25 April - 1 May 2014 #704

Dangerous business

It is time the government set aside a more substantial portion of the fees it earns from Himalayan climbing to the welfare of workers who lay their lives on the line

Tragic as it was, the avalanche disaster on Mt Everest last week that took the lives of 16 Nepalis was not wholly unexpected. The danger of seracs calving off the hanging glacier on the West Shoulder has been well known. Below it, the Khumbu Icefall is a treacherous gauntlet that early climbers deemed impassable.

Scaling mountains that jut out nearly 9km into the stratosphere is dangerous business at the best of times. But that danger is often forgotten when the business motive takes over. Professional climbers and those whose profession it is to help climbers reach the top are fully aware of the perils.

There are ‘subjective’ dangers in mountaineering: lack of training, inexperience, ambition, overconfidence, carelessness or recklessness. Lately, the pull factor of the world’s highest mountain has attracted woefully unprepared climbers to its slopes who not only endanger themselves, but also put other climbers in harm’s way.

‘Objective’ dangers, on the other hand, are related to weather, avalanche or rockfalls, earthquakes, and lately, global warming. Alpinists weigh all the factors and take a calculated risk. Sometimes expeditions are called off when objective dangers are deemed unacceptable as in 2012 when a team leader concluded that the Icefall was too hazardous.

It is when expeditions become over-commercialised, the mountain is oversold, there is too much money at stake, that the tipping point is breached. The occupational hazard of working on the mountain then becomes a losing gamble, as commentaries in this edition by veteran climbers note.

It's not that the workers on Mt Everest don’t know that they are exposed to more risks than their employers, they have accepted it as a part of the job they have to do. It’s just that they have long felt that although their remuneration has improved it is still disproportionate to the dangers in their line of work. Outside Magazine, for example, calculated that being a high altitude worker in the Himalaya is 12 times riskier than being a US soldier in Iraq.

There is a pall of gloom in the Khumbu region this week, almost every Sherpa household has lost someone who was related, or a friend. The government has reacted surprisingly swiftly to raise compensation levels, but it will still be difficult for families who have lost their main breadwinner like Ash Bahadur Gurung.

There have been rumblings on the mountain in recent years as employer-worker relations have frayed, and anger boiled over last year as commercial mountaineering and alpine-style philosophies collided on the Lhotse Face. Rope-fixers employed by commercial expeditions saw a direct threat to their jobs from small teams that don’t hire high altitude guides. Because the mountaineering industry pays well by local standards, the jobs are much sought after despite the risks. And with all the focus on Sherpas, the exploitation of heavy-lift low altitude porters is often forgotten.

Which is why although some expeditions which have lost their workers have abandoned their climb, others will go ahead. Neither the government which has already collected more than $3 million in fees this season, nor the workers in other expeditions, want to lose their income. It may need a Mt Everest moratorium this season to draw the world's attention to the critical role of Nepali workers in climbing the world's highest peak.

Last Friday’s disaster on Everest draws attention to other Nepalis forced to work in hazardous conditions building stadiums in Qatar, as female household help in Kuwait, or as security guards in Kabul. The Nepali state can't seem to provide safe and decent jobs within the country, nor protect its citizens from the clutches of ruthless recruiters.

Given these failures, it is not surprising that the state has been caught off guard by the scale of the tragedy on Mt Everest. The government needs to urgently address overcrowding with a new pricing policy on the world’s highest mountain, and to ensure that a more substantial portion of the earnings from this sector goes to the welfare of the workers who lay their lives on the line to get clients to the top.

Read also:


Taking chances on Chomolungma, DAVID DURKAN

A dangerous place to work, JON GANDAL

Working in high places, AYESHA SHAKYA

"I still call him everyday."

Mountain fight, KUNDA DIXIT

Everest fever, BUDDHA BASNYAT

Instant Everest

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