On April 18th, an avalanche killed 16 people at the Khumbu Icefall on the Nepali side of Mount Everest, making April 18th the single deadliest day in Mount Everest history.
While the death toll is high, the event itself isn’t very surprising to those who follow the Mount Everest climbing season each year. The mountain is known for being particularly dangerous — over the course of the past century, when attempts to climb Everest started (or at the very least were first recorded), over 250 people have died. The worst day on Everest before this event was the infamous 1996 storm recorded in Jon Krakauer’s excellent Into Thin Air.
What was most startling this year is that every single one of the 16 who died were Sherpas.
The word “Sherpa” has a bit of a double meaning. Technically, it refers to a Nepalese ethnic group native to the Himalayas, but in common parlance, the word “sherpa” is often used to refer to any Nepali mountain guide. Sherpas are known for being expert climbers, and for basically doing all of the grunt work to get high-paying tour members up to the summit of the world’s tallest mountain.
Ang Kaji Sherpa was one of the Sherpas killed in this year’s avalanche.
Inevitably, this means they’re exposed to far more dangers than the mountaineers they’re assisting. While Sherpas are believed to have developed a genetic adaptation to high altitudes, they don’t get the same medical treatment richer mountaineers do. They can’t, for example, afford to use as much bottled oxygen during their ascent and descent, and they don’t have access to the steroid injections that protect tour members from afflictions such as cerebral edema (a potentially fatal type of altitude sickness that causes a swelling of the brain) and pulmonary edema (a potentially fatal type of altitude sickness caused by a buildup of fluid in the lungs).
Also, they are given the task of carrying up all the gear that tour members aren’t carrying up, such as their canisters of oxygen. As a result, they often have to make many trips up and down the most treacherous parts of the mountain, increasing their exposure time on the deadlier areas. Deadly areas like the Khumbu Icefall.
This exposure and lack of access has led to the Sherpa profession being among the deadliest in the world — four times more deadly, in fact, than that of members of the US military during the height of the Iraq War.
The Nepalese government makes a sizable amount of money from Everest climbers, and, compared to most of their countrymen, so do the Sherpas. According to Jon Krakauer, a Sherpa can expect to make $2,000-$8,000 a season by working Everest. This is in a country where the median annual income is less than $600. Sherpas also get a life insurance policy worth around $10,500.
Naturally, this isn’t enough, especially in an endeavor where each client climber is paying up to $90,000 to climb the mountain (with hundreds of climbers a year). The Sherpas, finally fed up after last month’s catastrophic avalanche, went on strike, making demands for improved conditions and pay (as well as a monument in Kathmandu to their fallen friends) from the Nepalese government.
But that’s not all — they’ve also decided not to climb Everest this year. Which means approximately 400 climbers will be forfeiting the $90,000 they paid to climb the mountain without ever having made an attempt.
In an interview with the Guardian, guide Pasang Sherpa said, “Sixteen people have died on this mountain on the first day of our climb. How can we step on it now?”
The current conditions the Sherpas have to deal with are insane — they’ve basically become expendable. And with the number of Everest climbers increasing over the past few years, it’s likely that if something’s not done, many more Sherpas will die. Add to this that, with the Himalayan climate warming, areas like the Khumbu Icefall are going to become even more treacherous over time, thanks to melting ice and increased risk of avalanche.
Prior to the arrival of Westerners looking to reach the summit of the highest peak in the world, Sherpas did not climb Everest. In the region, the mountain is still referred to as Chomolungma, or “Holy Mother.” It was not climbed out of respect for the gods who were believed to reside there.
The most famous Sherpas, predictably, are famous for their exploits on Everest, and the most famous worldwide is Tenzing Norgay, who was, along with New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
Norgay and Hillary (pictured above) always refused to answer the question as to who was the first to set foot on the summit of the mountain, and both were showered with awards and honors when they came down. The two became partners earlier in the expedition when Norgay saved Hillary from death by securing Hillary’s rope when he fell into a crevasse.
More recently, there’s Apa Sherpa, nicknamed “Super Sherpa,” who holds the record for most successful summits of Mount Everest at 21. He’s been climbing since 1985, but first summitted the mountain in 1990, and then went on to summit twice in 1992.
Another in our list of Sherpa badassery is Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa, who, with fellow Nepali Sano Babu Sunuwar, summitted Everest in May 2011, and then jumped off of it in a paraglider. They broke the record for the longest free flight on the way down, going 8,865 meters in the span of about 45 minutes, and then, over the course of the next couple months, the two kayaked and canoed from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean. For this, they were named National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year for 2012.
This year’s avalanche will have a lasting impact. The risks of climbing the mountain for Sherpas can only increase as more people become willing to spend the money needed to summit Mount Everest, and tensions between Sherpas and the people they guide were already riding somewhat high. Last year, a fight broke out between Sherpas and Western climbers when the Westerners allegedly kicked ice onto the Sherpas climbing beneath them. It’s the type of conflict that’s inevitable when one group is working in dangerous conditions to serve a much more privileged group. And while most of the Westerners on the mountain are solid, professional mountaineers, for many, summitting Everest is a simple life achievement — while for Sherpas, the mountain represents not only a better life for their families, but something holy, something worthy of the deepest respect.
Hopefully this tragedy will lead to better conditions for the Sherpas climbing Everest, risking their lives to lead strangers on their own personal glory quests.