington Post, Nepal News

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