Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring

 

This was my 9th expedition to Mt Everest. At the start of the season everything  looked good. We had a team of 9 climbers, 3 guides, a new Base Camp Manager/Chef and our regular crew of experienced Nepali climbing Sherpas and Base Camp staff. The build up proceeded normally. Our Sherpa team established a comfortable Base Camp during the early part of April while the guides led the climbers on a slow acclimatisation hike in the Khumbu Valley.

The climbing team reached Everest Base Camp on 12th April and we held the puja (Buddhist blessing ceremony) on 13th April.  Over the next few days the staff fixed up all the BC facilities (stores, power, communications etc) and the climbers settled in. The Sherpa team began the process of transporting equipment through the Khumbu Icefall to Camps 1 and 2, and the climbers began their training and acclimatisation programme.

On 18th April the Jagged Globe climbers were scheduled to have a training day on the glacier close to BC, while our Sherpa team carried equipment and supplies for BC to Camp 2. Our Sherpas together with those from several other (mostly large, western led) teams had left BC before dawn and had expected to reach Camp One before sunrise. It appears that one of the metal ladders used to span crevasses had been damaged during the night and this caused a large group of approx 70-80 Sherpas to gather in a potentially dangerous area while waiting for the SPCC 'icefall doctors' to repair it. After a wait of about 90 minutes the ladder was repaired and Sherpas began to cross. About two thirds of the group had crossed to other side by 06.30 when a large serac released from the slopes high above them. This triggered an avalanche of snow and ice debris that fell several hundred meters hitting the area where many of the Sherpas were standing.

The Avalanche had been clearly seen and heard from Base Camp, but most climbers (unaware of the broken ladder) assumed that the Sherpa teams would have been well clear of the danger area. As soon as news of the scale of the incident reached Base Camp the leading teams organised a 'Search and Recovery' mission. HimEx, IMG and Adventure Consultants took the lead in establishing communications between BC and the accident site. Helicopters were urgently requested from Kathmandu. The HRA clinic in BC prepared to receive injured Sherpas. Several doctors and paramedics from different expeditions joined the effort and worked with the HRA team.

Despite the abundance of radios and people willing to help it took several hours before the full number of dead, missing and injured became clear. 6 'walking wounded' with relatively minor injuries were treated at the HRA clinic on their return to BC (3 of these were flown to KTM by helicopter the following day). 3 seriously injured patients were brought down from the accident site to the HRA. After treatment they were all flown to KTM later the same day. A total of 16 people died at the scene. Many were wholly or partially buried and the recovery operation was conducted by the Sherpas who had been present at the time of the avalanche, assisted by others who had climbed from BC to help. 13 bodies were located and all but one was recovered by helicopter on the day of the incident. The following day, 19th April, a team of 12 Nepali guides and 4 western climbers flew by helicopter to the accident site in order to search for the 3 missing Sherpas and recover one buried but partially visible body.

The immediate response to this tragic accident was an excellent example of climbers, doctors, helicopter pilots and Sherpas from different teams and backgrounds working together to efficiently deliver the best possible care and treatment to the dead and injured. Despite the challenges posed by the harsh environment and unreliable communications hundreds of people took part in the operation and all should be congratulated for their contributions. Once the full scale of the tragedy became apparent expedition leaders began to turn their thoughts to how this would effect the remainder of the climbing season. A four day period of reflection was quickly agreed and several teams gave their Sherpas a few days leave to visit their families in the Khumbu villages. Several Sherpas with close ties to the dead and injured departed from BC to attend funeral ceremonies.

It was generally accepted that some Sherpas would not wish to return to the Khumbu icefall and they would play no further part in the 2014 Everest season. It was also thought that some climbers from a variety of teams would reach the same decision, and it was also possible that some entire teams would chose to abandon their climb. It was assumed that each person (Sherpa or climber) would be free to make their individual decisions about whether to remain and climb Everest or return home. Once those who wanted to leave had left BC the leaders of the remaining expeditions would assess the resources of manpower and equipment available and find the best way of continuing the season.

However it became clear over the next few days that there was groundswell of opinion among the Sherpas in Base Camp that the climbing season on Everest should be cancelled and that no-one should continue to climb. It is vary hard to say if this was the honest opinion of most of the Sherpas, or if it was the view of a vociferous minority who intimidated others into agreement. Clearly all the Sherpas and climbers in BC were saddened and upset by the accident that had claimed 16 lives but there were divergent views on how best to proceed.

If there had been a clear cultural or religious imperative indicating that it would be in any way 'disrespectful' to continue climbing I have no doubt that all the expedition leaders would have respected this. This was not the case. There have been previous incidents (most recently on Manaslu in Autumn 2012) where a multiple fatality has been followed by period of reflection after which many teams of Sherpas and foreigners resumed climbing. In the days following the 18th April accident there was never an opportunity for the expedition leaders and senior Sherpas to sit down and consider the best way to proceed. Instead the initiative was seized by a group of vocal Sherpas who clearly wanted all climbing to end for the season and for all Sherpas to be paid in full. This position was made forcefully at several mass meetings held outside the SPCC tent.

There is no doubt that a significant number of Sherpas wanted to leave Everest for entirely understandable personal reasons following the deaths on 18th April, and no-one would have criticised them for leaving. However in the aftermath of the accident those with longstanding grievances were able to exploit the uncertainty to push their agendas. Nepali and international media were receptive to the story that wealthy western climbers were exploiting poor Nepali Sherpas by underpaying them for doing a dangerous job. Is this true? The answer is not simple or clear cut. Most Everest Sherpas are very well paid by Nepali standards. Some are not, and the blame for this lies entirely with Nepali agencies that underpay their staff and the Nepali government that is incapable of regulating the industry.

