Big business puts Sherpas at grave risk

NEPAL - On April 18, Good Friday, a massive avalanche of ice and snow plunged down the west shoulder of Mount Everest and slammed into a trail used by high-altitude porters. Sixteen Sherpas were killed.

In the lower section of Everest, the Khumbu Icefall has claimed many lives before. Its constantly shifting blocks of ice and snow are an ever-present danger.

But this time, the danger came from above, giving rise to the single deadliest day in the recorded history of climbing on Mount Everest.

By now, the 39 expeditions that were on the Nepal side of Everest have packed up and left, even though the impact of the tragedy will continue to reverberate for years. Ironically, on the Tibet side, teams climbing with Sherpas are continuing with their missions.

Without a doubt, the business of climbing the peak has always been a perilous affair. The chances of dying while trying to reach the top of the world are around 2 to 3 per cent by today's standards.

In more recent times, however, the burden of the risk has shifted so greatly from foreign climbers to the Sherpa high-altitude porters that the average risk borne by a Sherpa climber is at least double that faced by a foreign one.

Until the 1990s, because of the high threshold of skill needed to join an Everest expedition and other requirements such as selection into a national team, there was no shortage of people willing to be taken on as "junior" climbers, who were invited to join after having successfully undergone a selection process.

They were happy to carry loads through the Khumbu Icefall at the foot of the mountain without any guarantee of securing a place on a summit team.

Risks in those days were more evenly distributed between seasoned mountaineers and their hired, high-altitude porters, most of whom are Sherpas from the Everest region.

When peak permit fees per foreigner leapt up in 1993, expedition organisers started hiring more Sherpas to handle the load carrying needed on Everest.

Today, for every seasoned climber on Everest, there is at least one neophyte who has only the minimum of experience needed, not just in terms of mountaineering, but also in terms of carrying his or her own load.

Many have never experienced a self-supported expedition that required them to make their own climbing decisions or carry their own equipment. In short, mountaineering is no longer what it used to be on Everest.

As a result, the load has shifted increasingly to Sherpa backs. It was really just a matter of time before the retreating ice cliffs and hanging glaciers on the west shoulder sheared off, annihilating those below.

Resentment at what is perceived as unequal treatment by the Nepalese government has now boiled over. Each year, millions of dollars in peak permit fees are collected, but precious little of that trickles back to the Khumbu communities.

Adding to the fury when death strikes are the meagre insurance payouts - equivalent to just one to two years' worth of wages for a Sherpa porter on Everest.

Still, there is no shortage of people willing to give the job a go. Work is scarce in Nepal, and an Everest Sherpa can make US$3,000 (S$3,760) to US$5,000 a season, whereas a university graduate makes S$1,000 a year.

Yet, few of the Sherpas I have worked with want their children to follow in their footsteps. They want their kids to have a good education and an "easier" life.

What is likely to happen is that insurance limits will go up, as will a Sherpa's pay.

There could even be greater equalisation in the stature of the Sherpa, with some having qualified as certified guides by United States and European Union standards. They thus gain a greater voice when expeditions are deciding when to go up the mountain.

Restrictions as to who can or will not be allowed to climb based on competency are unlikely to be enforced. There is just too much money at stake, and too many people who still want to climb to the top, including some who cannot even carry their personal equipment or light a stove.

Life and the business of climbing Everest will go on. But it will never be business as usual again on the world's highest peak.

This article by The Straits Times was published in MyPaper, a free, bilingual newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings.