APEX: Sherpa, a call for respect.

Behind the magnificent cinematography of ‘Sherpa’ there is a thoughtful declaration of the state of commercial climbing in Nepal. Mountains have inherent risks, humans are ill designed for altitude, and when a western culture who confidently extol boundary-pushing conquests shakes hands with the Sherpa people, feathers of the 21st century climbing bird that is Everest are ruffled.


Mount Everest and Nuptse from Kalapatthar. Photo: Pavel Novak

An irksome feeling ensued from watching Sherpas serve tea and warm towels to ‘clients’ at base camp in this documentary. As someone raised to believe that Everest is the pinnacle of climbing achievement, it was uncomfortably bizarre to watch those in a would-be inhospitable environment, have such an alarm clock. The fact that they are reffered to as ‘clients’ speaks for itself. Alpine mountaineering is a pursuit that requires hard graft and tremendous perseverance, and the appearance of this luxury is beguilingly out of place. Base Camp shouldn’t be the place for Sherpas, who risk their lives making 20-30 trips over the Khumbu Icefall, where they are responsible for westerners’ creature comforts; irrespective that clients can pay up to 120,000 dollars to make an ascent attempt.

This is the knife edge of a cultural rift; the Sherpa people treating the mountains with  reverence, in full respect of the spiritual energy of Everest and her flanks. Conversely, climbers that have pockets big enough to put the tallest mountain on their bucket lists flock to the Himalayas as a test of personal strength: another check on the seven summits list, another declaration of accomplishment. The equilibrium at the centre of this collision earths the commercial climbing industry, a fragile network that branches between Sherpas, the Nepalese government, expedition companies, and those that intend to scale these mountains.


The Khumbu Icefall is one of the most dangerous parts of the South Col route: large crevasses can open and seracs can fall suddenly, and these are inescapable at best. Photo: McKay Savage

There’s nothing wrong with climbing Everest, but when those who maximise their time on at risk in order for someone else to actualise a goal, get paid very little with respect to risk and are not recognised for their role; that’s when a problem arises. High stakes climbing is not a lone pursuit – and more needs to be done to pass recognition to those that put in the work for that elusive summit photo to be possible. The reason that climbers are clients, is not restricted to the fact that Everest has a tremendous price tag, but that they do not climb with their own teams putting in their own protection as they climb, but depend on the sherpas to organise their route with ropes for them. It may seem logical to have locals who are well acquainted with these mountains to orchestrate climbing in such a fashion, but if westerners accepted that they would have to divulge the greatest secret of all: that they technically went on a glorified high altitude hike. The real technical climbing work has been put in by the Sherpas. Edmund Hilary, the New Zealander that made the first official ascent of Everest in 1953, has confessed that today’s ascents are ‘hardly mountaineering, more like a conducted tour’.

A grand injustice responsible for setting the tone for climbs in the future was the the treatment of Tenzing Norgay. He was Edmund Hillary’s expedition partner on that pivotal first ascent of Everest, and received the George Cross and a babble of mistranslations during his visit of England. That was his reward when Edmund Hillary got showered with a praise and ornaments. One can’t disagree that he was mistreated in the light that followed this accomplishment, himself concluding that the mountain had ‘punished’ him for this feat. Under-acknowledged, pushed aside in the conundrum of fame within a culture far from the one he was born into, his grandson rightfully condoning his treatment and proposing that Knighthood was more appropriate than a ‘bloody medal’.


Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Everest’s first official trespassers. Photo: Jamling Tenzing Norgay.

Fast forward to today: the beginning of the climbing season after Everest closed her gateway for two years, opening to a different set of problems: easing overcrowding up the mountain, safety, reasonable pay and compensation for the Sherpas and their families. The solutions should be ones that are found in agreements over conversation, yet the Nepalese government aren’t keen to let go of more money within the tourism sector that comprises 4%  of their GNP. Shadowing this is the environmental damage of mass tourism; not just from climbers but for those migrating to find work in the Khumbu valley in response to the flurry of visitors.

When ignorance from those that refuse to be low impact trekkers combines with climate change, the future of the Khumbu Valley is very much at stake.

The threat of glacial lakes bursting due to unprecedented melts threaten tens of thousands of people who live in the villages beneath these mountains. With predictions estimating that 80% of the glaciers in the Himalayas will be gone in 30 years foreshadow massive knock on effects. These will be felt worldwide as these glaciers contain just under half of the world’s fresh water, feed nine large rivers and provide a sixth of the world’s drinking water. This then makes crops difficult to irrigate. Additionally, climbing appears to have  a cosmetic issue as environments will not be quite as alpine, avalanches and ice falls are going to become more regular. The influx of so much tourism has also caused significant deforestation and dumping of hundreds of tonnes of waste. That is the story of the valley floor, but even at altitude, climbers have littered the once pristine mountain with plastic bottles, oxygen cylinders, tents and old ropes.

In conclusion, the recognition of the work of a Sherpa is at the apex of a myriad of issues that need to be addressed. A human element of respect and gratitude is required shatter the gold star righteousness and title seeking propulsion of some that choose to climb Everest. This vanity veils much larger problems that need immediate action.

To provide respect to those who deserve it is perhaps the easiest problem to solve in the Himalayas, but what needs to follow is legislation and means to prevent or at least slow down the deterioration of the climate, and ecology of this range. If measures are not taken the inevitability of environmental disaster will be met much sooner.

Those who have the choice to step back and observe the climate change dynamic shifting from ‘will it happen?’ to ‘how long can we delay the effects?’ should note that they have the luxury of making decisions that affect the planet.

I highly recommend watching Sherpa. It’s on discovery channel currently.




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