Climbing Sherpas are among the best paid manual workers in Nepal, however wages vary greatly. The average annual wage in Nepal is USD$500 - USD$600. For two months work on Everest the better paid Sherpas get paid around 15 times this amount. Average pay is closer to 10 times this amount for Sherpas working for 'good' employers. Some of the low budget Kathmandu agences reportedly pay significantly less. Many Sherpas work for other expeditions in the Autumn season and some work leading treks in the shoulder seasons, so their total annual income can be more than 20 times the Nepali average. All mountaineering expeditions, including Everest expeditions, are required to purchase insurance for their Nepali staff. The premiums and benefits have recently been increased and the death benefit is approx USD$10,000. In the rare event of a fatality the leading expedition companies will often match this figure with a similar sized payment to the family of a Sherpa who dies in the mountains.
Sherpas do not pay income tax on their earnings.

 To put this issue in proportion consider what your salary would be if you were paid 20 times the national average in your country with no income tax to pay. In the Uk this equates to GBP£530,000 p/a and in the USA to USD$850,000 p/a. Now think of which dangerous jobs you would be prepared to do for these sums: deep sea fisherman, underground miner, oil rig worker, commercial diver, soldier? Climbing Sherpas choose a career that has higher risks than other jobs, (although construction work in Nepal is hardly safe). In exchange they are paid a far higher amount than most Nepali workers. This has enabled many of them to escape the poverty of their rural upbringing, move to Kathmandu and enrol their children in private schools. No-one is denying that the climbing Sherpas on Everest do a physically demanding and dangerous job. But they are not the poor exploited peasants some claim.

Most climbers at Everest Base Camp were surprised at the way events spiralled out of control following the accident. Everyone appreciated that the Sherpa community had been deeply affected by the accident. What was less apparent was that the Sherpas would need a period of time to pass while they absorbed the impact of the deaths, and that this time would be measured in months not days. The climbers sought to find a rational explanation for the Sherpa mood (ie one that could be changed by rational discussion). In reality, for many of the Sherpas, their reluctance to continue climbing was more of an emotional response to the tragedy that had claimed 16 of their friends. The climbers were disappointed to have their expedition brought to an abrupt halt, but none of them would have been comfortable with exerting pressure on reluctant Sherpas to continue climbing.

The total absence of any input from the Nepal Government in the days following the accident deservedly drew a lot of criticism. The climbers wanted the Government to provide a forum for the expedition leaders and Sherpa leaders to have a structured discussion about the options available for saving the climbing season. Some Sherpas wanted to extract concessions regarding future pay rates, insurance payments and accident compensation. When a Government delegation finally arrived in Base Camp on 24th April the 'Sherpa Strike' had advanced to a point that they were powerless to intervene.

The Nepal Government collects several million dollars in permit fees from Everest climbers but gives very little in return. Sherpas complain that most of this money remains in Kathmandu and does not reach the rural areas close to the mountain. The administration of mountaineering is woefully inadequate. The ministers and civil servants in Kathmandu have little understanding of how the Everest economy actually works and the interactions between foreign companies, Nepali agents, foreign climbers, and Sherpa staff. The 'Rules and Regulations' that govern Everest expeditions were written decades ago and are entirely unsuited to managing today's complex multi million dollar industry. The Government has no effective presence in Base Camp to enforce its policies. The Government sends Liaison Officers to accompany expeditions, but they are more of a costly nuisance than a help, and are wholly unable to deal with any issues or disputes that might arise between different expeditions or between climbers and Sherpas.

When there is a 'good news' story from Everest the Nepali Government is quick to claim credit, but when things go wrong it is clear that the administration in Kathmandu is clueless and powerless. If the Nepali Government is to regain any credibility in relation to its mountain tourism policy it must produce clear and credible policies for the efficient and effective management of the Everest industry and put a robust enforcement mechanism in place. The duties, rights and responsibilities of the various stakeholders (foreign companies, Nepali agents, foreign climbers, and Sherpa staff) need to be clearly defined.

Several commentators have written about these events in detail, and attempted to draw conclusions about the changing relationship between Nepali Sherpas and foreign climbers. Most reports in the general media have been ill informed, inaccurate and display little understanding of either Nepali society or mountaineering, far less the complex and specific circumstances of Everest.
From within the mountaineering community, and especially those who were present at Everest Base Camp, there have been some thoughtful and well written articles looking at how the mountaineering 'industry' on Everest is changing and considering what might lie ahead in the future.

Stepping back from the events of 2014 and looking at developments on Mt Everest over the past decade I believe that it is becoming more difficult to run a safe, well managed, and responsible expedition to Mt Everest. The main changes would appear to be increasing numbers of climbers but this is only part of the story. Proliferation of small Nepal based expedition operators reduces the degree of coordination and cooperation between expeditions on the mountain, and increases the numbers of less experienced and poorly paid Sherpas. Inexperienced climbers requiring more support and more 'luxuries' on the mountain also increase the numbers of Sherpas required to service expeditions. All this leads to more traffic on the mountain and increases the number of people in potentially dangerous locations when natural events like serac falls or avalanches occur. Perhaps imaginative and creative management would mitigate the growing problems but this appears well beyond the ability of the Nepalese Authorities.

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, landlocked between two emerging superpowers, with few exploitable natural resources. Despite barely adequate infrastructure tourism is vital to the struggling economy. Mountain related tourism accounts for the majority of country's tourism income. Trekkers bring far more money to Nepal than Climbers. But it is the activities of Everest climbers who dominate the headlines. If Nepal fails to manage mountaineering on Mt Everest properly the international reputation of the country will suffer and it will cease to be an attractive tourist destination.

David Hamilton 7 June 2014

David Hamilton
High Adventure
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