High Altitude Himalayan Heroes Denied Summit Certificates

Two Sherpas standing atop Denali in Alaska
Two Sherpas on an international climbing expedition to Denali in Alaska (source: Wikimedia Commons).

The beauty and mystique of Mt. Everest has never ceased to capture the world’s imagination, inspiring climbers from all over the globe to test their fitness on the iconic mountain’s south face. For some, reaching the planet’s paramount point is a conquest, one made more enticing by Everest’s unrelenting media attention and its recent commercial availability to Western climbers. For others, especially local Sherpas, the mountain and its growing presence in the adventure tourism industry represents one of few opportunities for seasonal income and food on the family dinner table.

The latest chapter in the long history of climbing on Mount Everest has ended in conflict, provoked by the Nepalese government’s failure to provide Sherpas with summit certificates.  Without certificates to verify successful summits on high altitude peaks, the Sherpas’ ability to financially benefit from climbing expeditions on local mountains may be dramatically reduced.  

In isolated Himalayan mountain towns, the economic stimulus provided by large climbing expeditions can be dramatic, offering Sherpas the opportunity to work alongside international alpinists in hauling gear, fixing ropes and offering all-around support in strenuous high-altitude environments.   The average yearly income in Nepal is $691, according to the United Nations data library, meaning that porters who may earn between $2500 and $5000 in a climbing season are making a major fiscal contribution to their families. Even so, this contribution comes at a steep price, with porters facing major safety risks associated with mountaineering.

Despite being an integral part of Mt. Everest’s climbing history since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent in 1953, Sherpas who successfully summited the peak during the 2016 climbing season were denied summit certificates by the Nepalese Tourism Ministry. In an interview with Tshering Paldourche, a Sherpa from Khumjung, Nepal, he indicated that Sherpas have never been denied summit certificates before the 2015-2016 climbing season.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their historic ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

The controversy over denied summit certificates stems from the Nepalese government’s sudden refusal to recognize the Sherpas as members of international climbing expeditions, prohibiting Sherpas from qualifying for a certificate. The Nepalese Ministry of Tourism’s Mountaineering Expedition Regulation, introduced in 2002, states that “the Ministry shall provide a certificate of mountaineering expedition to the mountaineering expedition team and the member of such team for successful mountaineering expedition in the format as prescribed in schedule 13.” Sherpas lost the privilege of receiving summit certificates during the 2015-2016 climbing season under the schedule 13 rules because they were not officially classified as members of the expedition team.

Even though Sherpas are an integral part of most successful summit bids, many  failed to pay permit fees on Everest last year, which disqualified them as official members of a mountaineering expedition team. Because Sherpas are natives and are working on high-altitude peaks, they’re not required to pay permit fees, meaning that they were left vulnerable following the government’s refusal to supply certificates. Although receiving a summit document often serves as a trophy of sorts for international climbers, for Sherpas the validation means job security and the opportunity to provide a better life for their families.

According to the Himalayan ClubSherpas in search of work who had migrated from Nepal to Darjeeling, West Bengal, offered much of the assistance to Western mountaineers in the early to mid-1900’s. By utilizing summit records and employer’s references, Sherpas were able to develop official resumes to aid in securing employment with future expeditions. In 1928, the Himalayan Club developed a formal method of documenting Sherpas’ climbing records which allowed those with experience to find work with incoming foreign expeditions. Today, without certificates and thus an official record of high altitude summits, Sherpas must deal with the possibility of this longstanding system simply falling apart.  

Sherpa Tshering Paldourche commented “to work with a new company we need proof of a climbing certificate [and] if we don’t have that, then it’s difficult to join other new companies.” Given the long association between climbing and Sherpas, the idea that the Nepalese government is not supporting local porters is perplexing. The Ministry of Tourism failed to comment on questions from GlacierHub regarding the reasoning behind introducing the legislation that prevented Sherpas from receiving summit certificates. The Ministry also failed to answer whether or not a motion to appeal the legislation was underway.

In recent years, with trends pushing toward increased commercialization of the world’s highest peaks, climbing expeditions are in more need for experienced porters than ever before. In 2013, nearly 4 times as many climbers reached the top of Mount Everest as in 1995, according to Richard Salisbury at the Himalayan Database. This increase equates to more climbers on the mountain, more permit fees and more revenue generated from tourist flow than in the past.

Revisions to permit regulations in the Royalties for Foreign Climbers document enacted on January 1st, 2015 ultimately increased the individual cost for a permit, and thus increased the cost of expeditions in some cases by as much as $5000 per person. With the money from foreign teams climbing 6500 meter (and taller) peaks, a question remains regarding who gets the privilege of capitalizing upon the growth of high altitude mountain tourism. The current state of affairs does not favor the Sherpa community despite their critical role in shouldering the burden of increased high altitude traffic.  

Sherpas at Home
A Sherpa family together at home (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Despite the certificate conflict becoming a new issue, previous climbing seasons on Everest have hardly been problem free. The 2014 climbing season on Everest came to an early halt following an avalanche in the Golden Gate area that killed sixteen Sherpas who were working to establish fixed ropes and ladders at crevasse crossings. The following season, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in April resulted in large avalanches on Everest killing numerous Sherpas and international climbers alike.

Around 350 to 450 Sherpas work above base camp in an average climbing season, according to the Himalayan Database,  meaning multiple seasons with such tragic losses represent a staggering mortality rate for the risk-taking porters on the high mountain. When factoring in the 2015-2016 issues with summit certificates, the last few years on the world’s highest peak have seen the hardworking Sherpa climbers marginalized and left in harm’s way in the wake of unpredictable natural disasters.  

Thinking of the future, Sherpa Tshering stated that the issue of being denied a summit certificate on Everest “will change my mind negatively climbing mountains.” Given the extremely dangerous nature of working on 6500 meter+ peaks, the denial of summit documentation for sherpas like Tshering may dramatically affect the nature of Himalayan mountain tourism in the near future, with some Sherpas refusing to assist international climbing partners until their rights are recognized.

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