Everest avalanche: are Sherpas put at risk by Western climbers?

Apr 23, 2014

Sherpa protests bring Everest climbing season to a halt after 16 die in avalanche

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NEPALESE guides have brought this year's climbing season on Mount Everest to a halt after the worst-ever accident on the mountain's slopes left 16 of their colleagues dead.

Mountaineers from all over the world, many of whom had paid tens of thousands of pounds to join an Everest expedition, are now stranded at base camp amid chaotic scenes four days after the avalanche at the Khumbu Icefall.

Sherpas say they have decided to stop climbing to honour their colleagues and in protest at the paltry compensation offered by the Nepalese government to families of the dead.

One 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?"

As the Nepalese government scrambles to amend its original compensation offer to resurrect a critical part of its tourism industry, questions are being asked over the safety of the climb, and whether Sherpa guides are compensated adequately for the "disproportionate" risk they take in helping foreign mountaineers scale Everest.

What happened? 
On 18 April, just before 7am, a huge overhanging bulge of ice, the size of a house, broke loose from the side of the mountain and smashed against the slope below. On it were 25 men who had been working to secure rope lines in advance of mountaineers aiming to scale the world's tallest peak. The avalanche killed 16, all of them Nepalese; three of the bodies were buried and may never be found.

What was the government's compensation offer? 
The Nepalese government first offered families of the victims around £240 each – barely enough to cover funeral costs, according to The Guardian. The Sherpas responded angrily, demanding the government increase their compensation offer to approximately £600 per family. They also want improved insurance payments for guides are killed or seriously injured and a larger share of the permit fee the Nepalese government charges foreign climbers to take part in the expedition.

Where does money go? 
This spring, Nepal's Ministry of Tourism issued permits to 334 climbers to attempt Mount Everest or its neighbours, Lhotse or Nuptse. Every climber attempting to scale Everest has already paid a £6,000 peak fee to Nepal's Ministry of Tourism. According to National Geographic almost all of this money vanishes "into the pockets of government bureaucrats". Conrad Anker, 51, who has climbed Everest three times, said: "I'd bet less than one per cent of the $3m in permit fees collected each year goes back to the mountain".

Could the accident have been prevented? 
Jon Krakauer, an American writer and mountain climber, notes in the New Yorker that one Everest tour manager, Russell Brice, made the decision two years ago to pull all his guides, clients, and Sherpas off the mountain because of his concerns over the huge bulge of ice that "was hanging like a massive sword of Damocles" directly over the Khumbu Icefall, which lies on the main route up the Nepal side of the mountain. At the time he was criticised but, Krakauer says, his decision has now been vindicated.

Will the accident bring an end to the climbing season? 
It is unlikely. Sherpa guides will probably wish to get back to work "within the next week or two", Krakauer says, given their dependence on Everest for income. In the meantime the thousands of mountaineers stranded at Everest's base camp are "in limbo", according to the National Geographic, and will have to "look into their hearts" to decide whether climbing Everest is worth the risks – both for themselves and also for their Sherpa guides.

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To prevent deaths, why not avalanche control?
It is in use, even in less dangerous places.