On a bright afternoon in June of 1922, the Mount Everest pioneer George Mallory was leading a group of 17 men tied together in three separate rope teams toward the North Col of the mountain when he heard an ominous sound, and turned to see an avalanche fracturing the steep slope above them.
Mallory and his rope mates were spared the brunt force of the slide, but the two teams following them — comprising 14 porters from Darjeeling, India — were swept down the mountain. Seven died. Mount Everest had claimed its first known victims.
One of Mallory’s companions, Howard Somervell, would later write, “I would gladly at that moment have been lying there dead in the snow, if only to give those fine chaps who had survived the feeling that we had shared their loss….”
On Friday, about 6:30 in the morning, another avalanche rumbled down Everest. This one caught a group of 25 climbers at 19,000 feet near the top of the notorious Khumbu Icefall, a frightful jumble of seracs and crevasses, killing at least 12 as of Friday in the worst reported disaster in the mountain’s history.
Although commercially organized groups make up the overwhelming majority of Everest expeditions today, not a single international client or guide was caught in the avalanche. The victims were Nepalese. They were carrying supplies to aid their employer’s clients, who pay commercial outfitters tens of thousands of dollars to get to the top of the world’s tallest mountain.
Today, as was the case in Mallory’s day, it is these professional climbing Sherpas who bear a disproportionate amount of the risk of Himalayan climbing. In fact, the odds may be worse for them than they were in the days of those grand British expeditions.
Mallory was racked with guilt over the 1922 tragedy and resolved never to let a team of porters climb without a British mountaineer sharing the same rope. Eric Shipton, another legendary British alpinist whose 1951 reconnaissance pioneered the route through the icefall, paving the way for the first ascent of the mountain two years later, found it ethically questionable to ask the climbing Sherpas to venture into the icefall to help Westerners make it to the top. On that expedition, Shipton abandoned one foray up the icefall because of the intense dangers he saw. “The cliffs and towers over a wide area along our route had been shattered as though by an earthquake,” Shipton later wrote. “Though in all my experience I had never seen anything like this, it seemed obvious that the whole area was now so unstable that, until it had time to settle, it would be foolish to take laden porters up through it.”
In fact, as the American climber Ed Viesturs observed in his book “The Mountain: My Time on Everest,” “The icefall has proven over the last 60 years to be every bit as dangerous as Shipton feared.”
Mr. Viesturs, who has reached the summit of Everest seven times, noted that “an inordinate number of climbers have fallen to their deaths in crevasses or been crushed by collapsing ice towers or avalanches in the Khumbu Icefall. And an inordinate proportion of those deaths have befallen Sherpas, simply because more of them make more trips through the icefall than do most of their Western employers.”
In contrast to the hands-on leadership of Mallory and Shipton, modern Everest outfitters take every step to limit their clients’ exposure to the icefall. Rather than having their clients acclimatize by sleeping at the lower camps on Everest, as was the accepted strategy a generation ago, outfitters have their clients spend most of the month of April trekking to the summits of safer satellite peaks instead.
While this is happening, the climbing Sherpa work force is already deployed on Everest — stocking supplies and preparing the route in advance of the fleeting summit weather windows of May. One of the most dangerous jobs is securing fixed ropes and ladders through the icefall.
Most Sherpas work on a day-on, day-off rotation, and can make a dozen or more round trips through the icefall over the course of a 10-week season. Most clients pass through it twice or three times at most.
The math simply doesn’t work out in the Sherpas’ favor. For bearing such risk, a typical climbing Sherpa can expect to bring home approximately $3,000 to $6,000 at the end of the season — perhaps more, if their English skills are good or they climb with a big-tipping client, according to an article last year in Outside magazine by the journalist Grayson Schaffer. If it’s an unlucky season, they or their families can fall back on government-mandated accident and life insurance policies. The payout was recently raised from $4,600 to $11,000, Mr. Schaffer reported.
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 Summit 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.
Such an effort would take years — decades perhaps — to raise compensation and benefits for the climbing Sherpas to square with the challenges they face while on the job. But there is no better way to honor the lives of those who have perished.
Freddie Wilkinson is a professional climber and guide, and the author of One Mountain Thousand Summits: The Untold Story of Tragedy and True Heroism on K2.