The tragic serac avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall in April, 2014, killed sixteen Nepali high-altitude porters — thirteen ethnic Sherpa, plus one Gurung, one Tamang, and one Khatri. In this Op-ed for the Sunday Review, which I wrote the day of the avalanche, I tried to place the disaster in the context of the ninety-year relationship between Western climbers and the local people of the Himalaya who work as their guides. I described empirically what makes Everest a bad deal for the locals, and then closed the piece with the following section:
“There is little that can be done to mitigate the dangers of the Khumbu Icefall. Nor are there any signs that the market forces driving the commercial climbing industry will change, or that the Nepalese government will institute effective regulation. One must hope, however, that last week’s tragedy might spur a substantive shift in labor politics on Everest.
“We often hear our Western outfitter friends acknowledge that the skilled Sherpa climbers deserve more,” wrote Sumit Joshi, a climbing Sherpa and partner in a Nepalese-owned guide service, following a violent confrontation last season between three Western climbers and a group of climbing Sherpas. “But what are they actually willing to give more of? More money? More benefits? More fame?”
The sad reality is that such change must begin with the climbing Sherpas themselves. Although the commercial Everest climbing establishment praises their courage and contributions, on a deeper level, they are potential economic rivals. The Sherpas might take some inspiration from the Gurkhas, the famed Nepalese soldiers who serve in the British Army. Over the last decade, the Gurkhas have steadily organized and fought widely publicized legal campaigns over pension rights and other issues.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I received feedback from a few readers expressing dismay or outrage that I would put the impetus to change on the Sherpas, rather than those who are taking advantage of their services to climb the mountain. For instance, the Times published one letter which read in part:
As Mr. Wilkinson notes, many Westerners feel that Sherpas deserve better treatment. Yet he places the moral responsibility on those who are being mistreated to organize and advocate for themselves, rather than calling on those who mistreat them and who have far more financial resources to remedy the problem.
Mr. Wilkinson’s ethical reasoning is even more spectacular when one considers that his article is published in a Western newspaper, and will be read by far more of the mistreaters than the mistreated.
That the Sherpas have bravely taken it upon themselves to organize(at great potential cost) is just another example of their doing more than their fair share.
Few remembered, in the immediate aftermath of the Khumbu Ice Fall avalanche, that climbing Sherpas have a long history of staging protests and strikes — feisty negotiations and hard-nosed business are as interwoven a part of their professional history as orientalist-tinged accounts of their stamina and loyality. In 1931, for instance, the Sherpa members of a German expedition to Kanchenjunga refused to work, demanding that non-Sherpa Tibetans be bared from the expedition. According to Maurice Isserman and Stuart Weaver, authors of Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering in the Age of Empire, the Sherpas’ had felt under-appreciated by an expedition the year before, and even went so far as to file legal suit against the expedition paymaster. Isserman and Weaver write: “A day and a half’s pleading and persuasion… brought them around on this occasion, and mid-July found the expedition once-again camped beneath the Northeast Spur of Kanchenjunga.” Three expedition staff members died in 1931: Babu Lal, a low-altitude porter, the sirdar, Lobsang, and another Sherpa, Pasang.
Anyway, I whole heartedly agree with the sentiments expressed by the author of the letter quoted above. I wish we lived in a world where industry leaders could be trusted or governed well-enough to responsibly take care of those they employ. But that’s not the world we live in — and, as a student of history, I struggle to think of many labor or civil-rights movements where such blind expectations have worked out in the favor of the disadvantaged. The fact is, the economic rights those working Everest and other high mountains of the Himalaya are entitled to are not the sort of liberties that can be secured in a single concession or final monetary sum. They must be constantly monitored, updated, and re-negotiated, haggled over point-by-point, nippled away at until the standards of the commercial guiding community have fundamentally changed. Among those privileged Westerns who shell out big bucks to try to set foot on the summit of the world’s highest mountain, there needs to be a cultural shift to the point where it is seriously uncool if you don’t personally know the life-insurance policy of those ultimately in their employ.
The only solution to Everest is for the local people to decide what’s best for them. As a guide, I’m all for supporting other guides sticking up for their rights.