Wednesday, 23 April 2014

In praise of Sherpas

Photo: Clive Simpson

The world it seems is always full of tragedies - the recent loss of a Malaysian aircraft with all its passengers and crew, the South Korean ferry disaster and, a few days ago, a deadly avalanche on the slopes of Mount Everest in Nepal.

They are different in scale but on the human level all have unique and very individual impacts on families, friends and communities.

Tragedies on the world’s highest mountain are nothing new and are almost expected at this time of year, which is deemed the most ‘favourable’ time for commercial expeditions to guide fee-paying clients to the summit.

As rescuers abandoned their search for three Sherpas believed to have been killed along with 13 others last Friday, the Nepalese government is still considering cancelling all expeditions to climb Everest this year.

The avalanche happened at about 5,800 m (19,000 ft) - some 500 m above Base Camp - as Sherpa guides were hauling gear through the Khumbu icefall, a treacherous terrain of crevasses and enormous chunks of ice.

The men were near an area known to climbers as the ‘popcorn field’ - because of its bulging ice - when an enormous piece broke away from a high glacier and crashed down the mountain, setting off an avalanche of ice and rock.

This latest incident has raised concerns in Nepal about the scale of the climbing business and the inherent dangers to the Sherpa guides - as well as the low levels of compensation paid to families by the Nepalese government.

For 2014, some 334 climbers from around the world have permits - costing almost £6,000 each - to climb Everest. Filming rights and other fees bring in more money to the government and if the expeditions are cancelled fees will have to be refunded.

For the Sherpas themselves - a once-obscure mountain people whose name has become synonymous with Everest and whose entire culture has been changed by decades of working as guides and porters for wealthy foreigners - it was a brutal reminder of the risks they face.

On well-travelled, high-prestige climbs like Everest, the Sherpas are the ones who go up first, breaking deep snow, laying fixed ropes and carrying heavy equipment and supplies. Avalanches, altitude sickness, lack of oxygen and brutal cold are part of the deal.

A year ago British climber Jon Griffith and two colleagues abandoned an attempt to climb Everest by a new route after a dispute about the treatment of Sherpa guides.

"There's an underlying feeling among the Sherpas that they've been treated quite badly by westerners and that clients don't have any respect for them," he said afterwards.

"If you look around at how incredibly luxurious some base camps are, you can see their point."

Sherpas are an ethnic group in Nepal and have helped foreigners climb the country's towering peaks since before Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Sir Edmund Hilary became the first to reach the top in 1953.

But in the muti-million pound business of summiting Everest they have all too often been treated as the poor relation and only time will tell if this latest and worst single tragedy on the slopes of the world's highest mountain will address the imbalance.

In my own experience of trekking to Everest base camp, Sherpas have always been friendly, helpful and very supportive. And, as I wrote in ‘Postcard from Namche’, their cheery demeanour and willingness to serve is a lesson to us all.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information or to get in touch click here

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