By: Neeta Lal

The death last month of 16 Sherpa guides while climbing Mount Everest has cast a pall of gloom on a fast-dwindling and hard-working community in Nepal and India. For the first time death has stirred rebellion among the Sherpa community, many of whom have struck against the danger, lousy pay and poor working conditions. 

On April 18 in the worst climbing accident in the mountain’s history, a shifting block of ice hit a group of 50 climbers including 25 Sherpas carrying provisions up the mountain. The incident took place at the Khumbu Icefall, a jumbled maze of unstable ice towers hovering over the 17,600-foot base camp on the Nepali slopes of Mount Everest. It was twice as deadly as the infamous storm in May 1996 that killed eight Sherpas.

Asia Sentinel recently visited Sherpa camps to interview members of the elite but hard-pressed profession, for whom dying on Everest has been an occupational hazard ever since a team led by George Leigh Mallory climbed the Tibetan side of the peak, known to the Tibetans as Cholmolungma, in 1922. It is estimated that the death rate for climbing Sherpas on Everest from 2004 until 2014 has been 12 times higher than the death rate for U.S. military personnel deployed in Iraq from 2003-07.

However, more than anything else, the most recent, deadliest accident in Everest’s 92-year old climbing history has brought to the fore the hardships faced by the guides. Over the years, better equipment and more accurate weather forecasting may have made climbing the Everest a lot easier, but risks to Sherpas’ lives have hardly whittled down.

All those who died were experienced Nepali Sherpas employed as high-altitude climbers — a group that deservedly commands respect and admiration from mountaineers around the world. Three of the bodies were buried beneath the frozen debris and are still not traceable.

A Himalayan people living primarily in eastern Nepal, Sherpas also inhabit the mountains bordering the Indian state of Sikkim and the larger hill towns of West Bengal like Darjeeling. The number of Indian Sherpas, according to the last census, is 52,600 while the Royal Nepal Embassy quotes 150,000 as the total number living in the Himalayan Region.

Small wonder, none of the previous mishaps have caused such a backlash as this one. Expeditions to Mount Everest from Kathmandu were called off in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy while hordes of climbers returned from the Everest Base camp after the Nepalese Sherpas struck work to demand better working conditions and wages. 

“The job of a Sherpa is rated as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world and exposes them to high risk. They fix ropes and ladders for climbers, carry food, oxygen and camping gear for the clients,” Ng Norbu, 38, a third-generation Sherpa based in Darjeeling, told Asia Sentinel. Disenchanted by the danger, hardship and low pay, he was in Delhi recently to look for some other kind of work.

For all their gut-wrenching effort, Ng said, Sherpas are paid a pittance. “We earn anywhere between $1000 and $5000, a paltry amount considering the risks involved, and in comparison to the profits earned by several stakeholders.”

Sikda Sherpa, 43, a female guide who has been a porter for 12 years, added: “Working as a high-altitude porter is very risky and unsafe. There is no adequate compensation in case of a death. The Sherpas take all the trouble and risk of opening up roads, fixing ropes and ladders, and carrying equipment. In return, they get very little. On top of that, many first-time mountaineers make unreasonable demands upon us which intensifies the risks to our lives.”

Disenchanted with minimal facilities in their home towns, no job security or good schools for their kids while pursuing a profession fraught with risks, many are switching to running small hotels, orchestrating tour groups or running travel agencies. Many have branched off into ancillary vocations – like becoming guides for adventure sports.

However, a sizeable number in Nepal continue to depend on the money from climbing. But with the current dispute between the striking Sherpas, the expedition groups and the Nepal government, Sherpa families are worried about their future. They are trying to come to grips with the catastrophe. Some are even contemplating shifting base to India.

Tenzing Sherpa, 40, a high-altitude climber, says that since there are limited work opportunities in Kathmandu for people like him, he is planning to shift to Ghaziabad in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh where he has relatives. “I’ve seen what happens to Sherpa children who lose their parents on expeditions. I’m not willing to let the same happen to my kids. 

The new generation are also not keen on carrying on with their forefathers’ vocation. “We know that the scope of this profession is limited and monetary gains few due to which it has limited appeal amongst us. I’d rather pursue mountaineering as a hobby than an occupation,” said Bhiku Sherpa, 18, a student at Delhi University.

The number immigrating to the West has also significantly increased in recent years, especially to the United States. New York City has the largest such community in the United States, with a population of approximately 2,500.

Still, there are enough Sherpas who depend on the annual rush to Everest and other Himalayan peaks to sustain themselves and their families despite the fraught nature of their work. These families will be hit the hardest by the tragedy and the season coming to an early end. 

Both the Indian and Nepalese governments, senior Sherpas say, should learn a lesson from the tragedy and initiate measures to improve the community’s lives. Better wages, improved work conditions and regulation of the annual rush at Everest are some initiatives, they add, that would go a long way in preventing such Himalayan tragedies.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist; neetalal@hotmail.com