Published On: Mon, Apr 28th, 2014

The Everest tragedy

The Everest tragedyBlogging from Everest base camp after 16 sherpas were killed by an avalanche, American climber Ed Marzec lamented: “I am shamed by our greed and embarrassed by our lack of compassion.” Expressions of sympathy and regret were not enough, however, for the Nepali guides who take breathtaking risks to help Western clients scale the slopes of Everest and realise the ultimate conquest.

There was fury among the roughly 400 sherpas at base camp after the April 18 accident on the perilous Khumbu icefall, the single deadliest disaster on the world’s highest mountain. Chanting, pumping their fists and threatening violence, a group of young sherpas forced an expedition boycott that now looks almost certain, for the first time, to write off a whole season for hundreds of would-be summiteers.

The sherpa backlash, which had simmered for years as a cut-throat business expanded, could deal a blow to the commercial expedition industry that took off in the mid-1990s – pushing costs for climbers even higher.At the top of the Everest supply chain are “clients” from around the globe who pay tens of thousands of dollars to Western mountaineering firms. Then there are Nepali middlemen and the government who take a cut, shoestring local agents, and finally the guides, who can earn as little as $1,000 a season.

Much of the sherpas’ anger was directed at the Himalayan nation’s government, which receives a $10,000 “royalty” from every Everest climber in a group of seven. After the accident it announced a payment of around $400 to the victims’ families to cover funeral costs.

“This is something of a wake-up call for the government,” said expedition leader Phil Crampton of New York-based Altitude Junkies, who flew last week from base camp to Kathmandu, the capital, for emergency talks with officials on the sherpas’ clamour for compensation and higher insurance cover.

“It is a crisis moment for Everest, and a crisis moment for Nepal,” said Crampton, his face sunburnt from having joined the team that retrieved the bodies of sherpas battered by enormous blocks of ice on the glacier above base camp. The sherpa resentment is not aimed at the government alone. Three European climbers abandoned their ascent to the 8,850-metre (29,035-foot) summit last year after a brawl with a group of sherpas during which their tents were pelted with stones and punches were thrown.

And last week many sherpas were outraged that Crampton and another prominent mountaineer, New Zealander Russell Brice, had presumed to intercede on their behalf with the government. The big business that is now Everest stands in stark contrast to the simplicity of Edmund Hillary’s expedition in 1953, when he and sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers confirmed to have reached the highest point on earth.

No one would argue that following in their footsteps along the same South Col route 61 years later is easy. But climbers today can count on bigger teams of sherpas, accurate weather forecasts, sophisticated gear, rescue helicopters, satellite phones and steroids to avert high-altitude disorders.

More than 250 people have died trying to climb Everest, which straddles the border between Nepal and the Chinese region of Tibet and can be scaled from both sides in a season that is cut short in late May by rain clouds cloaking the Himalayas.

But it has become gradually safer, according to climber and writer Alan Arnette, who says the death-per-summit ratio dropped from 5.6 percent in the 1990s to 1.5 percent in the 2000s. That has attracted recreational climbers to sign up for expeditions with major Everest guide companies, known as “wholesalers”, which charge clients between $40,000 and $90,000, depending on the number of guides and other services they want.

In a recent blog on the cost of scaling Everest, Arnette said the most expensive companies provide Western guides – who can command $10,000-$35,000 a climb, according to two Western professionals – and some offer gourmet food, with one promoting its sushi and another a five-star chef.Jon Krakauer, whose book “Into Thin Air” told the story of a vicious storm that killed eight people on Everest in 1996, wrote last week that the statistics give Western novices a false sense of security about “a preposterously dangerous undertaking”.

And before he died in 2008, Hillary himself voiced disdain for the modern processions to the top of Everest. Elizabeth Hawley, a highly respected chronicler of climbing in Nepal, says that she now comes across people setting out for the summit who have never climbed a mountain.

“Sometimes clients fake their qualifications. And some irresponsible wholesalers will take anyone,” said U.S.-born Hawley, who arrived in Nepal over half a century ago and still, at the age of 90, collates data at her Kathmandu home. Crampton said Altitude Junkies takes only experienced clients: the 12 in his team at base camp this month had accomplished 41 climbs of more than 8,000 metres between them.

The attachment stems in part from the traditionally stoical and gentle nature of the sherpa. But what puzzled many climbers at base camp last week was the aggression of a younger group they described as “politicised”. Brice, the New Zealander, says many guides now come from other regions of Nepal – including parts that were plagued for years by a Maoist insurgency – and are sherpas by profession rather than ethnic group.

“We are seeing young boys from remote rural villages,” he said after his crisis meeting with the government in Kathmandu. There have been no suggestions that the past week’s tragedy and base camp drama will derail commercial climbing of Everest, but together they could bring an escalation of costs.

Arnette said sherpa fees would inevitably have to go up and helicopters may be used in future to ferry gear above the Icefall, forcing up prices for clients whose number may dwindle because of increased costs and a greater awareness of risks. “Climbing in Nepal has changed forever,” he said.

Denisha Sahadevan

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The Everest tragedy