Carrying on with a heavy load

Sherpas continuing conversation on increased wages and life insurance in the wake of Everest tragedy


For Lakpa Rita Sherpa, there was no question. After five of his men died on the side of Everest in the avalanche that swept down its slopes on April 18, he had two things to do — take the body of a friend home, and then come back to Base Camp to tell his team that for him, the season was over. It was up to them to decide what they would do, but they would be paid the same amount whether they stayed or not.

“We lost five Sherpas, and I think that’s enough. We’re not climbing anymore,” says Lakpa Rita Sherpa. Now a sirdar, a Sherpa team leader, he’s spent his life working in the world’s tallest mountains, earning a place as one of the more respected mountain guides.

Just the day before the accident, his team had performed the season’s puja, praying, singing and dancing at an altar to the mountain and asking permission to climb. He’d crawled from his tent at 3 a.m. to wish his team luck before they left to cross the notoriously danger ous Khumbu Ice Fall. Hours later, he was digging bodies out of the snow and debris of an avalanche. He and others who hiked up to help in the search, dug 10 people out of the same hole in the ice.

“I believed the 10 people who were buried, they were trying to escape and there was no way they could, so they huddled together, held hands to die together,” he said. “I tried my best to hide my tears from my Sherpa team, but it didn’t help.”

The avalanche killed 16 Sherpas and left 16 widows and roughly 30 children without a father. Sherpas called for the closure of the mountain for the season, amid some protests from the Nepali government, and in the aftermath, have been using the international attention that closure brought to draw attention to issues they’ve long mentioned as concerns — the disparity in risk, their wages and the life insurance payments that would go to those widows and children.

After he took planes and helicopters to deliver the body of his friend back to his widow and four children, he flew back to Everest Base Camp, where Sherpas were gathering to make the decision to call off climbing for the year. His team had lost the largest number of any expedition team on the mountain that day, he says, and though he didn’t want to say it to the clients who had paid to be there without first talking to his boss, when other Sherpas asked what he was going to do, he told them, “The season is over for me.”

Lakpa Rita Sherpa has guided all of the Seven Summits, the tallest peaks on each continent. He’s been climbing Mt. Everest since he was 18.

“Working on Everest is huge benefit for my people who work there,” he says. As sirdar, he chooses his own group of Sherpa workers. “The reason I worked there was I wanted my neighbors, the people working for me, to get opportunities to make a living and they can offer up the same to their kids, for school and stuff like that, so that’s definitely an important thing for me.”

On the world’s highest peaks, he says, guides work together and support each other.

“We help each other, we don’t compete, but it’s more united at Everest Base Camp,” he says.

But the last two seasons on Everest have been plagued with issues for Sherpas. The 2013 season saw tensions escalating to the point that a fist-fight broke out among Sherpas angry with European climbers for climbing above them while they were fixing rope lines, and then this year’s avalanche and the subsequent decision to call off the climbing season.

“The last two years, Sherpas have taken a beating,” says Norbu Tenzing Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay, who was with Edmund Hillary as the first and second men to stand atop the tallest mountain in the world. Picking up a line from a Pete Athans comment that the Sherpa response to shut down the climbing season on Everest was a referendum on risk, Norgay adds that it has been a referendum on inequity.

“It’s more risky for Sherpas to climb Everest carrying plywood so that westerners can sleep in a tent, and then every time you go up, it’s more dangerous for them, so I think that’s where the inequity is,” Norgay says. “Equitable means fair pay, mountain safety and sufficient insurance to take care of the families.”

In the early ’70s, Sherpas were given life insurance policies for the equivalent of $100,000 in today’s dollars, he says, but the payouts their families receive now, if a Sherpa dies on the mountain, is about $14,000.

Since the avalanche, Sherpas have been asking for increased wages and increased insurance payments to support the families of those who die doing the heavy lifting required to make Everest expeditions possible.

“It’s always been in our minds, from childhood, but this is the first time all the Sherpas are getting together and saying, Jesus, we should try and do something about it, and unfortunately, it took a disaster of this scale to get people together,” Norgay says.

Sherpas had been silent out of concerns that criticizing the operations might cost them their job, one of the better paying positions in the country, Norgay says.

No one is asking to stop people from climbing, he continues. They’d just like to see the way people climb Everest changed.

“Who am I or you to stop anybody from pursuing their dreams? But do it in the right way,” he says. “Consider the people that you’re going with. Consider the risk that you’re putting people’s lives in. What are you going to do about it if something happens? Sherpas are not a charity case. People in the industry should be responsible for their employees.”

The Sherpa community has also called for a set minimum wage, with no answer from the Nepali government on that issue.

“Some companies they don’t pay at all, they don’t pay much, you know, like, $1,000, $700 bucks for all season, which is not worth it to risk your life, so government should set minimum wages and then everybody will be treated the same,” says Lakpa Rita Sherpa.

An expedition to make a summit attempt at Everest can cost between $30,000 and $100,000.

“We want Everest to be this aspirational symbol where the best of the best get to climb, and we stop selling it and we stop commercializing it, cheapening its value that all the sudden someone with $100,000 to spend says, ‘OK take me there,’” says Tashi Sherpa, founder and CEO of Sherpa Adventure Gear, which bases its research, development and manufacturing operations in Nepal and has established a fund for educational opportunities for Sherpa children. “Essentially when you’re doing that, you’re actually cheapening everything about Nepal itself, about the people. … It’s not only Everest, it’s about the people that are involved in Everest, the Sherpas, or the Nepalaese, the workers in the mountains, the ones who have to do it 27 times, 21 times, go up and down, they need to be treated fairly. And whether it’s the western climbing companies or whether it’s Nepalese climbing companies — believe me I do not discriminate between the two at all — they need to be aware that there’s a thing called profit, I don’t condemn profit, but profiteering is a dirty word.”

Tashi Sherpa’s uncle worked as a porter on the first expedition to Mt. Everest, and part of the motivation to start Sherpa Adventure Gear was to honor Sherpas and the expeditions they make possible. Lakpa Rita Sherpa is a gear athlete for the company, and Tashi Sherpa says he’s everything we want the Sherpa to be — humble, humorous, ready to lend a hand, all business when he’s out in the field and able to “dance your socks off ” when he’s celebrating afterwards.

“All we want is for these people to realize, this cannot continue,” says Tashi Sherpa.

“Everest it is a mountain, it is to be climbed, we understand that. You can’t treat that just as a commercial cash cow where, ‘Oh you have money? You have $80,000? Come on, we’ll do this for you.’ No. … Everest is the symbol of magnificence and the precious symbol of everything we respect in Nepal. And what’s happened over the past 20 years, there’s been a very rapid denigration of all the values in that. … Next thing you know someone will want to build a roadway up there.”

His goal, he says, is to bring clarity and visibility to the Sherpas upon whom paying clients rely for completing their climbing objectives, and to increase the accountability for those running businesses based on Everest.

“You’ve got to be able to be open to making sure that these people who are actually intrinsic or critical to the success of any expedition are treated fairly,” he says. In the face of disasters like these, simply employing Nepali people isn’t enough. “At the end of the day, what matters is that, if it’s done properly, fairly, you’re actually talking about the good of the industry as a whole for the long-term benefit.”

Sherpas aren’t the only ones pushing for changes in how Everest is handled. Adrian Ballinger, founder of Alpenglow Expeditions, canceled his 2014 season shortly after the avalanche and announced in July a decision to move all his Everest operations for 2015 to the north side of the mountain. The north side was seeing about half the traffic to Everest until it was closed in 2008 because of the Chinese project to carry the Olympic torch to Everest’s summit. That route is debatably harder — it’s colder and there are steep sections near the top that require more mountaineering skill, but, Ballinger says, “From a safety perspective I don’t think there’s anyone out there who would tell you that it’s not a safer route.”

