July 27, 2013


The Disposable Man: A Western History of Sherpas on Everest : For more than a century, Western climbers have hired Nepal's Sherpas to do the most dangerous work on Mount Everest. It's a lucrative way of life in a poor region, but no service industry in the world so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients. As Grayson Schaffer reports, the dead are often forgotten, and their families left with nothing but ghosts. (Grayson Schaffer, August 2013, Outside)

AHEAD OF THE tragic 1996 Everest climbing season, the infamous subject of Into Thin Air, ill-fated American guide Scott Fischer told writer Jon Krakauer, "We've built a yellow brick road to the summit." He was referring to the miles of ropes that are now annually set along most of the South Col route between Base Camp and 29,035 feet. More accurately, however, it's Sherpas who do the construction and, all too often, become its casualties. As a result of their work fixing lines, shuttling supplies, and escorting paid clients to the summit of Everest and dozens of other Himalayan peaks, Sherpas are exposed to the worst dangers on the mountain--rockfall, crevasses, frostbite, exhaustion, and, due to the blood-thickening effects of altitude, clots and strokes.

The spring of 2013 provided another devastating string of tragedies that illustrate how dangerous it is to work on Everest. On April 7, Mingma, 45, one of the legendary Icefall Doctors responsible for securing the route through the Khumbu Icefall for all of the teams on the mountain, fell into a crevasse near Camp II. On May 5, International Mountain Guides co-owner Eric Simonson wrote that his team had also "lost a member of our Sherpa family." DaRita, 37, was at Camp III when he felt dizzy--likely "a sudden cardiac or cerebral event"--and soon died. Three days later, 22-year-old Lobsang, who was returning from Camp III for Seven Summit Treks, fell into a crevasse and perished. And on May 16, Namgyal, working for Explore Himalaya, succumbed to an apparent heart attack after summiting for the tenth time.

According to the Himalayan Database, which keeps track of such things, 174 climbing Sherpas have died while working in the mountains in Nepal--15 in the past decade on Everest alone (see sidebar for a country-by-country comparison). During that time, at least as many Sherpas were disabled by rockfall, frostbite, and altitude-related illnesses like stroke and edema. A Sherpa working above Base Camp on Everest is nearly ten times more likely to die than a commercial fisherman--the profession the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rates as the most dangerous nonmilitary job in the U.S.--and more than three and a half times as likely to perish than an infantryman during the first four years of the Iraq war. As a dice roll for someone paying to reach the summit, the dangers of climbing can perhaps be rationalized. But as a workplace safety statistic, 1.2 percent mortality is outrageous. There's no other service industry in the world that so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients.

The result is that in Kathmandu and in villages across the Khumbu region, dependents are left without breadwinners or, in the case of serious injury, forced to choose between supporting or abandoning a disabled husband. Take, for example, two climbing Sherpas struggling with post-stroke paralysis: Ang Temba, 54, and Lhakpa Gyalzen, 65. Ang Temba suffered his first stroke high on Everest's north side while working for a Japanese team in 2006. His wife, Furba, 48, who cares for him at their home in Kathmandu, recalled the stern warning of the Japanese doctor who examined him in Base Camp following his rescue: "He said don't go mountaineering." But the next year, after making a relatively quick recovery, Ang Temba was offered a job working on Everest for Kathmandu-based Asian Trekking. "There is no option other than mountaineering," said Furba, illustrating the choice that so many Sherpas are faced with. "If he'd agreed with the Japanese doctor, then he would not be in this situation right now. It was a bad decision."

Shortly after Ang Temba returned from the mountain in 2007, Furba found him unconscious on the couch. His right side is now paralyzed, and he can't speak. "It's more difficult than looking after the kids," Furba said. "He goes to the toilet in a bedpan." Still, Ang Temba is relatively lucky: Furba stayed with him and managed to collect roughly $5,500 when, after more than a year of wrangling, his employer's insurer agreed that his disablement was complete, unrecoverable, and work related.

Lhakpa Gyalzen, who was climbing for a Chinese expedition in 2000 when he suffered a stroke, wasn't so fortunate. Though he can still get around with a cane and has limited speech, his wife and kids have moved away. One evening last October, I went to visit him in Phortse, just 15 miles downhill from Everest. Lhakpa Gyalzen wasn't home when I arrived, but when I returned the next morning he was in bed, eating a large plate of white rice that he'd cooked. The previous night, he explained, he'd fallen off the trail while limping down to the river--a 20-minute walk for a fit hiker--to cut bamboo for a religious ceremony. Unable to get up, he'd lain there for most of the night and then dragged himself home in the morning. "Very cold. Very hungry," he said of his night out in the bushes.

Lhakpa Gyalzen was at 27,000 feet when he had his stroke. Immobilized, he slept there for two nights before the Chinese expedition sent some of the team's Sherpas to retrieve him. When he got off the mountain, he had to pay for his own care. "The Chinese expedition didn't pay any expense at the hospital," he said. "All the expenses were done by my personal. Food, medicine, everything."

CASES LIKE THESE unfold each year in relative obscurity. After a Sherpa dies on Everest, there are always heartfelt tributes from Western climbers. "The Sherpa[s] are the heroes of the Himalayas," wrote a team from the U.S. Air Force earlier this spring after the death of Icefall Doctor Mingma. In most cases, there's a government-mandated insurance payment of roughly $4,600, covered by policies taken out by the in-country trekking agents who arrange foreign outfitters' on-the-ground logistics. And if the Sherpa was well known or worked for a top outfitter, there might be a hat passed around for donations, as was done last year after Himalayan Experience Sherpa Dawa Tenzing died of a stroke he suffered at Camp I. Professional climber Conrad Anker walked with HimEx owner Russell Brice to Phortse to deliver roughly $600 to Dawa Tenzing's widow, Jangmu, who works as a farmer. (Brice, who has built a reputation for treating his Sherpa workforce well, said he "did much more" but would not elaborate for this story.)

Still, Western outfitters, guides, and their clients rarely witness the true fallout from a Sherpa death. In October 2010, when Chhewang Nima died, Melissa Arnot had to confront the realities firsthand. After searching for his body by air, Arnot and Nima Gyalzen helicoptered directly to Chhewang's village of Thamo, landing in a potato patch behind the Tashi Delek, a small teahouse and guest lodge Chhewang had built with his earnings. By then, news had already reached the family.

"From outside I could hear the wailing," recalls Arnot. "Like nothing I'd ever heard." She entered the teahouse and found Chhewang's widow, Lhamu Chhiki, and her boys, Ang Gyaltzen and Lhakpa Tenzing, then 14 and 12, in the kitchen. "I got on my knees in front of her and said I'm sorry. And a lama came and took me out of there and said, 'You can't be in here now, you have to go.'‚ÄČ"

The scene Arnot was witnessing is one that has been repeated throughout the Himalayas since 1895, the year a British expedition first hired two locals to help them attempt Pakistan's 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat. Both died on the mountain. Twenty-seven years later, during George Mallory's 1922 assault on Everest, an avalanche tore through a rope team and killed seven Sherpas. In 1935, Everest pioneer Tenzing Norgay secured his first portering job in large part because six of the most experienced Sherpas had died the previous year on Nanga Parbat. In those early years of exploration, casualties were accepted as an unfortunate price of conquest. The question is whether, in 2013, the summit of Everest is still worth this kind of banal and predictable human sacrifice.

Posted by at July 27, 2013 2:35 PM

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