Cloudy Days on Everest

Norbu Tenzing Norgay is deeply familiar with Mt. Everest—his father famously made the first summit with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. But alongside the beauty and adventure, there's real danger, especially for Sherpas. It's time to make a change.

Norbu's father, Tenzing Norgay, with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. Norbu himself has spent time around Everest with Hillary, but this year, he says, the tragedy that killed 16 Sherpas has tinged the familiar place with sorrow and angst. (Wikimedia Commons)

Each spring for the past 21 years I have been going to Nepal. And each spring since the 1920's mountaineers have made their way to the Himalayas to climb, discover and test the limits of their abilities—each with his or her own hopes and motivations. Sherpa climbers who lead the expeditions first visit their monasteries to do divinations and obstacle-removing prayers ahead of the precarious journey they are about to partake in.

It is a spring rite which takes place in Sherpa households across the Himalayas and now the world—partly via Skype in New York and California. If the gods answer their prayers, the men will return in mid-May with smiling broad faces burnt from exposure to the sun—and the spoils of their hard work. They're home safe and will replenish physically and spiritually until the fall when they must go back to work again.

As our plane banks right over the Bay of Bengal, I look through the window to get a glimpse of the Himalayas, and see Chomolungma—Mother Goddess of the World—Sagarmatha, better known to the outer world as Mt. Everest. I am not sure why, but even from the safety of the plane I am anxious, happy, restless and am overcome by emotions with this glimpse of Everest—the huge majestic black rock which takes center stage perched above all other great mountains. I wonder who is out there, and if anyone is on the summit today. I look through a set of binoculars and imagine they are powerful enough to see people climbing. I pray that the weather does not change.

I was fortunate to be with Sir Edmund Hillary on a similar flight in 2003 when we took off from Kathmandu en-route to London as part of the 50th Everest Anniversary celebrations. The weather was clear and the pilot made a special effort to get us close to Everest. I remember Sir Ed looking through the window with his distinctive smile, pointing out the villages he had walked through that lead up to Khumbu. Knowing Sir Ed, he was probably thinking of a new route or how he could make a school building larger so more children would have the opportunity to study.

On my trip last month, however, the entire Himalayan range including Everest was shrouded in clouds. I could not begin to imagine the magnitude below of the sorrow, the angst, the pain felt across the funerals of the 16 who died in this year's avalanche, plus another Sherpa who had died two weeks prior.

Two things stand in sharp contrast for me in the aftermath of this tragedy. On the bright side, the global support and sympathy for the families has been overwhelming. In the eyes of the world Sherpas have always been proud, easy going and hardworking people. Over the years Sherpas have also been seen as the ones doing the hard work but seldom getting the credit. And their tragedies on the slopes of Everest have played out time and again. In the past three years alone, 24 Sherpa guides have perished on Everest. 

The long-running exploitation of the climbing Sherpa was exposed by the horrific April 18 avalanche. All of a sudden climbing Everest is not as cool any more. This epic disaster has had worldwide impact. Will it last? My personal hope is that anyone who wishes to climb Everest or any other mountain in the future will have a clearer understanding first of the economics of their choice. 

Although the Government of Nepal is an easy target and has become the punching bag in the past month for the grievances, standing in the shadows are expedition operators who profit handsomely. They marginalize and at times intimidate climbing Sherpas, most of whom have little education and no one who speaks for them. 

The Sherpas often are pawns in this deadly game that operators have no interest in changing. The climbing Sherpas know that if they raise any issue about pay, life insurance, and the heavy loads they carry or the great risks they bear for expedition clients, they and other family members might be blackballed when jobs are assigned for the next climbing season. 

Sitting in a hotel lobby in Kathmandu a week after the tragedy, I was shocked to hear several Everest operators express a total lack of empathy for what happened. "We have to live, too, and will need to pass any higher costs on to the western operators," one told me when I asked why salaries aren’t more equitable for the climbing Sherpas. He blamed the Nepali Government for any injustice.

I had to remind him that life insurance provided by operators for a climbing Sherpa in 1971 would be equal to $45,000 in today’s dollars, yet the families of those Sherpas who died on April 18 are to receive a meager $11,000. Nothing more. This is barely enough to pay funeral expenses and a couple years of school fees. Then what will these families do? 

An acquaintance of mine contacted nine Everest tour operators in the U.S. by telephone after the disaster. Could they do anything to help the dozens of parents, spouses and children who had just lost their sole bread-winner? Most answered that they were doing the best they could, but offered no specifics. Two had set up funds for the Sherpa families. Neither would they even speculate about how this disaster might change their business practices.

At the core of what I call Everest Inc. is the climber, the ultimate enabler of this exploitation. The numbers of casual, recreational adventurers on Everest have soared in recent decades. Anyone hoping to join their ranks now should be willing to ask hard questions both of themselves and the expedition companies they might choose.

Would they be able to look into the eyes of a climbing Sherpa's newborn child, then assure his family their conscience is clear about how this father, husband, uncle or brother will be compensated and protected? Do those agreed terms sufficiently recognize the great dangers the guides must face? Do the climbers understand the ethics of their choices?

On Thursday May 29th, we mark the 61st anniversary of the historic first ascent of Everest. Indelibly linked in our memories is an enduring symbol of the human spirit - the iconic image of a man in a mask - my father, Tenzing Norgay—standing tall on top of the world with clear blue skies as far as eyes can take you. That image will be clouded over quickly, replaced by more photos of funerals and grieving families, if things don't change.

Norbu Tenzing Norgay is a vice president of the American Himalayan Foundation, and the eldest son of Tenzing Norgay, the first Sherpa to summit Everest.

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