Last year’s deadly avalanche on Mt. Everest in Nepal, which killed 16 Sherpas–mountaineering guides indigenous to the region–has led to new safety recommendations for both guides and tourists.
The Nepalese authorities have ordered climbers to shift their path up the mountain, to avoid the route of last year’s disaster, according to Vice magazine. The new path will bring people to the middle of the Khumbu Icefall, instead of the west shoulder of the Icefall, where the guides were buried in the avalanche. The new path might be more technically difficult for climbers, but government officials say it is safer.
Last year, the Nepalese government came under fire for failing to sufficiently compensate Sherpa families for the guides’ deaths and for attempting to keep climbing season open, putting the lives of guides and climbers at risk. Tourism is the largest industry in Nepal, providing 4% of gross domestic product, and the tourists come for Mount Everest, the highest mountain peak in the world. Of the nearly 800,000 tourists who visited Nepal in 2013, over 10% went hiking or climbing.
Though the number of guides killed last year is high, the record for highest number of total deaths from a single accident occurred in 2001, when a blizzard and several avalanches in central Nepal are reported to have killed at least three local guides and 26 tourists, including Israelis, Poles, Nepalese, Canadians, Slovaks and one person from India.
Recent data suggests that avalanches are the primary cause of death among guides in the Nepalese Himalayas, while falls are the primary cause of death among visitors. (See Figure 1 to the left.) Some 102 guide deaths were caused by avalanches between 1950 and 2006 of a total of 211 guide deaths, while 223 tourist deaths were caused by falls from high elevations, followed by 170 tourist deaths by avalanches over the period.
A steady decrease in deaths among both tourists and guides began in about 1975 and lasted until 2005, at which point the trend reversed itself. The Kang Guru avalanche and three separate avalanches on Ama Dablam, Ganesh VII, and Pumori in 2006 killed 14 tourists and 18 guides and marked the beginning of an upswing. Figure 2, below, shows the trend in death rates from 1950 to 2006 among both tourists (“members,” in blue) and guides (“hired,” in red).
As climate change melts glaciers around the world, avalanches could increase, threatening tourists and guides with more accidents. Even for the local Sherpa guides, the Himalayas become unfamiliar territory when the landscape is changed by receding ice. “Warmer temperatures and water from melting ice can combine to weaken a glacier’s grip on the underlying rock,” Jeffrey Kargel, a University of Arizona geologist, who has conducted regular studies on glaciers near Everest, told Vice magazine.
To read more about last year’s Everest accident and the aftermath, read this post.
A major workshop late last month represents a significant change in the debates about climbing expeditions on Mount Everest, with significance across the Himalayas and beyond.
The “Participatory Workshop on Roles, Responsibilities & Rights of Mountaineering Workers,” held on 29 and 30 August in Kathmandu, emerged from the unsettled outcome of the tragic accident of 18 April 2014, when 16 Nepalese guides were killed at the Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest. The spot is well-known as a particularly dangerous part of the route to the summit. It goes over an area in which a glacier descends a cliff so steep that the ice cannot flow smoothly, but rather becomes divided by criss-crossing crevasses into segments, many as large as big houses,which can break off and come crashing down. In essence, an icefall is to a glacier what a waterfall is to a liquid river. Everest contains many other challenges to climbers, including thin air, long ascents and changeable weather, but this icefall is particularly treacherous. Only thirteen of the bodies were recovered before weather conditions caused the cancellation of the search for the others. The guides were predominantly Sherpa, members of a Himalayan ethnic group with longstanding ties to the mountain, who have provided the core guides since the earliest expeditions of the 1920s.
Some were offended that the government offered only scanty compensation to the families of the victims, barely enough to pay for the funerals. The major climbing organization, Nepal Mountaineering Association, also reacted negatively. The government lobbied to make sure that the climbing season—and the flow of valuable foreign revenue that it brings—would continue. In sum, the incident revealed once again the strong economic and cultural divisions that have long plagued the climbing expeditions, in which wealthy foreigners make large payments to the Nepalese government and to climbing firms, while the local guides, who face life-threatening risks as they traverse the dangerous terrain year after year, receive low pay. The divisions are not as extreme as they were decades ago, when the guides called the foreigners “sahib” and were treated as personal servants. Most foreign climbers now treat the guides with personal respect, and some of the guides have opened climbing firms and equipment companies themselves. Nonetheless, the work is very dangerous; hundreds have died on the mountain. The pay remains poor, and the guides are repeatedly sent into the most dangerous conditions to prepare the trail for the foreigner tourists.
