Climbing Himalayas is major part of tourism in the hills and the same cannot be imagined without a Sherpa. There goes saying among climbers that “It’s not the mountain, it’s who you climb it with.” And you climb with Sherpas the most famous Tenzing Norgay who conquered Mount Everest with Edmund Hilary. It is one of the most adventurous professions in the world but also comes with a very high cost. More than 200 Sherpas have lost their lives working in the mountains and more have been disabled by rockfalls, frostbite, and altitude-related illnesses leave aside other major injuries. For the most part, the Sherpas are not there for the same reasons that foreigners climb. They were there because the climbers brought them there and they were paid for it to sustain their poor families back home.
Himalaya’s climbing industry is thus born out of the confluence of necessity for local guides and the lofty ambitions of mountaineers. Essential to any expedition in the region, Sherpas are crucial to a successful summit and form the backbone of Himalaya’s high-altitude tourism industry mostly in Nepal and partly in India, Bhutan, and Tibet. Climbers roughly pay expedition outfitters between USD 40,000 to USD 100,000 to take care of logistics and guides for a single climb, including about $20,000 in permit fees alone. Sherpas get only a small fraction of this seemingly big amount. The Nepal government rakes in nearly $20 million per season with these permits and other fees, while the average citizen makes less than $700 per year.
More recently, COVID-19 caused a significant loss in international tourism including climbing, with arrivals decreasing by 80.8 per cent in 2020. But while the pandemic is still on in a much lesser scale climbing has flourished again. Despite the virus, Everest remains ever popular. During the 2021 season, Everest Base Camp hosted about 1,300 climbers, Sherpa, and other support staff.
Sherpas transport supplies in the shadow of Everest. But as climbing thrives and continue to function as a significant source of revenue for Nepal, the dangers of being a Sherpa working on the mountain have not decreased. “There’s no other service industry in the world that so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients,” a magazine puts it.
What’s more, for the families left behind by those that die or suffer severe injuries on the mountain, the compensation is insignificant: a government-mandated insurance pay out of about $4,600, $575 in medical coverage, and at least $4,000 in rescue insurance, as per a 2002 amendment. However, this compensation does little to cover actual expenses. Even their traditional funeral ceremonies can cost more than the life insurance pay out. A high- altitude rescue helicopter cost around $15,000.
Moreover, $4,600 is rarely enough to cover the living expenses for the deceased Sherpa’s family, especially when considering that they are often the sole breadwinners for their dependents. This compensation to the Sherpas amounts to a fraction of what outfitters and expedition companies receive, which charge climbers anywhere between $30,000 and $130,000. In an industry with such a high mortality rate, surely employers should adjust compensation to reflect this. Yet, the dependents of deceased Sherpas are often left behind, struggling to make ends meet. Social protection is likewise inadequate, and thus thousands of unregistered porters on the mountains work informally without insurance coverage.
But still despite the great , risk to life being a mountain guide remains a well-paying profession for Sherpas. An experienced guide can make up to $10,000 per climbing season, 14 times more than the average wage in Nepal. Adding to living expenses is the fact that food costs five times more in the highlands than in Kathmandu. All things considered; many simply do not have a choice. Kama Rita Sherpa, who holds the world record for climbing Everest 24 times in 25 years, explained in an interview to media that being a Sherpa was not his first choice, but “how could [he] look for inner peace when back home the lives of [his] parents hung in the balance?” he said.
Given what some might call an exploitative industry, or at least one that promotes the use of Sherpas as a human prop for the aspirations of mountaineers, how can climbers, outfitters, and the Nepali government continue to preserve the beauty of mountaineering while simultaneously promoting ethical business and economic growth? This question remains unanswered. Many guides and expedition outfitters are aware of the issues with the insufficient compensation for Sherpas’ work. Still, they are afraid that increasing their prices to account for better wages and greater insurance coverage might lead to a loss of business. Unfortunately, the reality is that climbing in Nepal is a business, and Sherpas may not see higher wages or insurance policies unless there is some form of collective movement.
One more serious issue, however, is the attitude surrounding the services that Sherpas supply. In the aftermath of a 2014 avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas in one go, the families of those affected were offered the equivalent of only $400 USD as compensation by the government. As Kami Rita Sherpa remarked, “That was all our lives were worth!” From the British administration in the early days of Himalayan mountaineering to the current Nepali government — and even some modern climbers, Sherpas have been categorized along the lines of “replaceable” or “expendable.” There is a notion prevalent among today’s high- altitude climbing community that top climbers continue to unnecessarily involve Sherpas “despite the wide-spread belief that pros should do their own dirty work.” In most cases, they are hired for the sole purpose of fixing lines and transporting supplies for professional climbers.
There is much work to be done to remedy the situation of the Sherpas. From improving the socio-economic situation of Sherpas such that they have options other than climbing to increasing wages and the insurance pay out for the families of the deceased, any solution will require a coordinated effort between outfitters, climbers, and officials.