Exploitation of Sherpas
In Himalayan Mountaineering
Almost any climber who has been to Mt. Everest will tell you that the only way anyone would make it to the summit would be because of the Sherpas of the Khumbu region (Krakauer 56). Why, then, are they constantly exploited for their physical abilities while being paid minimal wages and placed in harm’s way on a regular basis? Since the first expeditions to Everest began in the early 1920’s, approximately one third of all deaths on Everest have been Sherpa porters and guides (Wikipedia). What is more alarming is they tend to die in large groups in avalanches or icefalls, areas that trained expedition groups are familiar with judging and traversing (Anker and Roberts 90). Skilled climbing Sherpas may make $1500-$2000 for two months work while clients are paying the guiding services upwards of $120,000 per person just for the access to attempt a summit of Everest, or as Outside Magazine called it, “assisted suicide” (Schaffer). To better understand the history of the relationship between Western adventurers and the Sherpa people, we need to look back to 1921, when this rocky but important relationship was formed.
Sherpas are commonly regarded as a distinct ethnic group that spans the mountainous territories from Tibet, Nepal, and India. They hold a relatively small proportion of the total Nepalese population; estimates place their numbers at around 20,000 throughout the mountainous regions. The primary region that the Sherpa occupy is known as the Khumbu, or southern high valleys below Mt. Everest (Krakauer 55). The Sherpa historically were farmers, yak herders, and engaged in trade with Tibet and India before the explosion of tourism in the region. In the mid 1990’s, the Sherpas average annual per capita income was only around $160 US dollars, making the money tied to tourism an attractive proposition. It was during the first British expedition to Everest in 1921 that Sherpas were employed as porters, but it only took another year before seven Sherpas were killed in one avalanche while transporting supplies to British camps (Krakauer 55-57). Since that fateful expedition, seventy-three more Sherpas have died due to accidents or altitude related illness on the slopes of Everest (Wikipedia).
With increases in tourism to the Khumbu region and Everest, the treatment of Sherpas has improved, but there has been a long history of abuse and disrespect for them dating back to the beginnings of Everest mountaineering. During the British expedition of 1953, where Edmund Hillary became the first person to summit Everest, the Sherpas as a whole were treated as inferior by the British. While assembling the expedition in Kathmandu, the Sherpas were given the British Embassy garage for housing, while the rest of the expedition was given rooms in the Embassy itself. The garage itself was nothing but a converted horse stable in which there were no beds or facilities. The Sherpas protested, but in the end all but two stayed with the expedition throughout its entirety (Unsworth 315).
Along with racial tensions, the overuse of Sherpas has been illustrated many times over throughout the years. Sociologist Richard Mitchell wrote about this in his book Mountain Experience: The Psychology and Sociology of Adventure. Here he discusses a 1977 expedition by South Korea in which twenty-eight Sherpas transported gear to base camp at 25,850 feet. At the same time, only two of the Korean climbers could reach the same elevation, without carrying any significant load and while using supplementary oxygen. From the camp on the South Col, the Sherpas continued to move gear to the higher camps, although by the end of the expedition, only one Korean achieved the summit (Mitchell 53).
One of the more startling events to show the exploitation and disrespect of Sherpas by climbers was the Austrian expedition of 1978 in which Rheinhold Messner and Peter Habeler became the first climbers to reach the summit without the aid of supplemental oxygen. At one point during the ascent, Messner and two Sherpas were caught in a ferocious storm with winds estimated at one hundred and twenty-five miles per hour that threatened to either blow their tent off the mountain or leave them frozen to death inside. It was reported that Messner began screaming at the terrified Sherpas, and later he had reportedly “urinated in their cooking pot”. The matter went as far as the Nepal Minister of Tourism who looked into what was described as “inhumane treatment”, but eventually the matter faded into obscurity (Heil 34).
Later, as the region moved away from expedition climbing to established guiding services, the financial disparity began to be more evident. One of the more difficult and necessary jobs on Everest is when the summit teams begin the process of placing fixed ropes along the climbing route, a job usually left to the Sherpas. The various guide companies hold a meeting every climbing season in base camp to discuss the logistics of who will be fixing ropes and when it is scheduled to begin. In years past, each guiding company would pay a fee to the expedition organizers of the team that fixed the ropes, of which the Sherpas generally received no or minimal compensation above their regular pay. Anatoli Boukreev wrote in his book The Climb about how “colonialism dies hard” in regards to how the expedition leaders received all the pay for the work done by others. “All expeditions use this route, and the expedition leaders take the big money for use of the route”, which he continued to say could be anywhere from ten to twenty thousand dollars (Boukreev 237). Mounting tensions between the Sherpas and primarily Western climbers almost reached a boiling point during the 2013 climbing season when misunderstandings and disregard led to verbal and physical altercations at Everest Base camp on April 27th because of climbers not attending the rope fixing meeting (Neville).
