SEATTLE, Washington — The prospect of reaching Mount Everest’s summit attracts adventure-seekers from across the globe. Those who guide them through the perils of the mountain’s extreme environment are known to outsiders simply as ‘sherpas.’ Yet, despite endangering themselves to save lives each year, conditions for Nepal’s sherpas continue to deteriorate.
Who are the Sherpa?
Although the outside world knows the Sherpa as Everest’s hardy mountain guides, in reality, the term ‘sherpa’ actually derives from a collection of ethnic groups living in and around the Himalayas. Because of their skill and intimate knowledge of the surrounding mountains, these Sherpas quickly became highly valued as guides by foreign explorers journeying to the region for the first time. Eventually, foreigners would come to apply the term to all of Everest’s guides, regardless of ethnicity.
However, despite their skill and genetic adaption to the region’s high altitude, Nepal’s Sherpas still face the same dangers of climbing Mount Everest as anyone else. Indeed, experience may reduce the risk of death, but it does not eliminate it. Since 1922, ethnic Sherpas have made up more than half of Everest’s climbing casualties.
Mount Everest Offers Better Pay At A Price
These grim numbers have not stopped Sherpas from continuing to seek work at Mount Everest, however. Indeed, many Sherpas live in remote villages far removed from urban opportunities and modern healthcare systems. Thus, they see Everest as their best option to earn a living.
In Nepal, an experienced mountain guide can make up to $10,000 during climbing season. To put it into perspective, that is 14 times higher than the average Nepali makes annually. It is easy to see, then, why many continue to take the risk.
Kami Rita Sherpa holds the world record for climbing Mount Everest, having summitted the mountain 24 times in 25 years. Yet, as he explains in an interview with the BBC, working Everest long-term was not an aspiration of his, but a necessity to escape poverty. “I wanted to be a monk and spent five years training at a nearby monastery,” said Rita Sherpa. “But how could I look for inner peace when back home the lives of my parents hung in the balance? There was no option but to return to climbing.”
Worsening Conditions for Nepal’s Sherpas
As the Nepali government leans even more heavily on the revenue generated by Everest, working conditions for Nepal’s sherpas continue to deteriorate. In the past decade, 90 have died attempting to summit Mount Everest. Of that number, 11 died in 2011 alone. Among sherpas, there is widespread agreement that many of these deaths could have been prevented if not for overcrowding.
In 2019, The Nepali government approved a record number of trekking permits. The resulting traffic jams then forced groups of climbers to linger in hazardous locations for much longer than is safe. Without sufficient time to replenish their oxygen, this caused several climbers to perish needlessly.
Many sherpas are also concerned about the increasing number of inexperienced climbers visiting Everest. Not only are some of these novice climbers in inadequate shape for the trip but they are also prone to exploitation on the part of unscrupulous tourist agencies looking to upcharge. The result, of course, is a larger death toll and an increasingly heavy burden on mountain guides.
Relieving the Burden
While conditions for Nepal’s sherpas remain hazardous, there are those working to alleviate some of the risks. Thanks to growing public outcry over the situation, the Nepali government announced new rules at the end of 2019 aimed at avoiding overcrowding and limiting the number of novice climbers. Among the changes are requirements that climbers provide both proof of prior mountaineering experience and certificates of good health from accredited doctors. Experts expect that the revised regulations will significantly impact the safety of Everest’s mountain guides.
Recent advances in technology are also poised to make a difference in the lives of sherpas. Improvements to weather prediction systems mean that guides can now better anticipate the appearance of Everest’s short windows of safe climbing conditions. Similarly, studies into telemetric clothing offer an opportunity for guides to closely monitor the vitals of climbers. Thus, allowing them to identify potential dangers that much more quickly.
– Grace Elise Van Valkenburg