It’s a tough job for the Sherpas of Nepal. For more than a century, they have carried western explorers – often amateur climbers – up the daunting peaks of Mount Everest. The price of such labor is, quite literally, crippling. Ramifications of their labor outweigh the so-called reward: Many are left crushed by snow-fall, limbs amputated due to frost-bite along with those killed while their loved ones are left to bear the burden of the excesses of western tourism. In the most recent and deadliest avalanche in Mount Everest, sixteen Sherpas lost their lives in Khumbu. What followed their tragic demise uncovered the grotesque state of sherpa exploitation in Nepal.
The average sherpa earns at least $2,000 per climbing season (spanning over spring and early fall when the snow is, by comparison, less perilous), which is considerably more than the median income of Nepal reaching at a paltry $540 per year. Elite Sherpas score $4,000 to $5,000 in two months. The work involves a lot more than rope-throwing and dangerous navigation around volatile geography: over 95 percent of all expeditions to Everest rely directly on Sherpas—they do all the heavy lifting, fix all the lines through the dragon maw of the ice-fall, chop out ice to create tent platforms, haul up tents from the base camp and erect them, lug up six miles of ropes to rectify lines from one camp to the summit and then begin the collection of food and fuel plus oxygen bottles. Compared to the Western climber who passes through the gauntlet of Khumbu 3 times, the average sherpa will pass through nature’s icy abyss 30 times in a season. The small amount of $2,000 doesn’t even cut it.
The sense of being done wrong is further aggravated by Westerners attempting to negotiate with the government of Nepal that offered a shameful compensation of $408 for grieving families. Mountaineering guides from the West insist that the climbing season remain open or, at least, halted until further notice. What fails to garner sympathy here is the plight of the sherpa worker. The conversation does not involve acknowledging the life-threatening hard work Sherpas put into expedition, let alone safety measures and insurance. The incident in Khumbu reveals a bigger and uglier picture: The dehumanization of Nepalese labor and how in the hierarchy of a multi-million mountaineering industry, the life of a poor human being is placed far below the revenue tourism brings.