Sherpas head back to Everest, leaving bitter protests behind

An avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas last year sparked protest over working conditions and pay, shutting down the rest of the 2014 season for international climbers.

In this file photo, climbers walk towards their helicopter after their Mount Everest expeditions were cancelled in Solukhumbu district last year in the wake of a deadly avalanche. The accident spurred extended protests over pay and working conditions.

After a year of protest over safety and pay, Nepal’s intrepid Sherpas are brushing aside concerns raised by last April’s avalanche on Mount Everest and say they are ready to work again.

The avalanche killed 16 Sherpas, the deadliest disaster ever for the famed local porters who are considered indispensable for international teams that annually climb the world’s highest peak. 

The shock to the tight-knit Sherpa community led many to question the risks they take. A $400 government compensation to families of the victims was seen as humiliating.

But Sherpas earn about $6,000 per Himalayan expedition in a country where average annual wages are around $700, and the risks of the profession are known. With limited sympathy at home, they are now heading back to the mountain with only vague promises of the increased pay they sought, spurred by the need for income as well as better medical and life insurance. 

“In the weeks after the tragedy, about 70 Sherpas announced they would find a new profession because they thought Mount Everest is too risky,” says Kami Nuru Sherpa, who organizes foreign expeditions. “But they have changed their minds now. Sherpas also need to eat. And … they need to earn.” 

Sherpas are an ethnic group who mostly come from poor mountain villages. Their tough build, nimble steps, and adaptability to thin air climates have earned them fame as Himalayan porters, dating to 1953 when Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Edmund Hillary become the first climbers to reach the peak of Everest.

Sherpas haul supplies up to higher camps in April and early May, and despite poor weather conditions, fix climbing routes ahead of foreign teams that move up the slopes in mid-to-late May, when conditions are more favorable.

Last year’s avalanche occurred as Sherpas were hauling supplies and fixing the routes at Khumbu Icefall, which is located between the Everest Base Camp and Camp 1. 

Subsequent protests targeted poor compensation, as well as a lack of adequate insurance and support. Weeks of standoff culminated in last season being called off, although a Chinese climber did set foot atop the mountain.

(The Chinese climber has been challenged over allegations that she flew by helicopter to higher camps, skipping the Khumbu Icefall, considered the most dangerous section of the climb. The officially accepted parameter for a successful climb of Everest is that a climber should start on foot from the Base Camp.)

Nepali officials say they anticipate around 25 expeditions in the 2015, a drop from the average number in recent years of more than 30.

Pasang Tenzing Sherpa, who is planning to take a foreign expedition to the top of Everest in May, says the tensions from last year’s disaster and cancellations have died down.

“I am not going because of the money, but out of respect for my profession,” said Mr. Pasang who has climbed Everest nine times. “Every profession has its risks. The focus should not be on whether to quit, but on how to minimize the risks.”

Pasang, an official at Nepal National Mountain Guides Association, says that teams ascending in 2015 will still use the southeast ridge route to Mt. Everest that starts in Nepal – where the avalanche took place – and not the less popular northern route from Tibet.

“I think everyone has realized by now that what happened last year was an act of nature. An unfortunate natural disaster will not make Mount Everest less attractive, nor make the Tibet route more popular than Nepal route,” Pasong says.

The disaster however did bring changes in the thinking of many Sherpa families.

“The risk perception in my community went up so much since the disaster that my family persuaded me to quit climbing,” says Sherpa Mingma, a nine-time Everest summiteer, who lost his father Ang Tshiri to the avalanche last year, and who goes by one name. 

Rather than risk discord in his family, Mr. Mingma started his own trekking agency to assuage tensions and anger at home associated with the job of assisting wealthy foreigners make the often treacherous climb.

“I am now focusing on the managerial part of climbing,” he says.

Since April, official routings up Everest have been amended slightly. Parties take a slight detour at Khumbu Icefall, with the aim of achieving greater relative safety.

The government is also allowing foreign climbers to use permits they secured last year before the Sherpa strike, and making plans to allow them to sign up Sherpas individually, rather than go with the group they had signed up with last year.

More than 4,400 people have climbed Everest since 1953, and around 300 have perished while attempting it, according to government figures.

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