Mount Everest is known as a place that defies gravity, but it’s also a place for upturning social order. To the climber, it’s the pinnacle of a glorious trekking experience. To the anonymous laborer who supports the Westerners’ ascent, it’s a precarious front in a Global South class struggle.
A fatal disaster on April 18 turned the underlying tensions into a full-blown stand-off: an avalanche near the Base Camp in the perilous Khumbu Ice Fall swallowed sixteen local guides and workers, mostly ethnic sherpas. Since then, the trauma has set off the collapse of the climbing season.
The labor relations of Everest expose the ethical twists of the international adventure industry. Sherpas, who identify as an ethnic group as well as a professional community of guides and porters, do make a relatively good living, pulling in several thousand dollars each season (much more than what they’d earn farming). But the risks tend to be higher than the rewards. Statistically speaking, the fatality rate of sherpas is roughly twelve times higher than that of Iraq war soldiers, and avalanche is a leading cause of sherpas’ deaths.
In the days following the avalanche, the sherpas, shaken by the trauma, collectively announced that they had decided to cancel this year’s climbing season. Tulsi Gurung, whose brother was among the missing, told AFP from the base camp on April 22: “We had a long meeting this afternoon and we decided to stop our climbing this year to honour our fallen brothers. All Sherpas are united in this.”
The sherpas were also demanding fair compensation. They denounced the initial funeral award that the government offered to the aggrieved families—only about $400—and the low insurance payment for the victims, demanding that it be doubled to 2 million rupees (about $21,000—a fraction of the price a Western hobbyist would pay for the trip).
At the same time, the sherpa community was riven by internal politics. Some insisted on leaving Everest on moral and religious principle (in light of the mountain’s sacred status); others were pragmatic, willing to climb on for those crucial seasonal wages.
Of course, issues of exploitation on Everest date back to the maiden summit of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. The perennial tension between the glory-soaked adventurer and the humble indigenous aide reflects what one sherpa writer describes as “mountaineering mythbuilding.”