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  • Writer's pictureSiv Harstad

Everest Season under way - first casualties

As a high altitude climber and someone who have many friends in Nepal, I very much appreciate how Amund Hestsveen is pushing the press for not recognizing the efforts and feats the Sherpas and other groups are doing in the mountaineering world, not only writing about the westerners. I for one stand for #equity and we are all equally worth. His recent article addresses that our press do not mention the accident on April 12th.

As a comment to his article I have written the following:

Sherpas are like you say a group of indigenous people, not the work title of porters like many people believe. On Everest there are normally Sherpas, Rai, Gurkhas and other groups of indigenous people from Nepal that normally live in high altitude and hence can do a great job in this altitude. Here I’ll for ease use Sherpa for all of them.

Like in any other working environment, there is a differentiation of the different roles on the mountain, that gives different responsibilities, risk and pay. The article talks about it as if they are all having the same terms, which is not correct.

Two of our porters, Jeteendra and Sunil, sitting outside the lodge in Gorak Shep

Different roles on the Mountain

You have the porters that help carry equipment on the trek from Lukla to Base Camp (BC), both for trekkers and expedition teams. Most of them turn around at BC and return home. That is a job that can be done and sometimes is done by Yaks (high altitude “cows”), but most porters want to carry as it is a decent salary for the 7 days trek. They also get a good tip if they work for good outfitter company. Now that there is a weight-limit this is a much better job than what it was, on any mountain, before that was implemented. Sitting in a comfortable western sofa it easy to think it’s not ok, but in my experience this is a much appreciated job not only on Everest but on every mountain around the world as long as weight limits are kept and they receive a decent salary.

Icefall doctors, are the ones that are responsible for the rope fixing from BC to Camp 2 on Everest. They are keeping the route open trough out the season as the icefall changes. The speed of the ice flow is high and that is the reason why this is an important job and also why it can be dangerous. They work for SPCC and the climbing permit the Nepalese government charge the climbers covers their salaries. In my opinion is this the, or one of the, toughest jobs on the mountain.

High altitude porters are the ones that help ferry the equipment, food, tents, etc up and down the mountain. (to/from BC) They are hired and paid by the different outfitters on the mountain. In my experience their working conditions and pay can vary a “lot”. I have never experienced tables and chairs above base camp and nobody carry any water. Like A.. write in his article. Snow is melted for drinking water both in base camp and higher up. Neither is it normal that the sherpas carry camera equipment, at least that’s never happened on any of my expeditions. I do not know what he means with Luxury articles, in my experience we only bring what is utterly needed, which is not much, but for all I know there might be other groups who have some “Luxury” things with them whatever that is.

On Everest (and most mountains) the rope fixing is a joint effort. On Everest that is from camp 2 and up as SPCC do the job up to there. It is agreed between outfitters on which team is responsible for the rope fixing for the season, and the rest of the teams are supporting with ropes, manpower and/or money. Meaning that not every outfitter and all Sherpas are doing rope fixing.

Finally we have the climbing Sherpas, they are the ones that are climbing together with the clients on the acclimatization climbs and to the summit. Like you say, many outfitters give a decent summit bonus so that it is attractive to reach the summit. Like with any KPI, this also have a backside where strong climbing Sherpas are pushing for the summit when the client should have turned around, or are pushing themselves up when they should not have gone up e.g when they are not feeling well.

Being responsible buyers – Sustainability on all levels

As climbers we have to be responsible “buyers” like in any industry. We need to choose the companies that treat their employees right and not to choose the cheapest companies who often save money where it should never have been saved. On the major climbs I have done, where there have been “summit” bonuses, we have given the money regardless of summit or not. Because we didn’t want any unwanted effects of it - the money being dependent upon summit or not.

Also we have made sure that everyone was well insured, not the bare minimum that is often the case, so that in case of emergencies or accidents there is a good coverage for everyone and not a difference depending on your role, or if you are a westerner or not.

Unfortunately, I see that most westerners, not only on Everest, but e.g also on Kilimanjaro, are only looking at the price tag and not on the working conditions for the team they hire. The same happens in many other industries, retail is another good example where many people want cheap clothes, not thinking about working conditions for the ones making the clothes.

