Moving mountains

  • Sherpa climbers need to get organised if they want themselves to be heard
- Navin Singh Khadka
Moving mountains

Jun 26, 2014-

Having worked on BBC television and radio documentaries for the past two months on what Sherpas think after the last Everest avalanche, one thing became quite clear: Come autumn season, they will be back on the mountain whether their demands are met or not. By then, the compensation the government has promised may reach the families of those who died in what became the worst accident on the slopes of the world’s highest peak. Or, if the red tape continues, it still may not.

Private problems

While working on the documentaries until last week, the tourism ministry was still waiting for the finance ministry to open the purse. But it is not just about the bedeviled bureaucracy.

The private sector appears no better. It has balked at agreeing to raise the life insurance sum for Sherpa climbers. After the government was widely criticised for offering a meager sum of Rs 40,000 for the affected families, it embarked on damage control mode and announced that both the relief and insurance amounts would be raised.

 The relief sum, now raised to Rs 500,000 will have to be paid by the government. But the expedition companies will have to take the responsibility for the insurance amount, increased to Rs 1.5 million from one million. And that is not happening, government officials have accused. “We had announced the increase in the insurance money after the expedition companies agreed to it fully,” said Madhusudan Burlakoti, chief of the mountaineering division under the tourism ministry. “And now, when it is time to live up to that commitment, expedition companies are becoming non-committal.” He said the companies were asking for more time to discuss because it added a financial burden on them. Sources with the Expedition Operators’ Association Nepal (EOAN) confirmed that some of their members had reservations about the increased insurance amount.

Many of the expedition companies have also been blamed for cutthroat competition resulting in poor wages for Sherpa climbers and support staff. “Many new Nepali expedition companies that have come up in recent years hire these [Sherpa] boys and do not pay them properly,” said Russel Brice, who has been bringing foreign expedition groups to the Nepali Himalayas for quite some time now.

The EOAN president, Dambar Parajuli, admits that wages for Sherpas and support staff have gone down and that Nepali companies are involved in cutthroat competition. “No doubt it is happening and we need to have a proper government policy that will require the companies to maintain the minimum standard,” he said. “But that does not mean all is well with the foreign companies; no one knows what percentage of the money they earn from their foreign clients comes to Nepal.” Foreign expedition companies are said to charge as much as $80,000 to each client while Nepali ones manage with less than one fourth of that. Foreign expedition operators claim that they pay Sherpa climbers handsomely and that is why they have the same support staff with them for years now. But in the absence of a proper government mountaineering policy for Sherpas, foreign companies too could exploit loopholes if they wanted to.


Not organised

In all this, missing big time is the voice of the Sherpa climbers themselves. They did make themselves heard for a while after they boycotted the expeditions following the death of 16 of their colleagues in the avalanche on April 18. This was the result of a combination of things: the Sherpa climbers were mourning the deaths of their colleagues; they were outraged at the government’s paltry relief sum offer; and they were concerned about their safety as avalanches had continued in the days that followed.

That did bring expeditions to Everest to a halt and protesting Sherpas made senior government officials come up to Everest base camp and respond to their demands. But once the expedition teams returned after being assured by the government that their climbing permits would be valid for five years, the Sherpa climbers returned to their villages and Kathmandu. And that was that.    

There have been no follow-up meetings or discussions on how to proceed. Members of the Sherpa community in Namche admitted that they had yet to get organised. “We do lack true leadership and that is why we have been so disorganised,” they said in an interaction at a Namche monastery.

Not that there is a dearth of associations. There is the Nepal Mountaineering Association, Nepal Mountain Guides Association, Nepal Everest Summiteers’ Association, the list goes on. But the question is, do these organisations really represent the actual climbing Sherpas— the foot soldiers who are at the forefront bearing the entire burden of the mountaineering industry? “More than 500 Sherpa climbers and support staff work in the Khumbu region and they don’t have an association to carry their voice,” said Dawa Sonju Sherpa during the interaction in Namche. Mingma Gyalgen Sherpa, a climbing guide who escaped the April avalanche by a few minutes, said there was no association as such. “We have heard about these different associations but I am not aware of anything that works for our welfare.”


Uphill climb

The problem is most of the bodies registered as professional bodies of mountaineers have expedition and trekking operators as their executive members. They obviously have their business interests to take care of even when they are dealing with the issue of the climbers.

 Take the latest standoff between Sherpa climbers and the government after the April avalanche. The so-called professional bodies that were negotiating with the government as representatives of climbing Sherpas insisted that the Everest expeditions would go ahead. Whereas, the voice from Everest base camp was the opposite.   

 During the interaction in Namche, some members of the Sherpa community said it was all happening because most of the support staff in the expedition business were uneducated.

But things are slowly changing. There are some Sherpa climbing guides who have international licences to work in the Andes or the Alps. The number of qualified guides is also going up. Perhaps they should take the baton to get the Sherpa climbers organised.  It will certainly be an uphill climb. But they are used to this anyway.

Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London

Published: 27-06-2014 08:53

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