The Impact of the Commercialization of Everest on Sherpa Society
By Nick Patterson
In April 2014, the worst accident in the history of climbing Mount Everest occurred with 16 Sherpa guides losing their lives in an avalanche (Largent, 1). Sherpas inhabit the region of Nepal near Everest, called the Solu (the lower valley) and Kumbu (the higher) (Ortner 63). Sherpas have historically provided guide services to outsiders attempting to climb Everest for more than 100 years. The income provided by climbers is important to the Sherpa economy that is based on pastoral herding at high altitudes. In the early 20th century Sherpa’s began to be singled out by Western (mostly British) climbers as “excellent men” and “excellent porter material” (Ortner 58). The strong Sherpa presence in the Himalayas and their natural abilities in the mountains have helped commercialization of climbing Everest. This has increased over the past twenty years has led to a dramatic increase in the demand for Sherpa services. Consequently, the Sherpa communities have come to rely on the income provided by climbing-related tourism.
The benefit to the Sherpa economy, however, has a high price in the form of death and injury when working for climbers, which was underscored by the death of so many Sherpas in 2014. The mortality rate for Sherpas providing services on Everest is extraordinarily high at 1.2%, which is due to extreme danger associated with the work (Schaffer, 1). In addition, many Sherpas experience permanent disabilities as a result of their injuries with stroke leading to paralysis particularly common among individuals who work for extended periods of time at high altitude. The high mortality rate and the extent of work-related injuries among Sherpas raises the issue of whether outside climbers are exploiting the Sherpas by requiring them to perform the most dangerous type of work involved with climbing Everest.
The Effect of Climbing Tourism on Sherpa Society
The Sherpa who reside in the Khumbu live in eight communities at approximately 10,000 feet and have herding settlements as high as 15,000 feet (Stevens, 411). Sherpa society is based on agricultural and pastoral practices suitable for high altitude and short seasons. Until the 1960s, the Sherpas made annual treks to Tibet and India to obtain essential goods that they could not produce in their communities such as low-altitude grains. The trading treks are no longer necessary because the currency that provided by climbers allows them to obtain essential goods without the need to barter. A market in which outsider traders bring the goods to the Sherpa has been established in the lowest of the communities, Nauje.
Tourism in the Khumbu region has increased dramatically over the past forty years. In 1971, only approximately 1,000 visitors a year came to the region with very few attempting to climb Everest (Stevens, 412). At the current time, there are approximately 35,000 visitors to the Khumbu region each year. Not all of the tourists are climbers focused on Everest. In Khumbu, there is also Mt. Lhotse and Mt. Cho Oyu, which are close to Everest in height. The smaller mountains, however, draw attention only from committed mountaineers because ascent of these peaks do not bring the same prestige as climbing Everest, the highest mountain in the world.
The social impact of the dramatic increase in tourism in Khumbu has been the reorientation of the economy and lifestyle around tourism income. Every Sherpa household has some income related to tourism and many households have several male members providing services to climbers (Stevens, 413). In many cases, the Sherpas contract with the tourism organizations that bring the climbers to Tibet. Not all the jobs for Sherpas involve mountaineering. Some Sherpas act as porters or sirdas carrying the gear to the base camp while other Sherpas provide basic services such as cooking or setting up camps. Women do not generally engage in work providing services to climbers, which is a cultural limitation.
Over the past two decades, a higher percentage of Sherpas have become involved in mountaineering work, which pays substantially more than porter work. As a result, many of the porters come from outside the Khumbu region. The increase in mountaineering work is the result of increased demand for guides capable of working at the highest altitudes on Everest and other peaks in the region. Because of the relatively small number of Sherpas with the necessary skills, the wages for the high altitude mountaineering work has increased substantially. Sherpas are accustomed to working at high altitude and therefore have more physical stamina than many of the climbers who typically reside at lower altitudes. The increased number of Sherpas that have become involved in high altitude mountaineering has substantially increased in the number of successful ascents of Everest. In 2013, 547 climbers or 56% of the attempts to scale Everest were successful. In contrast, 72 climbers or 18% of the attempts to reach the top of Everest were successful in 1990 (Jenkins, 1).
