The Mountain Film Festival in Telluride, Colorado is usually a gathering place for climbers, guides and mountaineers to celebrate the adventure sport they love. But this year, those at the event were mourning a recent tragedy that occurred on the world’s tallest peak and the role of Sherpas on dangerous climbs.
On April 18, thousands of tons of ice and snow calved off the West Shoulder of Mount Everest and thundered down the mountain, killing sixteen Sherpas in its path. In an instant, Mount Everest had a new milestone of death and danger. Dr. Ellen Gallant, a Salt Lake City cardiologist., was hoping to climb the mountain this year. Instead, she attended to the dead and dying.
“Looking at the bodies, they had their climbing harnesses on, boots, crampons, they all came to us with their Buffs over their faces. It was as close to battle as I’ve ever seen and hope never to see again,” says Gallant.
The tragedy happened in the notorious icefall, dubbed Everest’s deadliest mile. For decades, climbers have made as few trips as possible through its overhanging ice blocks and bottomless crevasses. But, Norbu Tenzing Norgay, whose father was the first man to stand on the summit with Edmund Hillary in 1953, says high altitude climbing requires a lot of gear and that gear has to be hauled through the icefall;
“As it’s become easier for Western climbers to climb Everest, it’s ironic that it’s become much riskier for Sherpas, because they’re hauling luxury tents and cappuccino machines thru the icefall, making for a lot of unnecessary journeys up there,” says Norgay.
Salt Lake City climber and cinematographer Scott Simper agrees.
“People expect same luxuries they have at BC now at CII; why doesn’t my cell phone work? Can I have two sleeping pads? Why don’t we have a heater in the mess tent. We want tables, chairs, we don’t want to stand on the ground…all these things are loads on people’s backs,” says Simper.
Sherpas’ backs. And while the name Sherpa is an ethnic distinction, it has also become a job title for anyone carrying loads on the mountain. And as the dead were being counted, tempers flared between the so-called small s verses capital “s” Sherpas.
“There were these veiled threats against any Sherpa willing to climb. We were told the ice fall docs were told they shouldn’t go fix the route destroyed in the accident,” says Simper.
Who these men were, no one is really sure, but everyone acknowledged they were not the ethnic Sherpas, those usually associated with climbing Everest.
Scott Simper says these non-ethic sherpas typically work at the bottom of the Everest food chain – lowly work with a lowly wage.
“I think they’re the ones being taken advantage of. It’s back-breaking work carrying the loads up there. Support cooks, yak herders, those who carry out the waste -- that wage needs to come up for everybody,” says Simper.
And although these non-ethnic sherpas are still a minority in the overall Sherpa numbers working on the mountain, they took control after the tragedy, and ultimately forced the shut down of the mountain. Their anger shocked many Westerners, but not some Nepalese who have watched this labor war percolating for years. Karsang Sherpa, an ethnic Sherpa now living in Colorado, says in the Buddhist Sherpa culture a child is raised to respect their elders and not to speak up and demand change.
“It’s not surprising to me, although the number of non-Sherpa climbing guides is small, only 2%, that they were the ones who were raising the voice, controlling the dialogue, or discussion, whereas the ethnic Sherpas didn’t have much of a say and didn’t really say much,” says Karsang Sherpa.
Norbu Tenzing Norgay agrees.
“There was a renegade group, does not represent the overall Sherpa people. But no matter, be it sherpa with a small “s” or Sherpa with a capital “S”, everybody is entitled to work, everybody is entitled to climb,”
For Norbu and others gathered at Telluride, the anger at base camp this year erupted because of age-old inequities in pay and treatment between the Sherpas, the non-ethnic sherpa workers, and the Western guides.
Wade Davis is author of “Into the Silence,” a book documenting the history of British mountaineers who climbed Everest. He says it’s time for real change in the paradigm.
“The same arguments used today to rationalize how they pay so little, they say, ‘it’s ten times what average Nepali makes.’ So what? You’re taking these men, putting their lives at risk, why don’t we emulate Hillary and Tensing, who said we’re equal before the wrath before the mountain?” asks Davis.
But, it’s almost certain that change is not going to come from the Nepali government, which is loathe to curtail any trekking and mountaineering dollars from entering the country. Rather, many feel the change must come from the expeditions themselves. Norbu Tenzing Norgay:
“The western climber is the ultimate enabler. Until he can look in the eyes of Sherpa child, and be satisfied that he’s made sure his father well taken care of, then only should they decide to climb Everest,” says Norgay.
No one knows how the dust storm will settle. But what is known is that when the Nepalese side of the mountain is again open for business, there will be a long line of western climbers anxious to place their footprint on the roof of the world.