“I remember looking up at the mountain and seeing a landslide heading towards me. Without being dramatic, I accepted that I was going to die.”
Ryan Colligan, a 31-year-old film editor from Kent, is telling me about his experience at Tengboche, Nepal, as he returned from Everest Base Camp in April 2015, when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake triggered an avalanche that killed 22 people, the biggest tragedy in Mount Everest’s history.
“Ten minutes earlier I’d been taking a photograph of my partner, Evie, in front of a painted rock face, before meeting my friends in a teahouse on stilts. Now the teahouse walls had crumbled and everybody was fleeing in terror, and the rock mural where we’d been standing was buried under a landslide. The ground shook like a cornering Tube train as we ran towards our Sherpa guide, Pemba, who assembled our group amid the chaos, and led us back down the trail, which was in places no more than mud and debris, bounded by sheer drops. The air smelled of upturned soil.
“Pemba lived in Lukla and I knew he was anxious to get back to his family, but he stayed with us in Namche Bazaar for four nights, waiting for the aftershocks to die down before guiding us back past collapsed villages. Throughout, Pemba had our best interests at heart and ensured we were safe.”
There are many such stories of high-altitude heroism associated with the Sherpa, an ethnic group native to Nepal. These tales stretch back to Western adventurers’ first Everest expeditions in the 1920s; but it was Tenzing Norgay who brought the Sherpa people to the attention of the world, as part of New Zealander Edmund Hillary’s successful 1953 expedition team.
Hillary was knighted for being the first known person to climb to the top of Mount Everest. But Tenzing, who simultaneously reached its summit, only received an honorary medal. In the years since, there’s been growing disquiet at the lack of official recognition.
Since the pair’s achievement, summiting Mount Everest, the highest spot on the planet, has been regarded as the pinnacle of adventure travel. Thousands of people have attempted it since 1953, with up to 800 people reaching the summit each year and many more making the trip to Base Camp.
In the West, the word ‘Sherpa’ has come to mean a kind of glorified mountain porter. Having intimate knowledge of the Himalayas has made Sherpas the obvious choice to guide global teams of climbers. Yet they’ve been involved in four times more climbing accidents than Westerners. One reason for this is that some of the Sherpas used in expeditions are farmers from lowland regions, so aren’t naturally accustomed to mountain conditions.
Plus they do most of the legwork, often assisting amateur bucket-list climbers. Sherpas, who are required to carry their client’s gear, cover many more miles, lugging equipment, fastening ropes, setting up the camps and preparing the trail each season.
It’s a high-risk occupation but the financial rewards for guiding are, for many, hard to resist. Prue Smith, general manager of the Himalayan Trust, tells me: “Working as a guide does pay reasonably well in the Nepali context. Many people work as a guide as a means to provide for their family’s future — to fund education for their children and grandchildren.”
The Himalayan Trust, set up by Sir Edmund Hillary in the 1960s, is a nonprofit humanitarian organisation that works to improve the health, education and general wellbeing of people living in the Everest region. It aims to provide opportunities for young Sherpas living in poverty and set them on to a path towards a safer, more secure livelihood. Sherpas earn, on average, just £3,000-£7,000 a year, and responsible tourism organisations are increasingly asking travellers to question what Sherpas typically have to do for this wage.
The first known casualties on Everest were seven Sherpas working as part of Britain’s 1922 expedition. In total, 114 Nepalis have lost their lives on Everest; 43 of those deaths occurred in the past 10 years. In extreme cases, Western climbers have abandoned their guides on the mountain. Just this May, Sherpa Lam Babu died on Everest after he was reportedly left behind by four Ukrainian climbers. The group had been sponsored by ASKfm to scale the mountain as a publicity stunt and deposit a wallet containing $50,000 of the social media giant’s newly launched cryptocurrency at the top, daring the public to make the climb to claim the prize. But when conditions on the mountain took a turn for the worse, the team allegedly fled, leaving their three Sherpas behind. Babu never returned.
Although weather conditions on Everest — which can change quickly — are impossible to control, there are steps expedition teams can take to minimise risk. Before you book, check your travel company is paying porters fairly, and ask if they are adequately insured against accident and injury. Also check your Sherpas will be carrying no more than the maximum legal limit of 25kg of equipment. Finally, ensure guides have decent sleeping conditions, gear and footwear.
And consider supporting Sherpa communities beyond your trip through donations to local charities. Porters’ Progress, for example, helps to facilitate the safe treatment, and education of porters and their communities. On return, unwanted climbing kit can be sold via the charity’s eBay page.
“Access to education is the key to unlocking opportunities other than high-risk work as climbing guides,” says Prue Smith, of the Himalayan Trust. “With education in the region, local people are employed as doctors, teachers, health workers, or work running lodges and trekking companies,” says Smith.
What can we do to help?
“Support well-managed, community development work, such as education as a route out of poverty, investing in health and income-generating opportunities for local communities.” Prue Smith of himalayantrust.org
How can I make my money count?
Along with tipping your Sherpa, consider donating to charities that help facilitate porters’ safe treatment and education. portersprogressuk.org
Should I be climbing at all?
The Himalayas is home to 13 other mountains over 8,000 metres. “While it’s understandable that climbing Everest is on many people’s bucket list, well-managed tourism could see other spectacular trekking routes developed to spread the tourism dollar to more communities.” Prue Smith.
What should I do if I witness poor conditions for porters?
Published in the Adventure guide, distributed with the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)