Climbing in the region has also led to the introduction of entrepreneurism into Sherpa society. Sherpas have created their own mountain trekking and mountaineering companies that are headquartered in Kathmandu. These companies negotiate with the large international firms that bring climbers to Nepal. Many of the households in the various Sherpa communities operate inns or shops to take advantage of the climbers that stay overnight on their way to Everest or other mountains. The Sherpas also operate lodges in the region that are on the routes to the mountains. Women operate the inns and lodges, which is considered culturally acceptable. In addition, the inns and lodges often employ women from outside the Khumbu region.
The income from the tourism in the region has made the Sherpa affluent by Nepalese standards, allowing them to live a relatively luxurious lifestyle. Most Sherpa households hire people from outside the Khumbu region to perform household and agricultural labor, and many families have commissioned works of art (Stevens, 416). The income, however, is unevenly dispersed with the families that do not have men providing services to climbers living in poverty. The poor Sherpa families have been particularly affected by the substantial rise in food prices because of the increased demand caused by the summer influx of climbers and their support teams.
A significant effect of commercialization of the climbing of Everest and other mountains in the Khumbu region has been damage to the environment (Stevens, 417). The thousands of tourists that have come to the region have left behind an enormous amount of garbage that Sherpa society is not equipped to manage. A large garbage dump exists near the base camp area at Everest. There has also been some deforestation resulting from the need to supply climbers with wood for fires. While the negative environmental effects have not reached crisis levels, the general trend suggests that the use of non-sustainable practices in the climbing tourism industry could ultimately reduce the ability of Sherpas to engage in traditional agricultural and pastoral activities.
The Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Civil Aviation ostensibly regulates climbing on Everest. The ministry charges climbers permit fees that amount to $3 million in 2012 (Jenkins, 1). The government, however, has not used any of the funds to protect the environment in Khumbu or to provide other benefits for the Sherpa communities affected by tourism. In general, the government of Nepal provides few services because of corruption and the uneasy peace between the government and Maoist rebels following a civil war that ended in 2006.
The climbing tourism in the Khumbu region has also led to additional changes to Sherpa society. The climbers have caused some disruption to religious festivals and ceremonies by their behaviors. In addition, some foreigners have shown disrespect to the Sherpa Buddhist beliefs (Stevens, 218). Most of the affluent families send their sons to schools outside the Khumbu region because of the increase in the perceived importance of education as necessary to for involvement in the global tourism industry. As a result, local educational facilities have declined in significance in the Sherpa communities.
The adventure tourism that has grown around Everest also conflicts with Sherpa religious beliefs and has resulted in increasing reluctance among Sherpas to meet the demands of climbers despite the importance of wages for the Sherpa economy. According to the Norbu Tenzing, the son of the Sherpa who accompanied Edmond Hillary on the first documented ascent of Everest:
Sherpas are very superstitious and religious. Everest is a deity. It’s where the gods live and it’s been desecrated, and so maybe there is a message over here that the gods are angry about how the mountain has been trampled on and how it has been desecrated (Quoted in Parker, 1).
Many Sherpas considered the earthquake in 2015 that disrupted climbing and led to an end of the climbing season as a sign that they should not return to Everest as guides. Tenzing also indicated “They’re wondering, should they become guides and go on smaller mountains” (Quoted in Parker, 1). As a result, the current perception among Sherpas is that some type of fundamental change is necessary in the general approach to climbing tourism in Khumbu.
