KHUMJUN, Nepal — In the shadow of a sparkling white stupa, Sherpas dressed as yaks prance and spin. Wind-battered men in charcoal-colored robes and white Stetsons, the formal dress of the Sherpa clan, gather round. They have plenty to celebrate.
This week marks Mount Everest’s “Diamond Jubilee,” the 60th anniversary of when New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Indian Tenzing Norgay first set foot on the world’s tallest mountain in 1953.
Since that time, the mountaineering industry has matured. The notoriety of the mountain draws hundreds of thousands of trekkers and tourists each year, led often by local Sherpas as well as Western guides.
This spring, Everest climbing permits alone earned Nepal nearly $3 million. Last year, tourist dollars accounted for 3 percent of the small Himalayan country’s gross domestic product.
But despite these causes for celebration, a crisis looms.
Because of an explosion of highly commercialized mountaineering, more and more inexperienced climbers flock to the mountain. Elite climbers bristle at the crowds, and some blame cut-rate, Nepalese-run expeditions for upping the risks of death.
“Tourists want to buy their way onto the summit no matter what. I have witnessed people on the mountain with hardly any experience at all,” said Frits Vrijlandt, president of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation.
“Mount Everest is not a place for people who have never used crampons, harnesses and ice axes before, people who only know ice from the ice cubes in their drink.”
Money on the mountain
The Diamond Jubilee season marked a bumper year for the mountain. Nepal issued 315 permits to foreigners, and a total of 520 summited. Seven of them died.
These days, as many as 200 climbers can attempt the summit on a single day. But the large numbers cause dangerous delays at bottlenecks like the Hillary Step — a 40-foot rock wall at nearly 29,000 feet that climbers must traverse one by one.
When 10 people died on the mountain in spring 2012, elite mountaineers blamed overcrowding and low-budget, Sherpa-guided expeditions for one of the highest death tolls since the notorious “Into Thin Air” season of 1996, when there were 12 deaths.
This spring, a brawl broke out between expert mountaineers forging their own route and local guides responsible for fixing the ropes that commercial expeditions use.
“People say commercialization of the mountain is bad,” said 29-year-old Dawa Steven Sherpa, who heads Asian Trekking.
“They say, ‘These purist climbers who just take their support at base camp and they climb on their own, without Sherpas, without oxygen, these are the real mountaineers.’ On the other hand, when an accident happens … suddenly Nepali operators are bad because they didn’t provide the support to these guys. We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”
A tall, lean man with a rust-colored beard and ruddy, wind-burned cheeks, Dawa has a unique perspective on the problem. The son of a Sherpa father and a Belgian mother, he’s equally at home with high-altitude porters and elite Western climbers.
He’s faced criticism for failing to weed out clients who are so weak or unskilled as to pose a danger to themselves — such as Jesse Easterling, who nearly died on the mountain in 2009 as the result of an overdose of the “climber’s little helper,” the steroid dexamethasone.
“I have rejected numerous people because they don’t have the experience or the training,” said Dawa, who maintains that Easterling lied when he was asked if he was taking any medication.
This year, Dawa and other expedition operators avoided a potentially deadly “traffic jam” by planning ahead.
The Sherpa team, called the “Icefall Doctors,” responsible for setting ropes through the Khumbu Icefall on the route between Base Camp and Camp One, started a month earlier than usual to ensure that the climbers would have the longest possible weather window to try for the summit.
On the Hillary Step, Sherpas fixed two ropes, so that climbers going up would not have to wait for climbers coming down. And before the weather window opened, expedition leaders walked from camp to camp to find out when the various teams were planning to attempt the summit, and then radioed around to hammer out a feasible schedule.
But their success only deepened the controversy at the Diamond Jubilee. Purists greeted with derision calls to make things even safer, and easier, by installing a ladder down the back of the Hillary Step.
Others suggested revising the permit system to force climbers to scale one of Nepal’s many other, smaller mountains before they can attempt Everest. And still others lobbied for stiffer regulations for expedition operators.
“That [requiring mountaineers to climb a smaller mountain before Everest] is a very good idea,” said Sushil Ghimire, secretary of Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation.
“We do not want any climbers, any members in our team, in bad condition. We need very competent and devoted and skilled mountaineers. They can [first] try small mountains so that they can get skill and knowledge and we will have very few casualties and few incidents in the high mountains.”
Beyond the brawl
The word “Sherpa” has become synonymous with the word “guide” or “porter” on the mountain, though it refers to an Indo-Tibetan ethnic group numbering around 150,000 in Nepal.
And despite the fact that Sherpas have led countless climbers to the summit of Everest, everybody in the business still makes a distinction between expeditions captained by Western and Sherpa guides. Some persist in referring to Sherpa-led climbs as “unguided.”
After last year’s deadly season, critics blamed the Sherpas’ reluctance to disagree with Westerners — not their clients’ weakness or incompetence — for the deaths on the mountain.
“I wouldn’t confuse a Sherpa-guided trip with a low-budget trip,” said Will Cross, a 46-year-old diabetic who has trekked to the South Pole and climbed the “Seven Summits,” the highest mountains on seven continents.
“They can be the same. But they are generally different. The Sherpas on Everest have worked years to get to that position. And there’s a hierarchy. They [the Sherpa expedition leaders] will generally speak the language of their client, be that English or Japanese. They’ll be strong as hell,” Cross said.
“Where I think everyone gets into trouble is when you try to climb a huge mountain and spend very little money. If you come spending cheap, you’re gonna get cheap, and you’re gonna die,” he added.
In some respects, the mountaineering status of the Sherpas reflects their economic reality.
A permit for a Western climber runs $10,000-$25,000 and the total cost of an expedition to the client can top $70,000. But while elite Western guides can make $20,000 for taking a group to the top, the high-altitude Sherpas who perform some of the most dangerous work take home only a third of that amount.
And while Westerners are eligible for international insurance that covers them for costly evacuations and other emergencies, Sherpas are only eligible for local policies that pay a one-time death benefit of $7,000.
In other words, as mountaineers they’re invaluable. But as workers their lives are equated to a fraction of what their Western clients’ lives are considered.
“Without Sherpas, it’s difficult for foreigners to climb Mount Everest. All the hard work, like carrying equipment and food and fixing the ropes and ladders, is done by the Sherpas,” said 53-year-old Apa Sherpa, who has summited Everest a record 21 times.
In Khumjun, though, it’s clear that things are changing. On one extreme, Kanchha Sherpa, the sole surviving porter from the 1953 expedition, is finally reaping some rewards after a long career in the mountains. On the other, Apa Sherpa is here from Salt Lake City with a team of documentary filmmakers shooting the story of his life.
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And in between, 40-odd Sherpas have qualified with the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations — a certification that allows them to work year-round on mountains from Pakistan to Norway, dramatically boosting their incomes and status among mountaineers.
“I got eight rupees a day [in 1953],” said Kanchha, a grandfatherly figure in wire-framed spectacles and a floppy-brimmed fedora. “It was a silver coin.”