This community of guides is consigned to the footnotes of great mountaineering accounts.
A week ago, a wall of snow descended on a group of Sherpas fixing ropes on an ice field on Mount Everest, killing 16. Since then, Sherpas in Nepal have led an agitation, demanding a temporary halt to climbing expeditions, better insurance, relief and rescue provisions for one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
The mythology of exploration is scattered with heroes who scaled the 29,000 foot peak or died in the attempt. But history rarely names the companions who made these feats possible. It is well known that George Mallory disappeared in the snows of Everest in 1924, but the seven Sherpas who perished in an earlier expedition are barely remembered.
In recent years, climbing Everest has become a booming industry. About 658 people made it to the summit in 2013 alone, and there were pictures of a “traffic jam” of tourists on the mountain, a far cry from the images of individual daring associated with the early expeditions.
Yet climbing Everest still retains its mystic resonance for the tourist who can pay. Sherpas, many of whom have scaled the summit several times as part of their job, undercut such romantic notions. Fixing ropes, carrying supplies and guiding often inexperienced clients up the slopes, they are exposed to the most serious hazards.
The growth of adventure tourism in Nepal has brought returns for the community, and since the Tourism Act Amendment of 2002, trekking agents are required to provide insurance and rescue cover for guides. Still, both recognition and remuneration for Sherpa guides remain woefully inadequate, especially given the vast amounts the Everest industry rakes in every year. It is an asymmetry that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.