The Ethics of Summit: the Commodification of the Sherpa People

Mountaineers seeking to summit Everest have always relied on Sherpa guides and porters to lead the way. Despite their critical role in ensuring the success of a summit, Sherpas have historically been regarded as subordinate to the very foreign climbers they help. More than just an issue of representation, the proliferation of mountaineering in the Himalayas has left Sherpas facing abuse, exploitation, and death. As they continue to risk their lives helping others achieve their mountaineering dreams, it is worth questioning the ethics of ascending the Himalayas.  

Image by Sebastian Pena Lambarri on Unsplash

By Depali Rai

Known as Sagarmatha in Nepal or Chomolungma in Tibet, Mount Everest has long captured the popular imagination. The sheer scale of the challenge and the natural beauty that accompanies it brings in some 35,000 foreign trekkers to Everest base camp every year and more than 4000 successful ascents of Mt Everest since 1953. Those that continue to live at the foothills of the Himalayas in areas such as at Namche Bazaar have had their livelihoods shaped around the influx of tourism and mountaineering expeditions.

As a previously closed-off nation, Nepal first began to open its borders to foreigners in the 1950s. Shortly after, the “first official ascent” of Everest in 1953 was completed by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Consequently, the untouched Shangri-La of yore commenced its transformation into a global hub for tourism. The Sherpas are one core community that has experienced a permanent transformation of their culture and livelihoods.

Due to these early encounters between Sherpas and the West, the word Sherpa has entered mainstream usage and has come to denote several things. From fleeces to porters, the imprecise use of the term personifies a world in which Sherpa people have been misrepresented. Neither a clothing item nor a vocation, the Sherpas are an ethnic group indigenous to the Himalayas in countries such as Nepal and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).

Human traffic jams at the summit of Everest and littering problems aside, the commercialisation of the Himalayas has brought with it many undeniable opportunities and benefits for Himalayan communities. Tourism is Nepal’s 4th largest industry and accounts for 6.7% of the nation’s GDP. As a developing nation boasting 8 of the ten world’s largest peaks, the mountaineering industry is a lucrative source of employment for communities that already struggle due to their remote and economically underdeveloped conditions. During a particularly successful climbing season, a Sherpa guide might earn up to 10 times the average annual salary in Nepal. Once remote misty villages some 3,440 metres above sea level now host Irish pubs, import Korean Ramyun and serve Nepalese and Western fare in equal measure. Travellers from across the world have made this rural corner of Nepal an incredibly cosmopolitan intersection. Entrepreneurship and investment have meant that even Everest Base camp boasts a high-quality internet connection. 

Nevertheless, the political economy of the Himalayas is not just a one-dimensional success story. The myth and glory of ascent are potent and enduring. Mountaineering expeditions held in the Himalayas has meant that Nepalese lives have increasingly become collateral damage in the search for success and profit.  

The employment of Sherpa men as mountain guides for foreigners began in the early 20th century when they were ushered away from their farms to carry loads as porters and guide mountaineers through the difficult terrain. Like many other indigenous to the Himalayas, Sherpas possess a remarkable degree of altitude adaptation, both physical and cultural, that make them critical to any mountaineering expedition. From their genetic advantages, which allow their bodies to more efficiently use oxygen at extremely high altitudes than normally expected of a human, to their historical understanding of how to navigate the hostile climate and terrain, Sherpas have long been the essential companions for any summit. There is not much else by way of economic opportunity in the Nepalese district of Khumbu (where Mount Everest lies) due to the immense geographical and climatic challenges.

Sherpas “do most of the legwork (…) carry their client’s gear, cover many more miles, lugging equipment, fastening ropes, setting up the camps and preparing the trail each season”. They lead the way across some of the most extreme environments, guiding climbers through harsh winds, crevasses, falling rocks and other hazards. The importance of Sherpas in helping to create a safe ascent is immeasurable. Reinhold Messner, a pioneer in modern Alpine climbing, is right to emphasise that “climbers who cross ladders set by Sherpas at the Khumbu Icefall then go up without ropes and claim to be special are parasites.”

Lucrative as their compensation might be, their employment comes with immense dangers that remain relatively unprotected and appear meagre compared to what Sherpas and their families risk. A Sherpa working above Base Camp on Everest is allegedly more than three and a half times as likely to perish than an infantryman during the first four years of the Iraq war. The common risks of working in such perilous conditions remain; frostbite, hypothermia, injuries, death, and the like. However, the challenges facing Sherpas are distinctively their own.

