Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to reach the peak of Mount Everest, once said, “Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain.” And for that reason, the Nepalese Sherpas (the fellows who help guide the rich white people up to the top) have more or less gone on strike. A few days ago, an avalanche swept down the mountain and killed 16 of their number. This has highlighted the lousy compensation and protection the Sherpas get, and many have decided that they aren’t interested in continuing on as things are. If ever a group of workers needed a union, it’s the Sherpas.
Now, before we get into this, I do feel obligated to put a few cards on the table. First, despite being from Colorado, I have no idea why anyone climbs mountains. Unless there is a five-star restaurant and hotel up there, I just don’t see the point. I don’t like being cold, nor do I like activities that might involve falling a few hundred feet to a painful death.
In addition, I am a member of both the National Writers’ Union (an affiliate of the UAW) and a card-carrying member of the International Federation of Journalists. I realize that isn’t exactly like being an American Teamster or a member of Britain’s National Union of Miners, but still, I’m a union guy.
When it comes to climbing Everest, it’s as big a deal as there is in mountaineering, and people pay handsomely to make the summit. I have done a little digging, and I have found that $75-100,000 is not out of the ordinary for one person to pay in order to summit the peak.
Alan Arnette, whose blog keeps track of such things, tells us that “as of February 2014, the final 2013 numbers on the Himalayan Database showed that 658 climbers made the summit. There were 539 from the south and 119 from the north side. Nine did not use supplemental oxygen and there were eight confirmed deaths.”
The 658 who made the summit is a fraction of the number who tried and turned around short of their objective. But those people spent money as well. My point is that Everest brings a few million desperately needed dollars every summer to Nepal. New Zealander Guy Cotter owns Adventure Consultants, which has led 19 expeditions to Everest. He told National Geographic, “Everest is big business for Nepal, and they will never turn down the money.”
How much? The magazine stated, “Expeditions on the mountain spent almost $12 million in Nepal in the spring of 2012, according to Ang Tshering Sherpa, owner of Asian Trekking. The ministry took in more than $3 million in permit fees from climbers on 30 foreign expeditions.” That may sound like a pittance to Westerners, but in Nepal, that’s important foreign currency.
The New York Times says, “Sherpa guides typically earn $2,000 to $5,000 a season, supplemented by bonuses if they reach the summit. When the Nepalese government offered the families of the dead Sherpas a compensation payment of about $408, they were furious.”
The Associated Press says that about 400 Sherpas have walked off the mountain so far, and several foreign expeditions have canceled their plans for the year. Mr. Arnette’s blog of April 24 read, “My view is Everest is like an airport with the terminal open but the runways closed.” Later, he added, “The future climbing plans all have to do with the Icefall Doctors and if they will stay and mange the route through the icefall. They have been threatened, their families have been threatened if they stay and they have told other teams they are leaving. This could change if the military comes in but it still leaves their families at risk.”
Seems to me that this is a pretty straightforward matter of labor relations. The Nepalese government (which is, at best, corrupt) needs to decide whether it wants an Everest industry. If it does, it needs to take better care of the people who make it possible. Sherpas deserve more than a few pennies on the dollar, and when bad things happen, their families need better protection.
The people who can really make this happen are, of course, the Western mountain climbers themselves. It’s a case of the golden rule in action — whoever has the gold makes the rules. Since they are trying to follow in Sir Edmund’s footsteps, perhaps they might consider his position that human life is more important than making it to the top.