They die, we go home
Apr 1, 2016- The morning of the avalanche was quiet. It was still unseasonably cold at base camp but the stiff winds had loosened, and for the first time in a week I felt healthy. I knocked the frost off of my sleeping bag and headed to the mess tent for a cup of instant coffee. It was April 18, 2014. Our team was scheduled to set off from base camp at first light for an acclimatization climb through the Khumbu Icefall, but we were still recovering from a dhal bhat-induced gastrointestinal disaster of the variety that makes you miss your mom. We decided to stay put another day.
The Khumbu Icefall is the stuff of nightmares. It’s the most deadly section of Everest’s Southern climbing route; a river of ice riddled with bottomless crevasses beneath a cliff of hanging glaciers (seracs) that sporadically break free and come crashing down. It’s Russian roulette and it’s the only way to get from base camp to camp one. Climbing quickly helps to mitigate some risk, but moving fast at 20,000 feet elevation isn’t easy. In 2013, I had a close call in the icefall. We were descending from camp one when a serac broke free above us. We whipped our heads around to determine how fast it was coming, and then we ran and hid behind a tall block of ice. We waited, crouched in horror, as the debris field blasted over our heads. Ten minutes earlier, we were standing in the exact place the serac hit. That’s the icefall—you’re either lucky or you’re not.
“When you’re in the icefall it’s like you’re in a Dr. Seuss book. You’re mesmerized and disturbed at the same time,” I told Toby. “Just listen to the Sherpa, move fast when they tell you to, and try to hold it together when you hear them praying.” A few minutes later, we heard an explosion. We ran out of the tent—as we often did when we heard avalanches—and watched as a 30 million pound block of ice released off the west shoulder of the Khumbu Icefall. It was as though the vibration of my words triggered the avalanche.Toby grabbed the camera and began filming the massive debris cloud as it swept down the icefall and towards base camp. “Do you reckon they’ll be people up there?” he can be heard saying before the filming stops. Only those of us who had been in the icefall truly understood the implications of a serac of that size falling in that location at that time. “Dozens,” I said.
The minutes after the avalanche were strangely quiet. We huddled around the radio and listened in silence as reports slowly trickled in. There was confusion over the scale of the devastation; the word “casualty” was being used synonymously to describe both the deceased and the injured. One report estimated that there were at least “25 casualties.” Toby began assembling the patches of our sponsors on his down suit. People do strange things when they don’t know what to do.
Within hours of the avalanche, base camp was reduced to a war zone; helicopters swarmed overhead transporting the bodies of dead Sherpas. One after one, the dead Sherpas were picked up from the icefall and flown through the air, dangling and lifeless bundles dropped at the helipad. It was the deadliest day in the history of Everest, worse than the infamous day in 1996 featured in Into Thin Air, and the climbing community was brought to its knees. Sixteen Nepali Sherpas were killed as they ferried gear to camp one, so that climbers like myself could move up the mountain more easily and less frequently. (Last year, 19 were killed, including 10 Sherpas, after the April 25 earthquake set off
The next morning, our head climbing Sherpa, Temba, found me in the tent. His eyes were swollen from crying and his expression was empty. “We lost many friends and brothers yesterday,” he started. “We’d like to go home to our families, but the Sherpas are worried that if we cancel the expedition we will not get paid. We are willing to continue.” It seemed unfathomable to me that any of the guide companies would withhold compensation. Without any real understanding of the situation, I instinctively reassured him that his team would be taken care of, but the minute the sentence came out of my mouth, I realized that I had no authority to withhold or ensure their compensation.
Everest induces vertigo on your reasoning processes, but it was clear that in the moment that it would be wrong to keep climbing. We told Temba to tell the Sherpa that we would support their decision. Later that morning, Temba returned with the Sherpa and read a letter announcing the end of our expedition, stopping after each sentence to fight back tears. For a brief moment, I felt released from the grip of Everest. The fear of climbing was gone, and the fear of not climbing had yet to take its place. We broke down camp and began the 40-mile trek down the valley.
In just a few weeks, hundreds of climbers from around the world will descend on Everest. While some argue that she is now more dangerous than ever because of growing crowds and poor regulations, the truth is that hardly any of the deaths on Everest over the past three years were caused by either of these issues. The bigger, more complicated story of the suffering of Everest is the longstanding and pervasive exploitation of Sherpa by the international climbing community—specifically, Western guide companies.Temba makes about 90 percent less per season than his Western, less-experienced counterparts ($5,000 vs. $50,000). Western outfits market their guides as a safer alternative to Sherpa guides, playing into the fear and inexperience of their clients. In 2013 there was an American guide on our expedition who’d never climbed above 20,000 feet, yet he was in charge of a team of Sherpa with over 30 combined summits of Everest alone. Temba’s fears of not being paid if his team of Sherpa called off the season were ignited by threats from the commercial guide companies who, the morning of the avalanche, explicitly warned their Sherpa teams that they would forsake all payment if they walked away. Temba’s family receives little compensation in the event of his death—the likeliness of which is very high, given that he performs the most dangerous work on the mountain, with the most frequency. On average, Sherpas climb through the icefall 30 to 40 times per season, their Western counterparts 8 to 10 times.
I often hear folks justify the low wages of Sherpa by comparing them to the national average wage in Nepal. Why are we benchmarking the wage of a climbing Sherpa next to the wage of a farmer, a driver, the proprietor of a tea house, when the Sherpa’s job is much deadlier? Over a 10 year period ending in 2014, the mortality rate for a climbing Sherpa was more than 4 percent. To put this in context, the average workplace mortality rate in the United States is .003 percent, and a climbing Sherpa is over 30 times more likely to die than a logger, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites as the most deadly job in the United States. Grayson Schaffer reminds us: “As a dice roll for someone paying to reach the summit, the dangers of climbing can perhaps be rationalized. There’s no other service industry in the world that so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients.”
For years, tensions have been building between the Sherpa and the Western climbing community. In 2013 at camp two, I watched as a crowd of angry Sherpa unleashed years of resentment on two renowned Western climbers, in a bloody fight that very easily could have ended in death. Earlier that day, both climbers ignored the Sherpa’s request to stay off of the Lhotse Face while they performed the dangerous work of fixing lines.
The conversation about how to make Everest safer needs to begin with the international climbing community asking ourselves how to make Everest more just. What continues to be missing in this dialogue is the narrative around the blatant exploitation of the Sherpa. Yes, issuing fewer permits and banning inexperienced climbers will lead to safer conditions, but the fact remains that the very people who depend on Everest have struggled to organize and advocate for their rights in the face of big business. And we, their clients, are complicit in this. We come, we climb, they die, we go home.
It’s safe to say that I’m in a complicated relationship with Mount Everest. There are moments when, reflecting on my time there, I am deeply moved by the history and by the legacy and the beauty and the breathtaking opportunities that she gives climbers to test the absolute limits of human endurance. And other times, maybe more times, I am ashamed and confused that as a community, we keep failing to recognize that the rights of the Sherpa should be considered as critical to an expedition as the weather conditions. There is so much humanity on Everest, and not nearly enough.
—©2016 the new york times
Published: 01-04-2016 08:52