Sherpas make up a third of all Everest deaths, and a significant number of these continue to be avoidable tragedies caused by human agency. Sange Sherpa was one such near fatality at barely 19 years old. When working his second season on the mountain, a Pakistani client allegedly denied Sange’s request to abandon a summit attempt despite bad weather. As a result of his client’s insistence, both men were found unconscious by Sherpas from another team. Sange’s hands were so frostbitten that amputation was required. Sange has undergone treatment in the USA but only because of his personal supporters and a GoFundMe campaign.

In one extreme case, four Ukrainian climbers abandoned their guide, Sherpa Lam Babu, on a mountain. The group had come to Nepal as part of a publicity stunt sponsored by ASKfm. They were to scale the mountain and deposit a wallet containing $50,000 of the social media giant’s cryptocurrency at the peak. ASKfm then dared followers to collect the $50,000 prize from the summit. But when conditions went downhill, the team allegedly bolted, leaving their Sherpas behind. Babu never returned.

In another case, nine-time Everest summiteer Tenjin Dorji experienced one ascent where a client from South Korea announced he wanted to go to the top first and by himself. Despite Dorji’s assistance the entire way, guiding him, sharing his load, and laying down ropes to ensure his client travelled safely behind him, the climber then began swinging his ice axe at Dorji to prevent Dorji from trampling on his solo dreams.

Sherpas also confront monumental neglect by the Nepalese government. The Sherpa guiding business has been largely unregulated, leaving room for gross negligence and mistreatment. Tensions came to a head in April 2014, when an avalanche on Everest’s West Shoulder killed sixteen Sherpas. Following the incident, conflicts between the Sherpa community and the Nepalese government precipitated due to the refusal of the government to provide benefits for those injured or next of kin. The avalanche revealed the colossal neglect and exploitation underlying the Nepalese mountaineering tourism industry.

Initial outcry resulted in the government offering $400 to every family affected, less than a quarter of what a novice Sherpa would hope to bring home in a single season. After continued protests and a threat to cancel all climbing during the climbing season of 2014, the government set a relief fund with provisions such as pensions and educational assistance for Sherpa children.

The payouts of $400 rose to $5000. However, there has been continued criticism over the actual implementation of this policy. “I’ve seen so many broken promises” says Norbu Tenzing Sherpa, the head of the American Himalayan Foundation. The government has also started a policy requiring guide agencies to increase the life insurance policies for Sherpas from $10,000 to $15,000. Yet, this sum pales in comparison to the loss of the primary family breadwinner, leaving widows and their children poverty-stricken with little other income or savings. Hiring helicopters to airlift the dead out of the Himalayas and back home eats enough of this insurance money. With a rich and complex series of Buddhist funeral rites to follow, the payouts barely cover the essentials and are not fit to last Sherpa families a lifetime. Fundraisers organised by climbers and their supporters have been set up, such as in Sange Sherpa’s case, but no one should rely on philanthropy alone as their lifeline.

There are endless case studies and anecdotes detailing how the wider world has mistreated the Sherpas. Retelling them is an endless task. Melissa Arnot perhaps says it all when she mourns for Chhewang Nima, the Sherpa that died setting up her trail and fixing down ropes to ensure a safe passage for Arnot: “My passion created an industry that fosters people dying. It supports humans as disposable, as usable, and that is the hardest thing to come to terms with.”

Indeed, if we cast our minds back to 1953, even before the commercialisation of the Himalayas, the stark inequities are evident. Sherpas have been cast off as lesser achieving climbers. Where members of the British expedition team of 1953 received knighthood (i.e., Edmund Hillary became Sir Edmund Hillary), their guide Tenzing Norgay received the less significant award of the George Medal. Lord Hunt who was also a part of the British team later commented that Norgay’s contribution was good but  “within the limits of his experience” . To this, the New York Times rightly remarks Hunt’s comment about Norgay as “an odd thing to say of a man who had more experience of Everest than anybody else in the world”.  

Indeed, Tenzing’s son Norbu Tenzing Norgay is right to claim that: “if somebody in America climbs Everest 19 times, he’d be all over Budweiser commercials,”. Contrastingly, in Nepal, a Sherpa is expected to subserviently guide tens of foreign climbers up the highest peak in the world year in, year out, without expecting much in return for putting their lives on the line. The issue of representation is a whole different mountain to climb.

Whether it be foreign climbers who see Sherpas as disposable labour, or the Nepalese government who exploit their skills for a profit, Sherpas have sacrificed their lives for little in return. For mountaineers, the opportunity to achieve their dreams is worth the risk. In a remote region of the world so acutely transformed by the whims and wishes of modern travellers and profit-hungry governments, the Sherpas have little choice but to continue to risk exploitation and death every climbing season to feed their families. In response, they are rewarded with inadequate protections, mistreatment and minimal representation.

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