Now: MoCTCA Minister Bhim Acharya listening & commenting on issues & suggestions raised by mountaineering workers. pic.twitter.com/IB94veWPUN
On 21 April, eight of the victims were brought to Kathmandu and were cremated in a traditional Buddhist ceremony. The following day, the Sherpa guides stated that they would cancel their participation in climbs for the rest of the 2014 season, to show respect to the victims and to the long history of dangerous, under-compensated mountaineering work. The large majority, though not all, foreign climbers were in agreement with this decision, even though it put into suspension several hundred climbing permits, each of them worth about $10,000. In response, the Nepalese government provided additional payments to the families of the victims, although these were still insufficient, considering the living costs in Kathmandu.
The August workshop was hosted and facilitated by Mountain Spirit (MS), a Nepali NGO working for the mountain peoples, and supported by the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association (NNMGA), the Nepal Mountain Instructors Association (NMIA), Khumjung School Alumni Association (KSAA) representing the graduates of a school founded by Sir Edmund Hillary, and the Sherpa Adventure Gear clothing company. The 40 participants at this workshop represented mountaineering workers from 8 different mountain districts with a range of experiences, from some who had newly entered the profession to others whose mountaineering careers began in the 1970s. The mountaineering workers were recognized as a key group whose presence in discussing, drafting, reviewing, and implementing new policies and procedures would be necessary for the continued development and progress of the mountaineering industry. The workshop called for a reconsideration of payment to the guides, insurance and safety conditions. Proposals were aired to provide training for guides whose injuries prevent them from climbing. Participants suggested that the government should select regional officers with strong local ties and mountaineering background to provide liaison to link the government agencies with Sherpa guides and their communities. The issue of search and rescue operations remained the subject of contention, since the government has been more willing to mobilize efforts to rescue foreigners than Nepalese, and since guides do not receive insurance to pay for their rescue in the case of accidents.
The proposals from the workshop were presented to the audience that included expedition operators and government representatives on the second day. Also in attendance was the Minister of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, whose agency issues climbing permits for the highest peaks in the Nepalese Himalayas including Everest. Dr. Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, an advisor to the Mountain Spirit, addressed the audience. He highlighted that MS, a small local organization, is putting its effort and membership fees to support this important discussion of ways to make Nepal’s mountaineering tourism more sustainable and just.
The meeting was in some ways inconclusive. A government official remarked, “Like lovers who can’t speak what is in their heart, we aren’t open in discussions and regret it once we go home.” However, there were some positive outcomes. In particular, the mountaineering workers were more visible and more widely heard than in earlier discussions. The framework of discussions of safety and insurance has shifted. The two-day workshop is expected to lead productive discussions of how to make mountaineering in Nepal more safe, sustainable and equitable, and to promote a full representation of mountaineering workers’ experiences, perspectives, and concerns in future discussions. These points are discussed more fully in the press release issued after the conference.
This workshop demonstrates the great power that glaciers and mountains exercise on the human imagination. For decades, Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world has been managed as if two groups had special authority there: the wealthy adventurers who claim that they, as representatives of all humanity, should be able to travel there, and the Nepalese officials, who speak in the name of a government that claims sovereignty over the routes to the peak. In addition to the mountaineering workers, the workshop represents a recognition of a third group, the Sherpas, in whose traditional territory the mountain lies and whose knowledge, experience and, historically, hard labor has been essential for the completion of ascents. It may also come to represent an opportunity for reflection and renegotiation for people in other mountain regions as well.
For a thoughtful account of the accident on Everest, see this account.
For other accounts of dangers in the Himalayas of Nepal, see this story of floods and this story of droughts. For further discussion of tensions between government-managed tourism and local communities, see this post on Peru.