A few things have changed but much remains the same for Nepali high altitude workers
Heavy unseasonal snowfall engulfed Mt Everest this week as a team of eight Nepali guides fixed ropes and ladders on a new, hopefully safer route up the Khumbu Icefall. More than 300 climbers from 35 expeditions are waiting at Base Camp for the route to be ready and the weather to clear.
The ‘Icefall Doctors’, as they are called, are doing the most dangerous part of the Everest climb: spending long periods on a treacherous, moving glacier exposed to avalanches from the West Shoulder. Last year, one such avalanche on 18 April killed 16 Nepali guides, only 13 of the bodies were retrieved.
STILL MISSING: Menuka Gurung, wife of Ash Bahadur Gurung, one of the 16 guides who was killed in last year’s Everest avalanche, with her children at home in Thamel. Gurung’s body remains undiscovered along with two others. Photo: Gopen Rai
“Had it not snowed heavily, some climbers would have already reached Camp 1 to acclimatise, but we are working to repair the damage caused by the snow,” said Lama Kaji Sherpa of the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, which is part of the team that opens the icefall route.
As the mountaineering community prepares to mark the first anniversary of the Everest avalanche tragedy last year, the Nepali guides have gone back to what they have to do for a living – risking their lives to fix ropes, ladders and ferrying rich western clients to the top.
Few things have changed but much remains the same on Everest. Devastated by the deaths of their friends and the magnitude of the tragedy, the mostly-Sherpa guides last year refused to go up, forcing the cancellation of all expeditions. They demanded for more safety and compensation for the families.
The government agreed to increase their life insurance amount to Rs 1.5 million and medical insurance to Rs 400,000. It has also made it mandatory for expeditions to bear the cost of rescue helicopters for all members, including their guides, porters and support staff.
“Mountaineering guides and porters had always demanded better insurance and arrangement of rescue helicopters, but it was never heeded,” says Santa Bir Lama of the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA).
As per its commitment made to Sherpas last season, the government is now creating a fund using five per cent of mountaineering fees to be spent in Solukhumbu district which will be used to support mountaineers and their families in case of future deaths and injuries on the mountain.
Diwash Pokharel of the Everest Summiteers Association says the tragedy did lead to reform. “It highlighted the issue of Sherpas and created pressure on the government as well as expedition companies to do more for their risky work.”
However, despite the attention to insurance and compensation, the disproportionate risk that the 300 high altitude workers employed every year face on Everest has not diminished. The least-paid workers are still doing the most arduous and dangerous work on the mountain.
The new route up the middle of the Khumbu Icefall skirts the edge that was exposed to avalanches, but it still has the risk of serac collapses. The workers also spend more time fixing ladders to span crevasses and to get over huge vertical blocks of ice which are more numerous than in the old route.
Tsering Tenzing is overseeing the team of Icefall Doctors at Base Camp this year. He says: “We are still a bit scared, I tell them to relax and not to worry. In reality, no Everest route is safe.”
Climbing Everest always had inherent dangers. The only problem is that Nepali high altitude workers face disproportionately more risk than their climbing clients.
Pemba Gyalje Sherpa of the Nepal National Mountain Guides Association, the 41-year-old veteran who made the heroic rescue of fellow-climbers on K2 in 2008, says many clients treat their guides as servants, not as fellow expedition members.
He says: “Sherpas are putting themselves in harm’s way more than their affluent clients. There must be more equity, respect and trust on the mountain.”
When the brief summit window opens toward the middle of May this year, some new records may be made and some broken on Mt Everest.
Octogenarian ex-Gurkha soldier Min Bahadur Sherchan (pic, above), 84, is again preparing to be the oldest person to climb the world’s highest peak, a title that he lost to Japanese climber Yuichiro Miura, 80, in 2013. In this long-running duel, Sherchan had claimed the title that was held by Miura since 2003 in 2008.
Sherchan trains by walking up and down the staircase of his three-storey house with a load of 25 kgs on his back at least 20 times a day, and his guide Shiva Sapkota is confident Sherchan can climb the mountain if the weather is all right.
Another Nepali climber wants to become the fastest person up and down Everest. Leela Bahadur Basnet aims to be on top within 10 days of leaving Kathmandu and returning in the same period.
Song Kyung-Tae aims to be the first visually-impaired South Korean to summit Everest. Nepali woman climber Chhurim Sherpa is set to take the late Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes’ bat and jersey to the top.
While dozens of expeditions have already made their way to Everest, no single expedition has yet asked for a permit to climb Kanchenjunga, which marks the 60th anniversary of its first ascent on 25 May, informs officials at Department of Tourism. Same is the case with Makalu with only three expeditions having left so far to climb the fifth highest mountain in the world which also marks the 60th anniversary of its first ascent on 15 May.
31 Nepali children lost their fathers, David Durkan
Aftershocks of the Everest avalanche, Om Astha Rai
Everest climbing continues in Nepal
A dangerous place to work, Jon Gangdal
Taking chances on Chomolungma, David Durkan
Extreme Everest, Bhrikuti Rai and Matt Miller