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Mount Everest avalanche: Sherpas reconsider their perilous profession

A deadly avalanche last Friday near Everest base camp has led to walkouts by Sherpas angered by government compensation terms, throwing into doubt the plans of foreign mountaineers.

KATHMANDU, Nepal — By Nepal’s standards, Kaji Sherpa was on a solid career track. After working as a porter to foreign mountaineers, last year he ascended to the top rank of his profession, becoming a climbing Sherpa, which meant he would accompany foreign climbers to the peak of Mt. Everest.

Then came last week’s deadly avalanche that killed 13 Sherpa guides and left three missing. Mr. Kaji wasn’t among them: He narrowly survived by clutching a rope as ice chunks pounded his chest. Carried down by colleagues, he was evacuated to Kathmandu where he now lies in a hospital bed nursing two broken ribs.

Like other Sherpas, an ethnic group famed for its high-altitude fortitude, he’s reweighing the risks and rewards of a profession that is handed down from father to son, dangling a path out of poverty, yet always at the mercy of treacherous mountain conditions.

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“I will never return to the mountain and will prohibit my two sons from joining the mountaineering profession,” says Kaji. “There is too much risk. I will tell my children to complete their education and seek regular jobs.”

Friday’s disaster struck just over 540 yards above the crowded Everest base camp where Sherpa porters and guides were carrying supplies to higher camps in preparation for climbers to the summit. A large chunk of ice broke off along a section called the Khumbu Icefall that is the only route to the top.

On Wednesday, dozens of Sherpas left the base camp in protest at the Nepalese government’s response to the tragedy, throwing into jeopardy the plans of foreign climbers who are preparing to make the ascent in the coming weeks. The government said it was sending officials to the camp to discuss Sherpas’ concerns and persuade them to resume climbing activities.   

Compensation fund

The Sherpas are angry at the government’s announcement of a relief sum of around 400 dollars to families of those who perished Friday. The Sherpas say this is an insult, and are demanding more relief, a welfare fund, and better insurance. On Tuesday, the government announced further measures to placate them, but it wasn’t enough.

As of Tuesday, 334 foreigners who were part of 31 expeditions were waiting at or near the base camp for Sherpas to set up higher camps. With Sherpa guides and support staff returning home, two expeditions have already cancelled their planned ascents to the summit.  

In 2008, Kaji started working as a porter on Everest, a relatively low-paying job. His promotion to climbing Sherpa hiked his earning potential: During the spring peak season, he stood to make around $6,000 in a country where average incomes are $700.

Kaji, a sturdy, dark-complexioned man in his thirties, had hoped to put aside enough money from his expeditions to build a house in Kathmandu. Now he’s decided to return to Taksindu, his home village perched atop a mountain in Solukhumbu district where Mt. Everest lies. “I will return to farming,” he says.

But a large number of Sherpas have tasted affluence and are not done with the profession. Dawa Tashi Sherpa, aged 49, who began as a porter at the age of 17 and has climbed the world’s highest peak six times, says he plans to continue to assist foreign climbers until he turns 60.

“Mt. Everest is my god. It gave me a house in Kathmandu. It allowed me to send my four daughters to good schools,” he says.   

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Mr. Dawa, who had to leave school after the third grade because his parents couldn’t pay for his education, makes as much as 7,000 dollars a year assisting foreign expeditions on Mt. Everest and smaller mountains.

“All my daughters carry cell phones. This wouldn’t have been possible if I weren’t in this profession,” he said, adding, “I’m not educated. Climbing is the only thing I know. What will I do if I quit?”

Nimble at high altitudes

Sherpas comprise less than one percent of Nepal’s population of 26.5 million. Most of them live in mountainous areas and are naturally suited for their profession. They are known for being nimble in high altitudes where thin air slows down even the most hardened mountaineers; many don’t even need artificial oxygen to reach the peak.

In 1953, Tenzing Norgay Sherpa assisted New Zealander Edmund Hillary in the first successful attempt on Mt. Everest. Since then, Sherpas have become indispensable for climbing expeditions in Nepal, where eight of world’s fourteen highest mountains are located. They set up a succession of camps, haul supplies, fix ropes, and lay down ladders before the actual climbing starts in May.

Prosperity in the Sherpa community almost always comes from the mountaineering industry, says Pemba Gyalzen Sherpa, managing director of Numbur Himal Treks, a trekking agency in Kathmandu.

“Mountaineering is the most attractive profession in my community. Those with managerial skills run trekking agencies in Kathmandu that prepare climbing itinerary, provide logistics, and arrange Sherpa guides, porters, and cooks for foreign expeditions. Those without such skills physically assist climbers,” said Mr. Pemba.

His own career tells the story: He started as a porter, then a cook, and finally a climbing Sherpa. He then used his savings to buy a house in Kathmandu and founded his trekking agency. Today two of his children study in neighboring India, while another studies in Kathmandu. Like most Sherpas who are financially secure, Pemba wants his children to either run trekking agencies or take up government jobs.

“Children of many Sherpas are now studying in good schools and colleges. When they grow up, most of them will be unwilling to take the risks associated with mountaineering. But I don’t think any other ethnic group will replace Sherpas in the mountaineering industry. Other Sherpas, who still live in mountainous villages, will be there to replace them,” he said.

More than 250 people have died in their attempt to scale Mt. Everest, while over 4,000 have successfully climbed it, according to government figures.

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