Is It Time to Close Everest, or Pave It?

Relatives of Mount Everest avalanche victims wait for the bodies of family members to arrive at the Sherpa Monastery in Kathmandu on April 19 Photograph by Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images

The avalanche disaster on Mount Everest on April 18 left 13 dead (three are still missing) and several more injured, generating familiar-sounding headlines. But it’s not the latest version of the tragic farces we’ve come to expect from the world’s tallest peak.

For starters, those who lost their lives did not die trying for or returning from the summit. According to eyewitness reports, the avalanche was triggered by the collapse of a serac, or ice tower, near the top of the Khumbu Ice Field at about 19,000 feet (roughly 10,000 feet from the summit). Nor did they die because of a lapse in judgment as a storm approached, or as the result of the hubris of a rich amateur who headed up when he ought to have turned back. The Khumbu is understood to be the most hazardous part of the primary route up the southern (Nepalese) side of the mountain—for the very reason that the ice is unstable. Everyone spends as little time in the Khumbu as possible, because it’s Russian roulette in there.

No, Friday’s victims were not doing anything extraordinary in Everest terms; they were doing their jobs—carrying supplies from one camp to another for climbing teams expected to follow in the days and weeks ahead. It’s as much a labor story as a human tragedy: All of the deceased and injured are Sherpa, members of the 80,000-strong ethnic group based in Nepal who’ve long provided support to Westerners seeking to stand on the roof of the world. That so many should die in one accident for what is essentially a recreational pursuit for foreigners has been an occasion for sorrow and soul-searching—as it should be.

It’s also raised some complicated questions about what can be done to reduce the risks that the Sherpa face and to help their families. Here’s a quick look at three.

Should Everest be closed?
Expeditions on Everest have been suspended since Friday to complete rescue and body recovery operations. The Nepalese government has not said if it will close the mountain for the season, but it could. Scores of climbing teams gathered for the start of the season anxiously await word in Everest Base Camp.

But what about permanently? The prospect of closing the mountain comes up periodically, typically in response to the increasing congestion of climbers, and after this kind of loss the impulse is understandable. Guiding on Everest is not only dangerous but ethically fraught, says Grayson Schaffer, a senior editor at Outside who published an extensive investigation of the socioeconomics of Sherpas on Everest for that magazine last year.

“But shutting the industry down would anger the outfitters, clients, and, most of all, the Sherpas,” Schaffer wrote on Friday. “That last group would lose jobs that pay between $2,000 and $6,000 per season, in a country where the median income is $540 per year.” The answer, he wrote, “isn’t decreasing, or ending, the climbing business on Everest; the solution is increasing the value of a Sherpa life.”

How do you do that? By paying better wages, by increasing the insurance payouts, and by persuading Western climbing operators to take more responsibility for the Sherpas in their employ. Last year, Schaffer notes, the Nepalese government increased the amount of insurance that high-elevation porters must carry to $11,000. “But for about $200 per policy, at least one Kathmandu-based insurance company will cover Sherpas for $23,000.” What client shelling out as much as $65,000 for an Everest summit bid couldn’t find at least $200 to partially secure the financial future of his porter’s family?

Is it time to pave Everest?
Strictly speaking, it’s not feasible to create a two-lane highway up Everest like the toll road that climbs 4,618 feet up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington—although it might be possible to pave one to base camp on the northern (Chinese) side. There are other ways to make an ascent relatively safer: There are cables on Yosemite’s Half Dome, and the Italian Dolomites have via ferrata, or “iron ways,” ladder-like rungs sutured into rock faces as a climbing aid. Over the years, similar enhancements have been proposed for Everest, among them a ladder on the Hillary Step (a 40-foot wall near the summit), and higher fees for each climber (to cut back the number of people on the mountain, and so reduce delays on the climb, which can lead to medical issues.)

Neither of these, argues Alan Arnett, a veteran of several Everest climbs, would guarantee greater safety. Instead, he says, they’d probably encourage less experienced climbers, who are more likely to endanger themselves and others. In any case, the Khumbu Ice Fall doesn’t lend itself to an immediate civil-engineering solution. Many who perished Friday had been tasked with fixing ropes and improving the path through constantly changing terrain.

Is there an easy way to help the families of the deceased?
There is. The American Alpine Club has set up a fund to help the families of those lost on Friday. Click here.

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