During the early 20th century during the relatively new age of modern climbing, Sherpa’s were less conscious of about their roles within early expeditions. But during the fifties and 60’s (the golden years of climbing) Sherpa’s began to demand equality among their Western counterparts according to Ortner “Sherpa’s became much more visibly self-conscious” (154). Sherpa’s started strikes and “occasionally militant about their role and their rights on the expeditions” (154). It is interesting, however, that research examining the death rate among climbers on Everest indicates that Sherpas have a lower rate of fatal accidents than non-Sherpa climbers with Sherpa mortality from accidents at .4% Firth et al., 2). Sherpas have an overall mortality rate of 1.2% (Schaffer, 1). In addition, deaths among Sherpas are substantially higher during the descent from the mountain, possibly because of effects such as anoxia and weariness from the ascent that result in inattention and helping other non-experienced climbers down the mountain. The most dangerous route for Sherpas is the south face of Everest, which has the highest rate of mortality and injury. While the rate is low for Sherpas compared to non-Sherpa climbers, the Sherpas face repeated risk of death from climbing because of the many times they ascend the mountain over several seasons of working as high-altitude guides. The deaths among Sherpas were primarily attributable to illness associated with high-altitude sicknesses including hypothermia, sudden death possibly linked to stroke, and anoxia leading to disorientation. Only a small number of Sherpas die from accidents such as avalanche or falling rocks that are not related to high altitude illness. Nonetheless, the deaths of Sherpas from accidental causes are substantially lower than the deaths of climbers possibly because the Sherpas are more experienced at high-altitude climbing than many of the climbers attempting the mountain for the first time.
The wages that Sherpas receive are relatively low compared to the risks associated with mountaineering. A high altitude Sherpa receives approximately $5,000 a season, which would not be adequate compensation for an individual to accept comparable risks in industrialized nations (Largent, 1). The average annual income for Sherpas who do not provide services to climbers is only $700 a year, however, which makes $5,000 appear very attractive for a summer season’s work. As a result, most Sherpas accept that the compensation for climbing the mountain is sufficient for the risks. In terms of the local Sherpa economy, the compensation may be so great as to induce the individuals working on the mountain to ignore the potential for death and disability as a result of climbing. From an objective perspective considering relative value in different global economies, however, the compensation for Sherpas appears inadequate for the risks.
An interview with Furba, wife of a Sherpa named Ang Temba, reveals some of the problems with the current system of compensation and insurance for Sherpas who are severely injured and incur disabilities as a result of working as a high-altitude guide. Ang Temba suffered a stroke in 2006 while working for a Japanese team climbing the north face of Everest and was in his mid-forties at the time. The Japanese physician who attended him at the time warned him not to engage in mountaineering the future. But according to Furba: “There is no option other than mountaineering” (quoted in Schaffer, 1). As a result, Ang Temba returned to mountaineering after he recovered from the initial stroke. He suffered a second stroke on the mountain that left him permanently paralyzed and unable to speak. Furba noted: “If he’d agreed with the Japanese doctor, then he would not be in this situation right now. It was a bad decision.” The decision, however, was prompted by necessity because of the importance of the income from mountaineering to the family. In the case of Ang Temba, the climbing company that employed him agreed to pay $5,500 in compensation after more than a year of disputing that the disability was permanent and work related.
Another Sherpa victim of high altitude stroke, Lhakpa Gyalzen, collapsed at 27,000 feet on Everest, only 2,000 from the summit. The Chinese team for which he worked left him there for two days before informing other Sherpas about his condition. The Chinese offered him no medical services and he received no disability compensation. He remains partially paralyzed and unable to work (Schaffer, 1).
Under Nepalese law, all companies organizing expeditions to Everest must obtain death and rescue insurance for the Sherpas that they employ (Schaffer, 1). For high altitude work, the insurance pays a death benefit of $4,600 but only $575 in medical costs if a Sherpa is injured. A particular problem is the inadequacy of the rescue insurance, which pays only $4,000 in the event that a Sherpa is injured and requires evacuation from the mountain. The typical cost of a helicopter evacuation is $15,000. Consequently, the few helicopter services that are available often refuse to transport an injured Sherpa unless the climbing company guarantees full reimbursement for the cost of the helicopter service.
There is some evidence that insufficient mountaineering skills among Sherpas may contribute to accidents on the mountain including accidents directly harming Sherpas (Jenkins, 1). The assumption among the companies employing Sherpas to accompany climbers up Everest and other mountains is that the Sherpas have all the technical knowledge necessary to make the ascent, including the more complex terrain such as the Hillary Steep below the summit and the Khumbu ice field. The assumption that Sherpas are competent in mountaineering is potentially exploitive because it exposes inexperienced Sherpas to harm if a situation arises on a climb that requires mountaineering expertise that they lack. The Khumbu Climbing Center is a nonprofit organization that was formed in 2006 to teach mountaineering skills to the Sherpas. The school focuses particularly on teaching rope and high-angle rescue skills (Shaffer, 1).
