Sherpas rise up at Outdoor Retailer

What would it take to make climbing fair on Mount Everest for Nepali people?
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2014 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Aug. 6 – 9. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

At 3 a.m. of April 18, Lakpa Rita Sherpa crawled from his tent at Mt. Everest Base Camp as his team of Sherpas headed onto the Khumbu Icefall. He wished them luck. Hours later, he was digging through the ice and snow of a massive avalanche, searching for their bodies.

Rita Sherpa, who has been guiding on Everest since he was 18, retold the story of that day at a Summer Market event hosted at the Sherpa Adventure Gear Aug. 7 that included speeches by Tashi Sherpa, the company’s founder and CEO, and Norbu Tenzing Norgay, the eldest son of Tenzing Norgay, who was the first Sherpa to summit Everest. By April 20, Rita Sherpa and the other sirdars (Sherpa team leaders) at Everest Base Camp had decided to draw the just-beginning climbing season to a close.

“We lost five Sherpas, and I think that’s enough,” Rita Sherpa said.

The international community gasped at the Nepalis’ choice to shut down climbing on the tallest mountain on Earth. That decision sent home the guiding companies and the climbers who had paid for a chance at the summit before the season had even really begun.

In this pause to draw a breath, the Sherpas would like to get a few words in.

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“All we want is for these people to realize, this cannot continue,” said Tashi Sherpa. Sherpa Adventures headquarters its R&D and manufacturing in Nepal and makes giving back to Nepali communities and honoring the Sherpas who make Himalayan expeditions possible integral to its business.

“Everest is the symbol of magnificence and the precious symbol of everything we respect in Nepal, and what’s happened over the past 20 years, there’s been a very rapid denigration of all the values in that,” Sherpa said. “We want Everest to be this aspirational symbol where the best of the best get to climb, and we stop selling it and we stop commercializing it, cheapening its value. When you’re doing that, you’re actually cheapening everything about Nepal itself, about the people.”

They’re not saying close the mountains, or even to give it a rest, he said, but to stop treating it as if it’s on the edge of someone building a highway to the top.

“Who am I or you to stop anybody from pursuing their dreams? But do it in the right way,” said Norgay. “Consider the people that you’re going with. Consider the risk that you’re putting people’s lives in. Sherpas are not a charity case. People in the industry should be responsible for their employees.”

A more equitable set of practices on the mountain, Norgay said, would mean fair pay, sufficient insurance and at least some consideration for the inequity in danger. Sherpas take the brunt of the risk simply by playing the wrong end of a numbers game, repeatedly undertaking the most dangerous tasks on Everest.

First on Rita Sherpa’s list is for the government to establish a minimum wage for a season of work on Everest.

“Some companies they don’t pay at all, they don’t pay much, you know, like, 1,000, 700 bucks for all season, which is not worth it to risk your life,” Rita Sherpa said.

In the 1970s, Sherpas were given life insurance policies for the equivalent of $100,000 in today’s dollars, according to Norgay. But the payment their families receive now, if a Sherpa dies working on the mountain, is $15,000.

“Our goal is not to condemn anybody. We’re not here trying to finger point,” Tashi Sherpa said. “We just want clarity, visibility, accountability, for people to realize that at the end of the day, if you want business to run like a business, you’ve got to be able to be open to making sure that these people who are actually intrinsic or critical to the success of any expedition are treated fairly.”

--Elizabeth Miller

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