Mount Everest tragedy: Disposable heroes

Mount Everest tragedy: Disposable heroes
A portrait of Ankaji Sherpa, who lost his life in an avalanche at Mount Everest last Friday, is seen near a prayer flag during the cremation ceremony of Nepali Sherpa climbers in Kathmandu April 21, 2014.

KATHMANDU - On April 18, a massive avalanche swept the western side of Mount Everest, killing 16 Nepali mountaineers at a stroke -the single deadliest day in the history of Everest.

The mountaineers, mostly Sherpas, were on their way from Base Camp to Camp 1 at around 6.45 in the morning, laden with food and mountaineering gear when the avalanche hit.

The men were instantly buried under metres of snow and ice on the section of the Khumbu Icefall known as the 'popcorn field', an area notorious for its inclement weather and treacherous crevasse-ridden footing.

Although the literal backbone of Nepal's climbing industry, Sherpas only seem to make international news when something goes wrong.

Last year, it was a high-profile brawl between Westerners and Sherpas.

This year, it is a tragedy of epic proportions, one that has caused a gathering of around 500 Sherpa mountaineers on Sunday to mark 2014 as a 'black year' and issue a moratorium on Everest expeditions in mourning.

Every year, a few Sherpa lives are lost on the perilous climb up Everest. This year, in addition to the 16 dead, one Mingma Tenzing Sherpa died on the mountain on April 2.

But each year, a Western death warrants column inches while Sherpa deaths go virtually unnoticed; it takes 16 deaths at one fell swoop to invite attention.

The argument could be made, and has been, that it is the hazards of the job they do. But the fact is, on Everest, Sherpas do the most work and save the most lives.

Without their diligence and perspicacity in putting up ropes, marking routes and carrying loads, none but the most experienced and skillful of Western climbers could make it up the mountain. Their rope-laying on the exceedingly dangerous Khumbu Icefall makes it exponentially easier and safer for those following.

No doubt, this is a dangerous job but it is also quite lucrative, bringing in thousands of dollars to Sherpa families and Nepal's tourism industry.

As the world's highest peak, it would be almost tautological to say that Everest is a dangerous place. There is no preventing such disasters from taking place. Weather patterns are often unpredictable and even the smallest mistakes can have dire consequences.

The people attempting the summit, both Sherpas and others, know this. It is a calculated risk they are taking.

Limiting Everest expeditions might not be a popular option but in light of the overcrowding on the mountain, a cap on the number of expeditions must be considered. Last year, the government increased the minimum insurance for high-altitude Sirdars to Rs 1 million (S$12,900) from Rs 400,000.

This amount is clearly not enough. Insurance needs to be higher and must also adequately cover injuries and accidents. As Grayson Schaffer for Outside magazine puts it, "The answer isn't decreasing, or ending, the climbing business on Everest; the solution is increasing the value of a Sherpa life."

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