The avalanche that killed 13, and possibly 16, Sherpas on Mt. Everest on April 18 was a wakeup call to the entire world of the dangers these intrepid climbers face day after day during Nepal’s brief climbing season. It also highlights the economic and political realities of Nepal, questions the responsibility of mountaineering companies, and raises awareness of the lack of compensation porters and their families receive if accidents occur.
Mourning, of course, marks this tragedy, but the loss of life is also a call to action for key groups involved in mountaineering–the government, mountaineering companies, and guides/porters, most of whom are Sherpas. Here’s what needs to be done.
The Nepali Government
One can contend that the job of the government with respect to mountaineering is to establish regulations for obtaining permits and thoroughly monitor their compliance. As this tragedy made all too clear, these regulations should require that mountaineering companies meet well-defined standards of responsibility for their Nepali guides and porters.
The government needs to require that a mountaineering company meet certain basic conditions in order to receive climbing permits.
• providing adequate life and accident insurance for its support staff and guides.
• certifying that their employees have taken approved mountaineering courses.
• confirming that the equipment and clothing used on the expedition are adequate and up to date.
• monitoring that the government’s regulations are being followed.
To argue that the government receives huge sums for permits and should use part of this for insurance is questionable. Nepal is a desperately poor country, and the roughly $4 million received from climbing permits is critically needed for development.
One of the responsibilities of any good company is to care for its employees and help them improve their skills. In the field of mountaineering, employee care and development are integral to safe and successful climbs. Unfortunately, some mountaineering companies are negligent employers.
This tragedy makes very clear that with respect to their staff, companies–at the very least–must be required to:
• provide insurance to porters and guides commensurate with the financial loss families experience if the employee is injured or killed.
• see to it that their helpers have quality apparel and gear.
• confirm that all porters and guides who go above Base Camp have completed an accredited mountaineering school course.
Some employers will argue that this will substantially raise costs, but is this bad? Already, reaching the peak of Mt. Everest is the purview of the rich who can afford the $40,000 to $90,000 cost. Most likely, international climbers can afford more. Secondly, if higher prices mean fewer climbers, given the crowds trying to ascend the mountain these days, perhaps a decrease in expeditions will be a plus!
The Sherpa Climbing Community
The aftermath of this tragedy presents an opportunity for Sherpa climbers to organize, crossing divisions within their own communities and among the different ethnic groups involved in mountaineering. (Not all Nepali climbers are Sherpas. Some are Rais, Limbus, or are members of other ethnic groups and are not always treated the same way by the Sherpa society.)
Porters and guides need to form a cohesive whole, or union, with specific goals. Once organized, these climbers will have the power to get the pay, protection, and benefits they deserve. They must take the following steps.
• Organized porters and guides must make demands–such as accident and life insurance–of those who have the most to lose by a walk out. And that’s not the government. It’s the companies that bring climbers to Nepal.
• Experienced, organized support climbers, working in concert with the expedition leaders, must be given the authority to decide when climbing should be stopped–that is, when weather and other conditions are unsafe, when multiple trips edge toward danger, or when other situations, such as traffic jams of climbers, pose too great a risk.
• The porters and guides and the government must be on the same side and work together, not against, each other. After all, what better incentive could the government have to enforce regulations than the threat of a losing the climbing fees that support development in Nepal.
For too long the Sherpas, unlike other ethnic groups in Nepal, have not been outspoken. Now is the time for them to speak up in one, inclusive voice. After all, if they do pack up and walk away from Mt. Everest, the entire country loses.