Stricken Sherpas look to Everest for salvation

Stricken Sherpas look to Everest for salvation
Rescuers evacuating a Sherpa injured by the avalanche that flattened parts of Base Camp on Everest in the April 25 earthquake. At least 18 people - Nepali and foreign - were killed outright.

Nepal's Sherpa community has been badly shaken by consecutive tragedies on Mount Everest but ironically still depends - and now possibly more than ever - on the income the highest mountain in the world brings.

This year's climbing season has been called off - for the second year running.

Last year's season was cancelled after 16 Sherpas died in an avalanche. This year, at least 18 people - Nepali and foreign - were killed outright in the avalanche that rampaged through Base Camp following the April 25 earthquake. Many others were injured.

The Sherpa community lost thousands of homes; in Thame, one village on the popular Everest base camp trek, almost every house collapsed.

Meanwhile, criticism of the scale of the Everest industry is mounting. There were a staggering 800 people on the mountain when the earthquake struck.

Everest is overcrowded; on good weather days in May, when climbers go for the summit, there are sometimes so many that snaking queues form.

When Singaporean mountaineer Khoo Swee Chiow first got to Everest in 1998, base camp was still small.

"Today, it takes you half an hour to walk from one end to the other," he told The Sunday Times over the phone from Kathmandu, where he is trying to arrange assistance for communities in the remote Manaslu region. Special expeditions and yak trains have to periodically remove rubbish every year.

In the days immediately after the April 25 earthquake, on top of evacuations from Base Camp, more than 100 climbers were evacuated from Camp One - which was actually unaffected.

In his blog, one American mountaineer at 20,000 feet in Camp One called it the "great Everest Air Show" as the series of helicopters landed to "rescue" climbers.

Those air resources could have been used elsewhere in and around the Kathmandu valley, critics have said - to take help to people in real need. In the days immediately after the earthquake, there was a critical lack of air resources - mainly the helicopters that are required in such a mountainous country.

But the private helicopter operators who flew the missions to Everest had no choice but to evacuate the climbers; their insurance policies demanded it. A guided climb up Everest comes with a hefty price tag, ranging from US$20,000 to US$80,000 (S$26,600 to S$106,000) a person, depending on the standard of the guides and the services, which can range from the most basic - seasoned climbers like Mr Khoo warn against using cheaper "fly by night" operators - to relatively luxurious. Insurance is included in that package.

There are now calls to close the mountain to climbers. But the Everest industry has become like the world's biggest global banks; it is too big to be allowed to fail. Climbers and Sherpas are expecting it to be open next season. The income from mountaineering accounts for around 4 per cent of the country's GDP - and Everest is the holy grail.

"There is too much at stake," Dawa Steven Sherpa told The Sunday Times over the phone from Kathmandu, where he runs Asian Trekking which was started by his father, the legendary Sherpa Ang Tshering.

The Sherpa community needs the money from the Everest climbs - around US$2,500 or more a climb, often just one a year for a skilled Sherpa climber. This is enough to last a family a year, and finance children's education - in a harsh environment where the alternatives are bitter: subsistence farming, hauling porter loads, or leaving the family to migrate in search of work.

"There are a lot of people who are saying 'close down Everest' but if you close it down, what do you propose the Sherpas do?" said the 31-year-old Dawa Steven, who has himself climbed a string of major peaks including Everest. Other mountains were sometimes more dangerous than Everest, he added.

"The Sherpas have lost a lot. Now they are mostly building their homes again. By and large, unless you're a climber, you don't have a good income. The only option is climbing."

"It's not a playground for the rich, as some media like to say," he said. "Everest is more of a natural resource."

And the climbing community is rallying round, he said. Across the world, the community is raising funds and organising relief efforts.

Dawa Steven said: "I have 250 e-mails in my inbox from around the world, asking about the safety of individual Sherpas."

nirmal@sph.com.sg


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