The Business of Everest: What It Pays to Risk It All

The Business of Everest: What It Pays to Risk It All
After leaving Base Camp to Camp One, climbers have to cross the Khambu Icefall area, one of the more dangerous areas of the Everest expedition
Photograph by Nawang Sherpa/Bogati via Zuma Press

Update: The mountain has spoken. Following fresh ice avalanches this week, it is almost certain that no one will summit the world’s highest peak from Nepal this season. 

In the wake of last Friday’s devastating accident, in which an avalanche killed 16 Nepali guides 19,000 feet up the southern face of Mount Everest, dozens of Sherpas and sherpas (climbing guides and porters who are not members of the Sherpa ethnic group) are packing their tents and leaving Everest Base Camp. Government officials are trying to persuade some of the guides to stay on, but most have called off the season to mourn their brethren and figure out how to restructure their profitable but deadly industry. Major Western outfitters have also cancelled planned expeditions, and the Disney Channel pulled the plug on a planned wing suit jump over the mountain’s treacherous Khumbu Icefall where the accident occurred.

Without the help of Sherpa guides, it’s nearly impossible for most climbers to scale Everest. Members of a small (80,000-strong) ethnic group in Nepal, Sherpas are legendary for their stamina at higher elevations. In addition to hauling heavy loads for paying clients, they prepare the route in advance, saving time and energy so that climbers can focus on getting safely to the top and down. Because the pay is better than what the guides could otherwise make—$4,000, say, for a few months in a country with an annual average income less than $600—it’s still good work, if you can get it. Yet whatever it pays, it’s clearly not enough to compensate for a loss like Friday’s, and the disaster has reignited a debate about whether the Sherpas (and sherpas) are justly compensated for the risks they undertake. As context for the debate, here’s a closer look at the economics of Mount Everest:

In the decades since New Zealander Edmund Hillary first vanquished Everest in 1953, 4,042 different people have summitted a total of around 6,970 times, according to Alan Arnette, an Everest blogger who made it to the top in 2011. Nearly 3,000 climbers, mostly Sherpas, have been to the top multiple times.

Everest’s commercial era dawned in the 1990s. Today, 400 to 500 adventurers travel to Nepal and China each year to test their mettle on the world’s tallest mountain, according to Richard Salisbury, who runs the Himalayan Database. Some come with their own paid guides, but most are clients of roughly 30 outfitters operating on the mountain, according to Arnette. Of those outfitters, roughly 15 are Western companies. The rest are mostly local companies, or Japanese and Chinese companies.

Each year Nepal earns about $3.5 million on Everest climbing fees, according to the Associated Press. Those looking to scale the mountain pay anywhere from $25,000 to $75,000, depending on several factors, such as desired creature comforts, the amount of bottled oxygen they take, and who carries it up the mountain. “The more minimal the cost, the more the climber is presumed to be on his or her own,” writes Salisbury via e-mail. One climber broke down the costs for Time magazine (not including airfare): $8,000 for training, $10,000 for gear, $35,000 to $100,000 for the climb. Extras such as cell phone calls and tipping Sherpas add another $2,000 to $4000. If this year’s season is canceled, many will forfeit most or all of their payments, according to the AP.

Little of that Everest money goes to the Sherpas (or other guides), 400 to 600 of whom work above base camp each year. “Depending on their talent, experience, foreign-language skills, how many loads they carry up and down the mountain, and how generously they’re tipped by their clients, climbing Sherpas generally take home between two and eight thousand dollars at the conclusion of an Everest expedition, which commences for them in late March and typically ends around the first of June,” writes author and Everest veteran Jon Krakauer in his recent New Yorker post, “Death and Anger on Everest.”

Earlier this year a new policy went into effect doubling the accident and death insurance compensation for mountain guides from $5,100 to $10,300, according to the Washington Post. That may seem like a lot in a country where the median annual income is less than $600, but many climbing Sherpas support their entire extended family. And the ones who make the most money have an incentive to assume more risk. Consider this chilling passage from Jemima Diki Sherpa:

“As a young high altitude expedition worker, the more you carry, the more you are paid. There is a per-kilogram equation for payment, and there is value, both in hard cash and in securing future work, in proving you are good. If you prove you’re good, you get hired next season, possibly recruited by one of the better companies, climbing literally up the mountain and figuratively up the ranks. The best way to do all this is to move fast and carry a lot. And the best way to do that is to dance, possibly unclipped, across the icefall ladders.”

In addition to spending more time in danger zones, Sherpas face several other substantial risks: They generally aren’t supplied with as much bottled oxygen as Western climbers, for example, and aren’t prophylactically given powerful steroids shown to minimize the physical risks of climbing at high altitudes, writes Krakauer. Citing Jonah Ogles of Outside, he adds, “The death rate for climbing Sherpas on Everest from 2004 until now was twelve times higher than the death rate for U.S. military personnel deployed in Iraq from 2003-07.”

Most of the companies leading Everest climbs in Nepal also offer trips in China, up the mountain’s northern face. “The route is longer and climbers generally spend more time at higher altitudes,” Salisbury writes of the Chinese trek, but the permit fees and overall costs may be lower. (According to a 2008 article in Mother Jones, permit fees in China cost a third as much as those in Nepal.)

Currently, the Chinese expeditions seem to be up and running, as far as Salisbury has heard. Meanwhile, several companies have canceled their seasons in Nepal, for safety concerns and to show their solidarity with the Sherpas. “Tomorrow the Nepalese army and police are expected at base camp to try to talk to the Sherpas who do not want to climb into doing it for a few select operators that are putting pressure on them,” reads a recent press release by Peak Freaks Expeditions. “This is not how we climb mountains!! … In addition 300+ Sherpas have put their names on an organized protest to not climb in respect of the recent deaths, why wouldn’t we listen to them?” To help support the Sherpas, a band of professional photographers who’ve worked in the region has also set up a fund and is selling their stunning photographs here.

So far Nepal’s government has agreed to set aside some of the money it earns from Everest to create a relief fund for Sherpa climbers killed and injured in mountaineering accidents. It will also raise their minimum insurance cover to about $15,000. Nevertheless, many cannot imagine returning to work soon. Of the 16 people killed last week, three are still missing in the ice. “It is just impossible for many of us to continue climbing while … three of our friends [are] buried in the snow,” Dorje Sherpa told the AP. “I can’t imagine stepping over them.”

In the long run, the disaster may help speed change in the industry. “For the most part, this generation is not willing to remain beholden to Western and European companies for work,” writes Luis Benitez, a guide who has summited Everest six times. “They realize that millions have been made by the owners of some foreign guiding companies. They see their resource [Everest] being used for gain, and they have begun to take a stand.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE