2-8 May 2014 #705

The winter of our spring

The amorality of the market plays out on Everest, the laws of profit and price determine the ultimate success of an expedition
Tashi Sherpa

My last name is an accident of birth and not an achievement. But in the past two weeks I am even more convinced who my heroes are.

The continuous outpouring of emotion from around the world hasn’t stopped since 18 April. They call because of my ownership to a last name and brand that has dedicated itself to honouring the unsung heroes of the Himalaya.

I have always been close to my idols Ang Thargay, Da Namgyal, Tenzing, Ngawang Gombu – names from an era almost forgotten, now precious as rare coins. I read their stories, reveled in the borrowed glory of being next to them. I stood in awe of their indomitable spirit and the easy humility of wisdom that signify everything the world knows as ‘Sherpa’.

In the 1980s we boasted about a new generation of super Sherpas: our Pertemba, Ang Rita, Sundare, Babu Chiri and the biggest little man, Apa. And the women, too. World, please meet Pasang Lhamu and Pemba Doma. Their total summit counts began to feel like a stock index. They were feted and paraded, and then filed away as footnotes to someone else’s glory on Mt Everest.

We didn’t know how to brag, so when the first ‘saabs’ came, they became our ‘sathis.’ Even ordinary Nepalis took pride in the brief dispatches in the media about summiteers. There was a sense of purpose and pure passion. But the Khumbuley didn’t care who was on top first as long as they could get them to peak their summit and enjoy their day in the sun.

The Sherpa got his quota of khadas, precious new down gear and money to last till next Losar. Meanwhile, the client went on lecture circuits becoming the motivational toast of the month featured in interviews, cover stories and reaping in the benefits of having tasted thin air on the peak of peaks.

But then some sathis discovered troves of trophy seekers with easy money. Socialites, investment bankers, rich retirees, software moguls, wealthy Arabs, spoilt Asians, scions of big money, all came to Everest Base Camp which became a jamboree of high profile expeditions with even higher profile clients craving the ultimate high. No previous experience needed, just high altitude training for six months, bring your pack and Amex or Visa, and we’ll do the rest. Those in the know knew what to charge and share with their partners in Nepal, but someone forgot to send the memo to the actual Sherpa climbers, the ones who were supposed to ‘take care of it all’.

The Sherpas watched in bemusement and in the quintessential Buddhist way of accepting what life throws at you, went about doing what they do best. Grateful that they at least had work for the season, they never thought to question the specious generosity of being employed. As Nepalis we have a built-in resourcefulness to the mixed vicissitudes of life. Few of us plan for the future, the distant horizon is too far, we focus on the next hill.

The amorality of the market plays out on Everest, the laws of profit and price determine the ultimate success of an expedition. Those who take the most risk are assigned the lowest value in this bizarre equation. The Nepal Government rakes in millions of dollars in fees from Mt Everest, western and Nepali expedition agencies eagerly calculate the spring months to be their breakout revenue season. And every year, the queue for Everest gets longer while the proportion for the Sherpa remains woefully stagnant in the risk-to-reward math.

So, skilled Sherpas are roped in to do the dirtiest and most dangerous work. They fix ropes, lay ladders, carry the heaviest loads and face the brunt of the mountain’s treacherous moods. On 18 April an angry goddess avenged herself, entombing 16 climbers in ice.

The media weighed in with the poignancy of grief, fury against the unfair deck stacked against the Sherpa. There has been a universal condemnation of the status quo but I am more sad than furious because in the end we let ourselves down. Nothing is ever going to be the same again.

Why does it take a national tragedy for us to reexamine our bearings? Why could we not have foreseen that such a day would come and prepared ourselves for it? We do not blame anybody for the shifting of the mountain, that is the risk inherent in venture. What we cannot accept is the furtive manipulation and complicit acceptance of taking more and giving less to those who risk their lives for you.

Summer is upon us, but the mountain blows cold. The chill we feel is not the wind but the desolation of families whose fathers and husbands and brothers will not be coming home. As a Buddhist, I will pray that the next realm bring them better fortune and as a Sherpa, I ask the Mother Goddess Chomolungma to be merciful and understanding.

Om Mani Padme Hum.

Tashi Sherpa is the founder and CEO of Sherpa Adventure Gear.

Read also:

Dangerous business EDITORIAL

The Everest spring season is over MATT MILLER

A dangerous place to work JON GANGDAL


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