Nepal is the spiritual home of mountaineering, and adventurers pay big bucks to summit the world's tallest peaks. But when money speaks louder than skill and experience, who really pays the price?
It’s early April and Kathmandu is abuzz. The dusty streets are nothing short of pandemonium; swarming, hilarious chaos as millions of people carry out their day in an ancient city that seems to buckle under their weight. Competing down streets too narrow are the cars of the burgeoning middle class, beaten up taxis with cracked leather seats, cyclos adorned in bright plastic flowers, bikes peddling improbably large baskets of produce, peddlers flogging singing bowls and cashmere scarfs, lazy cows exploiting their untouchable status and, a new arrival wafted in on the springtime zephyrs, Gore-tex clad outdoor adventurers. Whether it’s trekking, climbing or mountaineering for which they’ve travelled, Nepal is ground zero for this lot. They meander about Kathmandu munching momo and swilling Gorkha for days and even weeks as they allow their bodies to adjust to the altitude in these foothills of the Himalaya. This time of year the dry season air is too thick with pollution to see them, but the tallest mountains in the world stand guard over this vibrant, intoxicating city.
Home to 10 of the world’s 14 mountains over 8000m, Nepal certainly packs a punch on the adventure tourism front. Indeed, US$471 million pours into Nepal each year thanks to tourism, making it this tiny country’s biggest industry. The government banks US$3.6 million each year from Mount Everest climbing fees alone, some US$25,000 per person to summit the 8848m behemoth. And that’s just the climbing permit; would-be Everest climbers pay up to US$100,000 for the chance to stand atop the world. More than 8000 people have now summited Everest, the majority of which have done so in the past 5-10 years.
Mountaineering is big business indeed, and somewhat of a golden goose for the long impoverished country. The Khumbu Valley that services tourists en route to Everest, once an isolated farming area, has been economically transformed by the climbing boom. Few can argue with better education, housing and employment opportunities for some of the world’s poorest people, but with this holy cash cow comes some major moral quandaries.
HIGH ALTITUDE HIGHWAY
When Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary became the first people to stand atop the mighty Everest in 1953 after years of failed expeditions, they surely would’ve struggled to believe 60 years later there would be literal human traffic jams to traverse her perilous crevices. With in excess of a hundred climbers summiting the mountain some days, it is not uncommon for people to queue for hours at dangerously high altitude as they await the opportunity to claim some variety of glory at the top. Their discarded oxygen canisters and Coke cans lay amongst the bodies of the dead, frozen eternally in exposed icy graves. This has forged Everest a reputation as the world’s highest altitude rubbish dump, and despite new attempts to force climbers to return with more rubbish than they set out with and multiple not-for-profit groups running cleanup missions, the Nepalese government is struggling to control the issue.
Many of these climbers have had no experience at altitudes beyond 8000m, and some have had very little if any mountaineering experience at all, which begs the question of whether they have the right to be there. There are currently no regulations in place to limit access to this dangerous mountain to the inexperienced, although controversial measures were introduced late last year to prevent access to disabled and solo climbers.
Of course, in order for beginners with deep pockets to summit the world’s tallest peak, a huge amount of physical and logistical support is required. Enter the Sherpa.
HEROES OF EVEREST
The ‘smiling Sherpa’ became an icon of Nepal back in ’53, when images of Norgay and Hillary beamed around the world. But more than just obliging high altitude porters, Sherpas are in fact an ethnic group of Tibetan Buddhist people who, by virtue of thousands of years of exposure, are genetically evolved to cope with the physiological challenges of altitude. This makes them exceptional mountaineers, but the concept of scaling mountains for the sake of it is a Western one. For the Sherpa, Everest is known as Chomulungma, meaning “goddess mother of the world”, and is a sacred place that some Sherpa believe should not be climbed. But money talks when you have very little of it, and Sherpas commonly make enough in the climbing season to support their families all year.
The risks they take to do so are extreme. The most hazardous aspect of the job is undoubtedly crossing the Khumbu Icefall, a constantly shifting glacier whose cracks and crevices seem bottomless. To make this hazardous traverse as safe as possible for tourists, Sherpas set out from Base Camp to lay lightweight aluminium ladders between the shafts of ice, sometimes two or three ladders roped together, and someone has to be the first across to fix the other end in place. They do so at night when the ice is less likely to shift under the warmth of the sun. Sherpas will make this perilous crossing countless times in a season in order to stock the camps further up the mountain with the gear and supplies high-paying customers expect. It’s one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, yet Sherpas are paid considerably lower wages than Western guides on the mountain and a miniscule percentage of the fees collected by the government. The commonly employed adage “at least it’s a job” is a moral misnomer used to justify all sorts of exploitation across the globe, and similarly doesn’t stand on the world’s tallest mountains.
The dangers of the Sherpas’ role on Everest and the reality of their poor work conditions hit home in a profound way in 2014 when an avalanche tragically killed 16 Sherpa on the icefall. Better educated than their forefathers thanks to the money made by those previous generations on the mountain, the Sherpa rallied against the injustice of the incredible risk of their work for such a disproportionate share in the profits. They demanded adequate compensation for the victims’ families and those of victims moving forward, and boycotted the remainder of the season in respect to the dead.
A MORAL DILEMMA
This article is not designed to dissuade people from climbing Everest and its giant neighbours, nor does it claim to have the answers to these moral quandaries, it is simply designed to illuminate them. Mountaineering has lifted communities out of poverty and supports one of the world’s poorest countries. To boycott mountaineering would be disastrous for Nepali people. But mountaineering in Nepal also has an incredibly high human and environmental cost, so this article asks would-be climbers heading to the thrumming streets of Kathmandu to begin the adventure of a lifetime to consider a few questions. Am I experienced enough to climb beyond 8000m, have I earned the privilege? Can I commit to leaving nothing but footprints and taking not only photographs, but considerably more than my fair share of rubbish off the mountain with me? Will I go the extra mile and partake in a cleanup mission? Does the operator with whom I’ll climb pay fair wages to its Sherpa employees, relevant to the staggering risks they take to make my dreams come true? At what cost does my need to lay claim to summiting the tallest mountain in the world come to the environment and people that call it home?
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