At the end of the day we all need to step up the game when it comes to checking what we buy, that it is sustainable and if workers get decent working conditions and salaries.

Is the risk acceptable?

As the Everest season is underway there is a lot of focus on what happens there, or in Himalaya in general, that is understandable. What is less talked about is what happens in our own “back yard” – Europe. Mont Blanc have one of the highest casualty rates in the world, 8000 people have died on the mountain far more than on Everest. We can ask ourselves why it is not talked about.

Many people think that one should not climb peaks if you risk to die. I disagree. There is a risk of dying when you drive a car or to jump in a parachute too, we should not ban all that is risky, because then we need to ban alcohol and foods that slowly kill people too.

There is free will and nobody is forced to climb or to work on the mountain. That is an important fact.

In fact there are very many that want to work on Everest because the pay is very good. And the tourists are bringing a lot of money to the region. The Khumbu valley is the most wealthy regions in Nepal, because of all the climbers and trekkers visiting the area leaving money in shops and tea-houses.

Everyone that go climbing on Everest higher than Base Camp know that the death rate is 6%, meaning that there is someone that will not come home, every year. Hence each and everyone need to have serious conversation with self and loved ones if they still want to go.

You say that many do not have an alternative to working on the mountains, that is not true. There is always an alternative, but it will most likely not pay as much. To work on Everest and earn up to a year’s salary in 2 months is of course very tempting for many, and if you want that there is most likely not an alternative. The people working on the mountains are not victims, in their countries they are often looked upon as the lucky ones.

And in e.g Nepal we now also see a younger generation of both women and men who choose mountaineering as a career and take international certifications as Mountain Guides.

To us the salary of a porter sounds very low, because we compare it to our costs and income. We need to set it in a context of the cost of living in the country where the salary is earned. Very few countries earn as much as us and thankfully they can buy their food and pay for what they need at a much lower price than we can.

When that is said, I do believe that many of us would do a risky job if we could earn that kind of salary because it is tempting for us, especially because our current society is focused on materialism.

Where the real problem lies

We need to recognize that high altitude climbing have come to stay, more and more people seems to be drawn to it. However ,what is an increasing problem is that people who go climbing do not want to take the steps to learn the skills and “do the grades”, I see more and more people who have done a trekking peak like Kilimanjaro who next want to sign up to climb Everest. That is a major problem, and they are a risk to themselves and others on the mountains, because there is always someone who accept them as climbers despite the lack of skills.

The same goes for porters that are without training and the proper equipment are sent to the higher camps on Everest and other mountains. That is a responsibility that the outfitters have and not all of them take it. I was at times shocked to see missing equipment like crampons or lack of understanding of always being hooked onto the ropes with high altitude porters.

Never possible to avoid accidents

At the end of the day we need to recognize that no matter what we do or how much we pay in salaries we can never avoid accidents. We can train, prepare and make sure everyone have the proper skills, be patient with weather conditions and wait for the right timing. But at the end of the day, in high altitude weather we like it or not, the risk of an accident will always be there, and it is much higher than in an office job. With more professionalism in the mountaineering world the risk will decrease, but it will never disappear.

When all of that is said we need to recognize that in the poorest countries in the world there is not a safety system like we have in Norway. If you get sick, are injured or even die there is nobody that help you, or your family. Thankfully the mountaineering community normally help out when something happens, to help the families of the ones that are affected by accidents. For the recent accident of Dawa Tseri Sherpa, Pemba Tenzing Sherpa and Lakpa Rita Sherpa on April 12, 2023 there is now a Go Fund Me campaign to help support the families. I hope that you will support with what you can find in your heart, all donations help.

Trade positions

As for the comment that most of them would have traded positions with us, Amund that goes for most people in the world. Living in Norway having a safe bed to sleep in, roof over our heads and food on the table we have what most people do not have. I honestly wish more people would understand that and appreciate how privileged we are instead of complaining about insignificant issues. More than 80% of the people in the world don’t have the privileges we have and would any day of the week like to trade positions.

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