Another factor that is contributing to the risk of harm for Sherpas is the large number of people climbing Everest with no system to control the traffic flow up or down the mountain or in the base camps (Parker, 1). The problem arises because many of the people climbing Everest are not experienced mountaineers and participate in adventure tourism to gratify whims. Many of the climbers are also inexperience in high altitude climbing and tend to overestimate their stamina (Jenkins, 1). Consequently, they rely heavily on guides for mountaineering advice and do not fully understand the technical aspects of climbing. The commercial expeditions often emphasize reaching the summit over the general protocols involved with safe climbing at high altitude. The inexperienced climbers and the desire to the commercial companies to ensure their clients reach the summit places pressure on Sherpa guides to take imprudent risks that tend to increase the incidence of death and injury.
An example of the inappropriate risks comes from the observations of Jenkins (1) during an ascent of Everest. He noted that approximately twenty people were clutching a frayed rope that was attached to a badly bent picket pounded into the ice (Jenkins, 1). If the rope broke or the picket popped from the ice, the entire party including the Sherpa guide would have fallen to their deaths. Rather than follow this group, Jenkins and his Sherpa companion followed another route across an ice field that was possible only for experienced mountaineers.
Exploitation occurs when one individual takes unfair advantage of another person based on differences in power, background, or economic situations (Largent, 2). Based on this definition, the climbers as well as the tourism companies that employ local guides on behalf of the climbers are exploiting the Sherpas. Nonetheless, the Sherpa communities enjoy significant benefits from the presence of the climbers and the income that they produce that would not be available to Sherpas but for the climbing and related tourism.
The exploitation of Sherpas could be reduced if Sherpas received higher wages however, that seems to be a non-realistic option due to the abundance of climbing companies and numerous lacking the monetary funds to respectively pay their Sherpa staff. For the most dangerous high altitude work Sherpa’s should have some type of disability insurance provided by the companies sponsoring the climbers and climbing tourism. The higher compensation would reduce the ethical dilemma faced by climbers who employ Sherpas for extremely dangerous tasks at wages that seem low when compared to wages paid for similar dangerous work in industrialized nations. Some type of disability insurance that pays a reasonable amount to Sherpas permanently injured as a result of working as high altitude guides would also reduce the problem of caring for individuals disabled by stroke or other conditions.
Because of the inefficiency of the government, any reforms that end the exploitation of Sherpas will have to come from the companies organizing the Everest expeditions for foreigners. The more experienced and responsible companies recognize the need for better benefits for Sherpas and improved stewardship of the environment on the mountain and in the Khumbu region. The tourism companies should recognize that the continuation of their ability to bring climbers to Everest for successful climbs depends heavily on the willingness of Sherpas to continue risking their lives and their health on the mountain. Consequently, Sherpas should receive as much training as possible to minimize the risk as well as compensation and insurance benefits that can mitigate any harm that comes to them when acting as high-altitude guides.
- Works Cited
Firth, Paul et al. “Mortality on Mount Everest, 1921-2006: A Descriptive Study.” BMJ, 337 (2008): 1-6.
Jenkins, Mark. “Maxed Out on Everest: How to Fix the Mess at the Top of the World.” National Geographic, June 2013. Web. May 4, 2016. < http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/06/125-everest-maxed-out/jenkins-text.
Largent, Emily. “Is it Ethical to Hire Sherpas When Climbing Mount Everest?” BMJ, 349 (2014): 1-3.
Parker, Laura. “Will Everest’s Climbing Circus Slow Down After Disasters?” National Geographic. May 13, 2015. Web. May 3, 2016. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/05/150513-everest-climbing-nepal-earthquake-avalanche-sherpas/>.
Schaffer, Grayson. “The Disposable Man: A Western History of Sherpas on Everest.” Outside. July 10, 2013. Web. May 3, 2016. http://www.outsideonline.com/1928326/disposable-man-western-history-sherpas-everest
Stevens, Stanley. “Tourism, Change, and Continuity in the Mount Everest Region, Nepal. Geographical Review, 83.4 (October 1993): 410-428.
Ortner, Sherry B. Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. Print.