That’s not shown in the number of fatalities — but if you look at the number of Sherpa deaths, the story shifts.

On the south side of the mountain, sherpas die of ice falls, rock falls and avalanches, often in the Khumbu Ice Fall and on the Lhotse Face.

“If you look on the north side, those types of objective hazards just don’t exist, and Sherpa don’t tend to die from things like exhaustion or running out of oxygen or getting caught in storms because those are things you can avoid by using your experience, decision making and climbing skill,” Ballinger says. With good Sherpas, good guides and experienced climbers (Ballinger, uniquely, requires his climbers to have lots of skills under their mountaineering harnesses, including a previous attempt at an 8,000-meter peak and more than 30 days in crampons), you can have a much safer experience on the north side.

Clients have been reluctant to book on the north side, he says, because it closed in 2008. But with the south side having closed as recently as this season, he’s seen enough 2015 clients — again, an elite crew that’s experienced with attempting high altitude summits — that he’s turning people away.

Most Everest guiding companies can’t be so nimble. Many of the large operations had already hauled hundreds of thousands of dollars of gear up to Camp Two, above the Ice Fall, before the avalanche that shut the mountain down, and had to store it there for the off-season. They’ll need to return to retrieve it in 2015.

There are additional changes Ballinger says outfitters working on the north side of the peak could make to reduce the risk to Sherpas. Minimizing the number of trips they have to take across the Khumbu Ice Fall, for one, by reducing the amount of infrastructure at Camp Two, which now may feature 24-foot cooking tents complete with carpet and tables, and single-occupancy sleep tents for climbers. He’s also using a system of hypoxic tents to allow climbers to begin their acclimitzing at home before they’ve even flown to Nepal. The move has cut the time it takes to complete an Everest expedition with Alpenglow in half. Moving to the north side also saves clients about $10,000 in the costs of climbing on the south side, because it eliminates the option to use helicopters, and trucks can drive right to base camp.

“I think it will be a slow shift to the north side, but I’ve definitely been hearing a lot of conversations from Sherpa saying if they’re going to continue working on Everest, they will only work from the north side to the south side, so I think we will see that shift,” Ballinger says. “Of course the south side is still going to run [in 2015], it might be busier than it’s ever been before, but my concern is, if you take away half of the top Sherpa leadership, what the experience looks like on that side.”

His concern, he says, is that a decrease in experience may lead to an increased potential for accidents, both among Sherpas and among climbers, and the chance that setting fixed ropes won’t go as smoothly as usual and those set ropes may not be as safe as they normally are.

But his larger concern, he says, has to do with the shift in power to the younger crew, in part because those Sherpas are more often employed by the lower cost guiding operations, which pay lower wages, offer less for life insurance coverage, may fail to provide safety and rescue equipment and ask Sherpas to carry unreasonable loads and do too many trips across the Khumbu Ice Fall, the most dangerous stretch of the mountain. Their frustrations over those working conditions, and with the Nepali government that has failed to set a minimum wage or increase their life insurance payments, come out in tensions that can show up around camp, like those that surfaced in the 2013 season.

“I worry about where these politics will go as you lose some of the more experienced, maybe older, calmer, more thoughtful Sherpa leaders,” Ballinger says. “I believe the big crucial issue is that Nepal has to regulate the industry and it has to start forcing these low cost operators to act responsibly and if they don’t, then their young vocal Sherpa will continue to stand up for their rights, which they should, and it will continue to make experienced teams of Sherpa like mine unable to do our jobs on the mountain, to run our trips on the mountain.”

At a fundraiser for the Khumbu Climbing Center at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City, he heard, over and over again, Sherpas saying that they had made agreements with their families to no longer work on the south side of the mountain.

Lakpa Rita Sherpa may go back to Everest Base Camp in coming climbing seasons to help with climbing team logistics. But he’s promised his wife and child he won’t climb again. Not after this year.