Sherpa Insurance and the Politics of Everest

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KATHMANDU, Nepal– The Himalayan Database shows that 174 Sherpas have died while working in the Nepalese mountains. This number includes 15 who have died in the last 10 years just on Mount Everest. During this period, as many Sherpas, if not more of them, have been seriously injured due to falling rocks, frostbite and altitude sickness symptoms such as edema and stroke.

Sherpas who work above base camp do so in an environment that makes them 10 times more likely to perish than commercial fishermen, which the Center for Disease Control ranks as the most dangerous nonmilitary profession in the United States. Those Sherpas are also three and a half times more likely to die than a combat soldier serving during the first four years of the Iraq war.

Looking at these figures from the perspective of a workplace safety statistic—a mortality rate on the job of 1.2%—it becomes clear that the profession of climbing Sherpas kills and disables more people than any other that service industry.

A climber is free to perform a personal risk assessment before a one-time climb and make her informed choice, but for Sherpas, this danger is constant and increases with the frequency with which the Sherpa works.

Before becoming associated with mountain climbing, the word Sherpa referred to a group of migrants from Eastern Tibet who came to Nepal. Ethnic Sherpas then stayed in the mountains of the Solukhumbu Valley, which is now a starting point for those climbing Mount Everest.

As it stands, however, families in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, and in villages within the Solukhumbu Valley have been left without financial support or have had to take on the emotional and financial responsibility of caring for a disabled partner or parent who has been injured in the mountains.

For instance, Ang Temba suffered his first stroke while working as a Sherpa on the north side of Mount Everest. He had gone with his wife to a doctor, who had told him to stop mountaineering, but after recovering relatively quickly, Temba went back to work, deciding it was his only option to make money for his family. He suffered another stroke and became paralyzed.

In a country where the annual per capita income is $645, the $4,000 to $5,000 salary a Sherpa can make in two months makes it hard for Sherpas to quit.

Despite incredible hardship, however, Ang is luckier than some disabled Sherpas who have lost everything. His wife now takes care of him, and he was able to collect $5,500 from his employer’s insurance after proving his disability was from his job and irreparable.

The 2002 Tourism Act Amendment requires every in-country trekking agent to buy rescue and life insurance for its Sherpas. Porters working above Base Camp have at least $4,600 in death coverage; Sherpas in lower altitudes are insured at $3,500. Collective rescue insurance coverage is at least $4,000.

When a Sherpa dies on Mount Everest, Western climbers often create genuine tributes and can contribute money to the Sherpa’s family. There is also an insurance payout of $4,600 that is mandated by the government when a Sherpa dies from work-related causes.

The job of Sherpa, on the other hand, has improved in the past decade. Many Sherpas no longer have to rely solely on their natural abilities, but can take mountaineering classes to hone their safety skills in rope and rescue.

In the 1800s and 1900s, Sherpas died with relative frequency during mountaineering expeditions, which was considered to be an “unfortunate price of conquest,” according to senior editor and writer at Outside Magazine, Grayson Schaffer.

Schaffer asserts that, “Sherpas do everything…the biggest thing that you can do to mitigate your risk on a mountain like Everest is paying somebody to carry your tent and your stove and all of your equipment up the mountain, doing all of those laps for you. Because if the death rate is 1.2[%] for a climber going up Everest, just making the minimum number of trips, you can imagine how high it would be if you also had to do all of the laps.”

Mount Everest is the keystone of Nepal’s $370 million adventure tourism industry, with more than 300 climbers coming every spring to trek the Southeast Ridge. Climbers rely heavily on Sherpas to use their unique ability to function in high altitudes in order to do much of the most dangerous aspects of the trek for them, such as carrying heavy equipment.

Despite improvements in training, Schaffer wonders about the use of Sherpas in a modern era. He writes, “The question is whether, in 2013, the summit of Everest is still worth this kind of banal and predictable human sacrifice.”

– Kaylie Cordingley

Sources: Outside Magazine, NPR, CNN Travel, The Kathmandu Post
Photo: National Geographic

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