Everest and Exploitation

This year marked the most horrific mass disaster on Everest since 1996, when eight people died in a single blizzard. In this case, 16 Sherpas died in an avalanche, generating headlines around the world and an open discussion of the exploitation of Nepalese guides on the mountain — though it’s a subject that people have been talking about for far longer than this year’s Everest season. In ‘A Western History of Sherpas on Everest,’ Grayson Schaffer cut to the core of the culture surrounding Sherpas and their work on one of the most ambitious climbs in the world, and highlighted the fact that working on Everest is more dangerous than being employed on an Alaskan fishing boat — which is the most dangerous occupation in the United States.

The avalanche triggered an epic labour dispute, with many Sherpas refusing to come to work, and climbers abandoning their summit attempts for the year in droves despite the fact that the mountain technically remained open. Their dispute and the subsequent collapse of the season eloquently illustrated that Everest is nothing without the Sherpas who act as guides, and that such a dispute has been a long time coming.

Sherpas and the surviving family members of those killed are demanding better wages for their hazardous work, and better compensation in the event of deaths. While mass disasters like these tend to capture media attention, deaths occur on the mountain on a much more frequent basis, and they almost always involve Sherpas. The more trips you make up and down the mountain, the more the odds work against you, and eventually, they’ll catch up.

For Sherpas, there are a lot of trips up and down the mountain involved in a summit made by wealthy white Westerners. Westerners want to ‘mitigate risks,’ and so do the adventure tourism companies that take their money and promise them a straight shot at the summit. That works out to using Sherpas to carry all the gear, set up all the components, and walk side by side with Everest trekkers to carry their oxygen and supplies — guides are used not just as experienced consultants who know the mountain inside and out, but also essentially as pack animals to enable Western tourists.

‘We made Everest a circus,’ said Italian climber Claudio Tessarolo, and ‘this year the Sherpas decided the show will not go on.’

In the same interview, he acknowledged that climbing the mountain is functionally impossible without Sherpas, which is certainly the case for all but extremely experienced climbers — many of whom have gained that experience on Everest and other mountains with the help of guides. Sherpas have been an indelible part of Everest culture since the earliest Western attempts to conquer it, and they continue to be integral, exposed to the highest amount of risk, treated as disposable objects rather than human beings, and underpaid for their efforts and, in the case of deaths, for their ultimate sacrifices on the job.

Nepal’s government makes substantial amounts of money through licensing climbers, but it doesn’t pay out to Sherpas and their families. Much of the support for people killed or injured on the mountain comes from climbers themselves, perhaps seized with a post facto guilt for their exploitation of indigenous people. While the funds they provide are indisputably valuable, it’s not a functional way to compensate Sherpas, who risk everything for a chance at building up savings, sending their children to school, and creating a better life for their families.

In the West, Sherpas are often romanticised as though they have some sort of mystical powers — or their legitimate concerns about working conditions are blown off on the argument that they make plenty of money in a nation with a very high poverty rate. While it’s true that job opportunities can be limited in Nepal and the funds offered for participating in climbing expeditions can be appealing, that doesn’t make the use of Sherpas, and their payment rate, right. 16 people died because of the attitudes taken towards Sherpas, that it’s their job to assume as many risks as possible for Western climbers who want a smooth way up the mountain, and Sherpas are questioning whether they, and Everest, should continue to be treated this way.

And they’re right to do so. Unjust working conditions are unjust no matter where they are, and questions of relativity shouldn’t be applied to human lives. Every human being on Earth deserves the same standard of justice, the same human rights, the same respect and dignity. In the West, workers fought long and hard through the 20th century to improve safety and working conditions, and they continue to do so — it was the actions of garment workers after Triangle, for example, that led to significant shifts in the industry. Sherpas are part of a long and proud tradition of workers making the decision to stand up for themselves and fight for better conditions not just for them, but for future workers and those in related industries.

The West has made Everest its playground, covering it in trash, exploiting workers to turn it into an adventure experience, and disrespecting traditions. Some of the Sherpas say that the gods have woken and they’re angry, but I’d argue that the Sherpas have also woken, and their organising is both fearsome and righteous. For those making a precarious livelihood in one of the most dangerous workplaces on Earth, it’s time for justice.

Image: Everest/Chomolungma and Nuptse, Andrew Purdam, Flickr.