On Everest, climbers pay to take risks while Sherpas take risks to get paid

Risky business for sherpas on Everest. EPA/Buddhabir Rai

Climbing season on Mount Everest was due to enter its busiest time of year: the May “weather window”. But all has come to a halt on the world’s highest mountain following the worst-ever accident – an avalanche that took the lives of 16 Sherpas.

The tragedy highlights how the difference between the wealth of the climbers, who pay to take the risks, and the Sherpas, who risk to earn their pay, is as yawning as the chasms in the region.

Thrill seeking

Adventure tourism has grown significantly over the years. Those looking for extreme sports, such as white water rafting, bungee jumping, sky diving or climbing often see risk as one of the prime motivators. Indeed, the thrill of risk taking is often seen as an integral component of extreme sports.

Mountaineering as a tourism activity has push and pull factors that draw people in. The excitement associated with its inherent risks may be as much a push factor (with 21st century life bringing its share of boredom to those in search of a thrill), as it may be a pull, when challenges such as the Himalayas beckon. The Sherpas, however, live a quite different life and it is not boredom that drives them to the icefall, but the possibility of earning the greater income offered by taking on the risk that attracts them.

But travel to remote areas like Nepal can have a devastating effect on both the environment and the culture. The recent tragedy on Everest’s Khumbu icefall highlights how dangerous mountaineering is as a sport, not just to the climbers (30 have met their deaths on the Khumbu icefall since 1963) but to the Sherpas (35 have met their deaths on the Khumbu icefall since 1963) who make it all happen.

Paying the price

Climbers pay between US$30,000 and US$90,000 to climb Everest. This constitutes a significant injection into the Nepalese economy – it is estimated to be worth between US$10m and US$20m to the economy annually, of which the government directly receives US$10,000 per licence issued. The average Sherpa earns just US$5,000 a year during the three months of the season. Though a small percentage of the tourist costs, it is still seven times more than the national average income.

It is the Sherpas who allow visiting climbers, often inexperienced, to ascend the world’s tallest mountain. Of the 250 of all nationalities who have died on Everest, more than a third of them have been Nepalese Sherpas. These harrowing statistics do not take into account the many more who are disabled due to altitude-related illness or injuries.

For every climber that braves Everest there is a Sherpa in support. But Sherpas are there to make a living, making multiple trips up and down the mountain – they don’t do it for the thrill.

There are few opportunities to earn US$5,000 a year in Nepal and, if Sherpas didn’t take these risks, then many would not be able to support their families. One of the financially lucrative alternatives is the sex industry and so it seems there may be a stark choice for parents, to risk their lives on Everest, or risk the lives of their children in Kathmandu.

Clearly there is a stark difference between the approach of thrill-seeking tourists to Everest to that of the Sherpas who make it all possible. The recent tragedy highlights the huge risks that Sherpas do take and the need for things to change in terms of the protection and compensation they receive for doing so.