Mountain guides from Nepal’s ethnic Sherpa community threatened to go on their first-ever strike after at least 13 of them were killed in a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest last week — the single deadliest day in the history of the world’s tallest peak.
Thirteen bodies were recovered after a piece of mountain collapsed on Friday in a massive avalanche of ice and snow. Three more men are still missing and presumed dead.
But mourning for the victims of the tragedy turned into outrage after the government offered 40,000 rupees — little more than $400 — as compensation to their families.
Several Sherpas at Mount Everest’s base camp — where foreign climbers wait for the right weather conditions to set out on the difficult trek — launched an immediate boycott of the mountain, threatening to put the entire climbing season on hold, which is a lucrative source of revenue for this poor country.
The Sherpas dubbed this season "Black Everest year," and several of them started leaving the mountain in protest.
'They are really ice doctors who build roads so that foreigners can climb Mount Everest.'
“The government has no idea how hard a job this is. They don’t recognize the fact that those Sherpas are the ones that are attracting so many foreigners, doing the most risky job, attracting so much tourism,” Sangay Sherpa, general secretary of the US-based United Sherpa Association, told VICE News. “They do the hard work. The way the government treated them is the main reason behind this strike.”
Friday’s accident was unprecedented due to the number of victims, but it was far from an isolated instance. Dozens of Sherpas have been killed while accompanying expeditions or, often, in the more dangerous preparation work done ahead of the foreigners' arrival.
“They are really ice doctors who build roads so that foreigners can climb Mount Everest. It’s a risky job,” said Sherpa. “People are poor in this country, and the lack of education and employment opportunities are the main reasons why we take this kind of job.”
Earning between $3,000 to $5,000 for a three-month climbing season, Sherpas are better paid than ordinary Nepali workers, who earn an average of $700 a year.
But the dangers of the job are enormous, and the pay is almost nothing when compared to the thousands and thousands of dollars that tourists pay for these trips. Foreign climbers shell out upwards of $40,000 for a single expedition, including costly permits — but the guides that risk their lives to accompany them never see the bulk of that money.
The Nepali government pockets some $3.16 million annually in trekking permits alone, according to local reporters.
It’s no surprise then, that the meager compensation offered to the victims of Friday’s accident sparked such indignant protests.
“The government collects huge, huge amounts of money from the mountaineering industry,” said Sherpa, adding that private tour companies pocket the rest.
On Monday, the bodies of some of Friday’s victims were driven through Kathmandu for a funeral parade. But Sherpas also took the occasion to circulate a list of demands to the government, including higher compensation for the victims' families and those injured in the avalanche, higher insurance rates, and the construction of a monument in tribute to the deceased.
The video below shows the funeral procession.
The funeral of some of the avalanche's victims was held in Kathmandu on Monday.
They also demanded the establishment of a welfare trust for mountaineers, and asked for their decisions to call off climbs because of weather conditions to be respected without “pressure,” and asked that guides were not punished for refusing to clear paths and fix equipment under harsh conditions.
Nepali authorities reportedly agreed to creating a monument in memory of the victims and said they had set up a committee to discuss the rest of the Sherpas’ demands.
“Our ministry is asking the Sherpas to continue with the expeditions,” Dipendra Paudel, an official with the Nepali Ministry of Tourism, told VICE News. “The government is ready to address their demands.”
A protracted strike would likely lead to the cancellation of more than 300 expeditions planned for the upcoming season — a potential loss that will likely get authorities to the negotiating table, observers said. While some touring companies pledged to carry on with the planned expeditions, that may be hard to do as more guides join calls for a general boycott.
“Obviously, the government is under pressure right now. Not heeding the Sherpas’ demands means the climbing season this year could end,” Sangam Prasai, a reporter with the Kathmandu Post who covers Nepal’s mountaineering industry, told VICE News. “Hundreds of climbers are here right now, and if the climb is aborted, more than $30,000 from each foreigner will be lost.”
Lots of Sherpa anger at Everest base camp. But if the season is cancelled will the govt refund peak fees?
— Ed Douglas (@calmandfearless)April 20, 2014
Prasai said a canceled climbing season would be a huge blow to Nepal’s tourism sector and reputation, already suffering the repercussions of its notoriously poor aviation safety record.
“European travelers have already started avoiding Nepal,” he said, adding that the government could simply not afford to ignore the Sherpas’ demands. Many Western climbers expressed solidarity with the protests.
"Sherpa guides are heating up, emotions are running wild, and demands are being made to the government to share the wealth with the Sherpa people," Canada-based Tim and Becky Rippel wrote in a blog post. Tim Rippel, himself a guide for Himalayan treks, was reportedly at the base camp when the accident occurred. "They are our family, our brothers and sisters and the muscle on Everest. We follow their lead, we are guests here," the Rippels wrote.
Friday’s tragic accident, some hoped, might finally bring about some change for Mount Everest’s guides.
“There will be protests, and strikes, it’s going to change things. The strike can’t go on too long, the government is going to lose so much,” said Sherpa. “Because if the Sherpas don’t work, nobody is going to go up there. It’s too risky and dangerous for foreigners to climb by themselves.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi