25 April - 1 May 2014 #704

A dangerous place to work

Equality and safety for Sherpas only possible if we turn the whole Everest-pyramid upside down
Jon Gangdal

HIROYUKI KURAOKA
The cold dust of the killer avalanche on Mt Everest last week struck us all. We can feel nothing but grief and pain with the families of the brave boys who gave their lives for … for what? For the glory of their nation, like at war? For the glory of their attention-seeking sahibs who have had the highest mountains in the world as their playground for more than a century? Or for what we all have to do: our daily duty to feed ourselves and our families.

Mount Everest, Chomolungma, Sagarmatha provides for everyone: as a mountain, as the Mother Goddess of the Earth, as a symbol of power and glory. For the Sherpas, the mountain has a great impact on their lives mainly as the most important and dangerous working place in the world. After the tragedy on 18 April, it is tempting to come up with new rules and regulations. These will not help unless we are willing to turn the whole Everest-pyramid upside down, and put the Sherpas and other locals on the top of it. Not as ‘The Real Heroes’, but as workers with the same rights as other workers.

The formal rights of the Sherpas and the general way they are led and treated on climbing expeditions, is – with a few exceptions – like how bosses used to treat their employees in the first years after the Industrial Revolution: everything is for the benefit and the interest of the owner.

Every expedition leader (including myself) have made decisions for the progress or profit of the expedition. They give bonuses for more loads, fixed ropes and high altitude metres climbed. But I haven’t yet seen an expedition leader rewarding a Sherpa for saying: “Sorry, Sir, it’s not the time to go up now, I have a really bad feeling about this.”

We foreigners are on top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. This becomes very visible on climbing expeditions. We seek to realise our own egoistic goals of self-actualization in ‘been there, done that’ fashion. (although Maslow also opened for a new level: Mission). The Sherpas are in the opposite position: they are traditionally struggling at the bottom to earn their daily living.

As modern foreigners coming from democratic countries (some of us with big aid budgets to Nepal) we like to see ourselves as equal to other human beings. But the problem starts when my fellow-climber on the mountains regards me as an equal brother even though he is an employee. That is the main reason why the Sherpas are willing to risk more. They do it for their families, and they may say “Yes” when they mean “No”. Whether we like it or not, their position is  not free. Only a few break out of this prison of needs and go back to their communities, or establish other businesses.

My closest Sherpa friends through 20 years, admit this when we are talking as brothers. They say: “We are always afraid on expeditions, but we have no choice if we want to give our children better opportunities so they don’t need to put themselves in the same danger as us.”

Mt Everest is a dangerous place for work, and it is going to be increasingly so. To organise the work, establish quality systems and improve security will be the easy part. It will not need many new rules and regulations. An effective system for responsibility and sanctions will be more important.

Expedition leaders at Base Camp today find themselves in the same desperate position that I was in when a Sherpa in our expedition was swept away by an avalanche on the West Ridge in 1994. We all have to find out the best way to deal with a new reality for Sherpas in their high and risky place of work.

There is no easy way to the summit for those of us who were not born under Chomolungma. But it will not spoil the wonderful feeling of making the impossible possible, knowing that those who are nurtured by the mountain are more safe and feel more comfortable.

Jon Gangdal is a climber, writer and board member of National Trust for Nature Conservation of Nepal.

Read also:

Dangerous Business, EDITORIAL

Extreme Everest, BHRIKUTI RAI AND MATT MILLER

Taking chances on Chomolungma, DAVID DURKAN

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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