Stop Sacrificing Sherpas

Do they have mountain-climbing insurance? Photographer: Namgyal Sherpa/AFP/Getty Images

On a clear day during climbing season, the summit of Mount Everest can become as crowded as a shopping-mall food court, with high-paying clients of expedition companies actually waiting their turn for a view from the top of the world. While it may be lamentable that scaling Everest has grown into a virtual industry, it's outright dangerous not to treat it like one.

The April 18 avalanche that tragically claimed the lives of as many as 16 Sherpas -- the deadliest single accident in nearly a century of Everest mountaineering -- should end this shameful pretense. Sherpas have been guiding visitors up the mountains since the early 20th century. But with the rise in commercial Everest expeditions, they find themselves having to take greater risks in order to help less experienced climbers. While an undeniable pride and romance still attach to their profession, it has become the most dangerous on Earth.

The hundreds of Sherpas who are refusing to climb anymore this season are only asking that their compensation reflect this. They are not demanding higher salaries -- already they can earn 10 times as much in two months as the average Nepali makes in a year -- but a government welfare fund, as well as increased medical, rescue and life insurance so that their families are not cast into poverty if they are injured or killed.

The higher premiums would be almost unnoticeable to the big expedition companies, which contract with the Sherpas through local trekking firms. The government, which would have to stock the relief fund from the fees it draws for Everest permits, is more of a roadblock. But negotiators are eager to avoid a total shutdown of the mountain for the spring season, which has little more than a month to go; a compromise seems likely.

The principle goes beyond money, though. If commercialized climbing is going to make Everest into a workplace, safety standards need to be professionalized as well. Some Sherpas are unmatched alpinists, while others can't even tie basic climbing knots. Western foundations have established schools to teach young Sherpas critical rescue, first-aid and technical climbing skills: Such training should be made mandatory, with funding drawn from the millions in permit fees earned by the government each year. Other safety measures are long overdue: There is, for instance, no permanent, full-time search-and-rescue team dedicated to Everest. A cadre of climbing rangers should be recruited to accompany each expedition and ensure that it complies with regulations, including the new one requiring that climbers bring down eight kilograms of trash each along with their own waste.

More broadly, both the government and the big expedition companies have to reassess the current business model. Allowing as many as three dozen expeditions up the mountain each season is bad for the Sherpas, the climbers and the mountain itself. Limiting the number -- whether through a lottery or some other impartial means -- is sure to be resisted; in addition to the roughly $3.5 million in fees paid directly to the government each season, expeditions pump as much as $12 million into the local economy. But if fees were raised for Everest and lowered for other peaks, climbers may seek out other challenges.

Tour companies could themselves reduce the demands on Everest by being more selective about their clients. The more inexperienced and out-of-shape the climber, the more work -- and risk -- for the Sherpas who must get them to the top. Today Sherpas perform all too many of the tasks that were previously shared between them, guides and clients. If climbers cannot carry their share of the burden, it's fair to ask whether they belong on the mountain at all.

It's true that these measures might ultimately reduce the amount of paid work available for Sherpas, whose employment options are slim. Judging by what many of them tell interviewers, though, few would encourage their own offspring to pursue their profession. Several foundations currently provide scholarships for the children of Sherpas. Much more of the fee money collected by the government could be directed into educating these kids so they can find livelihoods off the mountain. If shrinking the pool of Sherpas eventually makes it harder for thrill-seekers to reach Everest's summit, well, at least it will be less crowded at the top.

--Editors: Nisid Hajari, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at