Rethinking Everest After 16 Perish

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The view from the top of Everest is breathtaking. (TSHERING SHERPA/AFP/Getty Images)
The view from the top of Everest is breathtaking. (TSHERING SHERPA/AFP/Getty Images)

After last week's avalanche on Mount Everest killed 16 high altitude porters, almost all of them ethnic Sherpas, the 2014 climbing season has been all but shut down. Scores of climbers left the mountain on Thursday after deciding it would not be safe to continue.

Beyond the mountain's usual dangers, climbers and their Sherpa guides feared retribution from other Sherpas who had hoped to use the tragedy to get concessions from the Nepalese government. "Sherpas are turning against Sherpas," one expedition leader wrote in his blog. Outside magazine senior editor Grayson Schaffer joined Bill Littlefield to discuss the tragedy and its implications for the future on Everest.

BL: What is the situation like on Everest?

GS: The Sherpas who normally support the western climbers during their expeditions after this terrible tragedy have fractured into groups. One of which believes [they] should shut down the climbing season: you know, that it would be unthinkable to step over the bodies of their relatives to reach the summit. And then there's another group I think that recognizes sort of how high the stakes are for the climbing season and whether that might mean that next year some of these teams are forced to go back to the Tibetan side and deal with the Chinese government and climb from that side of the mountain in the future. The stakes are very high and the ball seems to be in the Sherpas' court.

BL: Could last week's tragedy have been prevented?

[sidebar title="Overcrowding On Everest" align="right"] Back in 2013, we looked into the traffic jams on the world's highest peak. [/sidebar]GS: Well I don't know if it could have been prevented, but I think that the impact of it could have been lessened. On any given day in early May there could easily be 150 people on that route, maybe even in that area. But one of the things that kind of goes by the wayside on Everest is the idea of spacing people out--treating the mountain with enough respect given how dangerous it can be and how many people they're trying to put up there. So the crowds of people aren't necessarily causing any avalanches, but when you have that many people you increase the probability that you have one of these catastrophic accidents.

BL: One of the Sherpas who left the base camp said, "It is impossible for us to continue climbing while there are still friends buried in the snow." And that of course is not hard to understand. Does it entirely explain the arguments between them?

GS: You know, I think it partially explains the arguments between them. But there's also, I think, been this fairly long simmering tension that we saw come to the surface last spring during the well reported Everest brawl that went on between  a group of Sherpas and some European climbers. You know I think that some of the Sherpas are viewing this as either an opportunity or a breaking point, depending on your point of view, to demand some concessions and better treatment from the government.

From my perspective I think it's interesting that they're angry and lobbying with the government because the tourism bureau here doesn't have that much to do with the mountain besides collecting the fees which they dutifully do every year.  Really, you know, a lot more of this has to do with negotiations that probably need to go on between the Sherpas and the expedition companies that they work for.

BL: I understand that those permit fees are hefty. Do the Sherpas deserve a portion of that?

GS:  Well I think it's a difficult and a fairly complicated situation. You know on the one hand Sherpas working on Everest make [$2,000, $3,000,] up to $6,000 in about three months work in a country where the median income is $550 to $600 a year. The climbing industry has certainly elevated a lot of Sherpa people into the middle class — both them and their extended families through this work.

But they're also — they're basically putting their lives on the line for something that is essentially a tourist enterprise. There's a certain ethical dilemma, I think, that everyone who's involved in this has to sort our for themselves, which is: can you simply absolve yourself of that sort of responsibility by paying more and more money to these guys? And unfortunately I don't know the answer to that.

This segment aired on April 26, 2014.


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