In contrast, some guiding services take pride in training, equipping, and paying their Sherpas a fair wage, such as Russell Brice’s company Himalayan Experience. Brice is also known for withdrawing his clients and employees from situations he deems dangerous well before other teams (Schaffer). Other Western guiding companies and non-profit groups have made attempts to improve the Sherpa quality of life by creating climbing schools to teach safe mountaineering, and schools for Sherpa children to aid the locals long after the climbing season is over, but they are few and far between (Carpenter). One of the first Westerners to make attempts at improving the health and welfare of the Sherpas was Sir Edmund Hillary.
In 1965, Hillary began the construction of the Kunde Hospital, originally staffed by doctors from New Zealand, but now managed by Sherpa doctors. The hospital and the Sir Edmund Hillary Fund, or SEHF, also award scholarships to local Sherpas to attend medical school, eventually returning and providing care at Kunde as well as other medical facilities in Nepal (SEHF). Along with the Kunde Hospital, the SEHF also funds both secondary and adult education programs (SEHF). One of the more recent Western non-profits organizations to fund education has been Alpine Ascents International, or AAI, which is based out of Seattle, Washington. In 1991, AAI established the Sherpa Education Fund to sponsor the education of Sherpa youth at the Kathmandu Valley Higher Secondary School in Kathmandu (SEF).
Finally, one of the more environmentally conscious endeavors in the Khumbu and on Everest to clean up the regions has been non-governmental organizations that have established paid garbage removal programs to clear the years of accumulated clutter at the base camps and high camps. In the last few years, the Save Mount Everest Project and EcoHimal have removed over twenty-five tons of garbage from the slopes of Everest and along the trails back to Lukla (Oko-Himal Austria). During the cleanup efforts, local Sherpas have been hired to remove waste, build waste bins, as well as work with local recycling projects. Sherpas trained in waste management have been hired as directors of recycling facilities, water systems, and to oversee local education and infrastructure projects. By training and turning projects over to the local villages and Sherpas, the projects hope to become self-sustaining as the Nepali government begins to place deposit fees on climbing teams and their equipment. Each climbing team pays a $4000 deposit based on the amount of equipment and supplies that they take to Everest. The money is only refunded after they can show they removed all of their waste from the mountain and disposed of it properly. If this is not the case, the forfeited deposits go to paying cleanup teams to recover and dispose of wastes at a later time (Goldberg).
As time passes, there are many in the Everest climbing industry that are hoping to see a shift to better management and fair labor practices to make the Khumbu region a more stable economy long after the guides and clients have left. By developing other tourism pursuits such as eco-tourism and long distance trekking, Sherpas and guiding companies are making efforts to keep the region working for a longer season than normal two month window that most Everest climbing teams generally adhere to. Along with cultivating new tourism markets, the development and maintenance of roads, trails, and lodges by the Sherpa people will aid in bolstering the local economy and help keep the money in the local hands. Until the Northern routes in Tibet are reopened by the Chinese, the South Routes and the Khumbu are going to see continued masses of guided climbers and trekkers all looking for that magical Himalayan experience. If visitors to the Khumbu can learn to better appreciate the culture of the region and of the Sherpa people, then their adventure will be much more complete and fulfilling.
Anker, Conrad and David Roberts. The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Everest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.
Boukreev, Anatoli. The Climb. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. Print.
Carpenter, Shelby. Rock and Ice: Sherpa Killed Fixing Lines on Everest. 9 April 2013. Web. 29 May 2013.
Goldberg, Suzanne. Gurdian UK: The Mission to Clean Up Mount Everest. October 2011. Web. 5 June 2013.
Heil, Nick. Dark Summit. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2008. Print.
Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air. New York: Doubleday, 1997. Print.
Mitchell, Richard G. Mountain Experience: The Psychology and Sociology of Adventure. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983. Print.
Neville, Tim. Outside Online: Brawl On Everest. 2 May 2013. Web. 29 May 2013.
Oko-Himal Austria. Saving Mount Everest Project. 2013. Web. 5 June 2013.
Schaffer, Grayson. Outside Online: Take A Number. October 2012. Web. 29 May 2013.
SEF. Sherpa Education Fund. 2010. WEB. 4 June 2013.
SEHF. Sir Edmund Hillary Fund. 2013. WEB. 4 June 2013.
Unsworth, Walt. Everest the Mountaineering History Third Edition. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 2000. Print.
Wikipedia. List of people who died climbing Mount Everest. 28 May 2013. Web. 29 May 2013.