Print Edition - 2014-05-31  |  On Saturday

The saddest season

- Prateebha Tuladhar
The saddest season

May 30, 2014-

Spring 2014 was one of the worst seasons on Mount Everest. On April 18, 16 Nepali climbers were buried under seracs at the Khumbu Icefall, also known as ‘Popcorn Field’ to climbers, on account of its difficult terrain. The season saw only one expedition, by a Chinese woman and five Sherpa climbers, as all the other expeditions were called off following the incident.

As the season comes to a close it’s time to take stock, and obviously the safety of the climbers must be at the forefront as we do so. What can be done to make the climbers’ work at least a little safer?

“The work Sherpas are paid to do—carrying loads, installing the aluminum ladders, stringing and anchoring thousands of feet of rope—requires them to spend vastly more time on the most dangerous parts of the mountain, particularly in the Khumbu Icefall-the shattered, creaking, ever-shifting expanse of glacier that extends from just above base camp, at seventeen thousand six hundred feet, to the nineteen-thousand-five-hundred-foot elevation,” wrote Jon Krakauer, Everest climber and the author of the book Into Thin Air, in the New Yorker recently.

Sherpa porters carry more than 35 kg loads during the expeditions while also guiding clients—because heavier loads mean more money. And as more of the new breed of climbers seek to go up Everest, there is more advanced gear to haul up the mountain and more canisters of oxygen to be used by the Sherpas’ clients.

The job, listed as one of the riskiest in the world, comes with extremely high chances of injury and death. On average, for every single team-ascent of Everest, the Sherpas climb up and down the mountain 10 to 15 times, hauling equipment for their clients. The respect that the foreign mountaineers show for the Sherpas comes from their resilience and good management skills on the slopes in the face of these adversities.

In an interview last year, one of the greatest mountaineers of all time, Reinhold Messner, told me that Sherpas were great managers. But, he said, mountaineering was changing and it was making the work of his ‘climbing friends’, harder.

“Climbing is no longer being done the way alpinists like to do it—by creating your own path for climbing,” explained Messner, who first climbed Everest, without oxygen, in 1978 and solo in 1980.

He said Everest had become a commercial spot, and that the Sherpas were being paid to support what he calls ‘commercial mountaineering’.

“As an alpinist, I climbed on my own line,” he said. “You don’t have to be a climber any more to climb a mountain. You pay and someone prepares the mountain for your climb.”

He explained that frustration has also been building up among the Sherpa climbers over the years because while they are doing all the hard work, and fixing the ropes and ladders for the climbers, they don’t get to share in the glory. Messner said that in many cases, even some climbers who claim to be ‘alpinists’, climbed the mountain using the infrastructure already set up by the Sherpas, and without so much as thanking them.

“It is the Sherpas who do the high-risk jobs,” said Messner, adding that you have to be on the mountain to actually see how things are.

Sir Edmund Hillary’s son Peter Hillary seconded him during an interview I did with him at the start of the Everest season this year. He suggested that the government should open up all the mountains in the country for climbing so that some of the traffic could be diverted from Everest.

Sherpas earn 3,000 to 5,000 dollars for every expedition, but that’s essentially the yearly sums they make off Everest. They don’t do more than an expedition a season. An individual climber currently pays 25,000 dollars to climb the world’s highest peak, while the government has brought the fees down to 11,000 dollars starting 2015 Spring season. That means even more dilettante climbers flocking to the peak, which will mean more jobs for the guides, but not all Sherpas view this as necessarily a good thing.

“Sherpa boys start climbing as early as the age of 14 and retire when they are 45,” said Temba Tsheri Sherpa, who in 2001 was the youngest person ever, at 16, to climb Everest. “At the end of it they get no pension, nothing. They can only earn during the expeditions and save that. And because they are climbing when they should have been going to school, they are without an education.”

He explained that most Sherpa boys grow up emulating the men in their family who are usually all in the climbing business. But he says it is also because, for many, it seems like the only available profession.

“Mountaineering is our legacy. Besides, we have no other alternative,” said Jangbu Sherpa, when I met him right after the April 18 tragedy. The 27-year-old, who has been atop Everest four times, had helped carry his deceased cousins down the slope. “Accidents happen. We can’t fight the nature. What can we do?” he said, trying to smile at me while tears welled-up in his eyes.

Modern mountaineering gear has made their job easier, mountaineers concur, but the challengers are multi-faceted, and exacerbated by climate change.

“Due to climate change, the snow is melting away. It’s my personal opinion that it might be more dangerous to climb when there is less snow on the slopes,” 21-time Everest summiteer Apa Sherpa said.

With hundreds of climbers scrambling up Everest every year, mountaineers say there’s bound to be an impact on the mountain itself.

“If we bring down the number of people climbing the mountain, it might prove better for everyone in the long run. It is the only way to preserve the mountain as well as save lives,” says Tashi Tenzing Sherpa, grandson of the legendary mountaineer Tenzing Norgay Sherpa’s. “What happened on Everest this season is just a warning to us.”

But the crowds lining up to get on top of Everest shows no sign of thinning. As many as 340 foreign climbers had sought permits to climb Everest this year, and hundreds of Nepali climbers were hired to help.

“Life is more important than a job. And the only way to ensure that the profession remains a sustainable one for Sherpas is to make their jobs safer, which you can do by limiting the number of climbers while charging a higher sum.” Tashi Tenzing said. “It is also important to set up a fund to take care of mountaineers and their families in the face of disasters. The government can have a certain amount of money set aside for certain accidents. They raise 3.4 million in revenue. They should give one third of that for any rescue or expenses on liabilities for Nepali climbers.”

Last week, the government announced the opening up of 104 new peaks for climbers. Tashi says if the industry is properly managed, there will be plenty of jobs on the mountains for more people.

“All Sherpas don’t have to go to Everest. There are hundreds of mountains to climb,” said Temba.


Published: 31-05-2014 09:05

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