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.”
The myth may finally be starting to crack. Advocates have protested the growing pressure to accommodate an unsustainable tourist market, perhaps to the detriment of the safety of both climbers and sherpas. In fact, the labor uprising is more complex than the usual settler-colonial narrative. The sherpa guides have long been organized, with their own union and a history of labor-left militancy as part of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT).
Building on past campaigns for tighter regulation of tourist trash-dumping and global action on climate change, sherpas have seized the international spotlight to draw attention to their brutal working conditions and high rates of death and injury.
Svati Kristen Narula at The Atlantic explains that sherpas are far more prone to death by avalanche compared to the climbers, because the guides and helpers are primarily responsible for preparing the route, carrying gear and setting up ladders and ropes. Narula writes, “It’s a stark reminder that there are two classes of Himalayan mountaineers—those who pay to climb, and those who get paid to support them.” The dynamics of the trek are colored by a divide of privilege: after achieving their great feat, climbers go home. The sherpas are home.
Mark Watson of the advocacy group Tourism Concern points out that in many adventure tourism sectors around the world, porters, guides and other aides
often suffer appalling working conditions. Frostbite, altitude sickness and even death can be the cost for the porters carrying trekkers’ equipment in the Himalayas, on the Inca Trail in Peru and at Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Lack of shelter, inadequate food and clothing, and minimal pay are commonly faced problems.
Still, despite their relative impoverishment, sherpas derive unique leverage from their trekking expertise. Ed Douglas describes tensions of class, race and cultural power at play as the mountaineering team weighed whether to end the season:
Two strands emerged at base camp, a 13-point plan demanding reform of Sherpa working conditions and a greater share of revenue for local people, and a more strident, less developed agenda that demanded an immediate end to climbing. A religious ceremony on Tuesday ended in a well-orchestrated demonstration.
More darkly, the team of Sherpas known as the Icefall Doctors who fix the ropes up this part of the mountain were told not to go back to work. Filmmakers were ordered to put their cameras away. One foreign expedition had communications cables cut during the night. Climbers and Sherpas alike speak of an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.
Outsiders might read a mob-like atmosphere in the scene. Yet the labor conflict suggests a nuanced internal rift among the sherpas as they try to navigate between modernity and tradition, both exploiting Everest’s majesty and buffering against neoliberalism’s assault.
The labor politics are not just a visceral revolt against Westerners; many of them empathized with the sherpas after the avalanche and respected their decision.
Rather, much of the sherpas’ ire was aimed at Nepalese government officials and corporations, who have ruthlessly squeezed down labor costs and reaped hefty revenues from tourism. The government issued an awkward statement on April 24 reassuring climbers that they were free to continue their expeditions, even as many guides were refusing to work.
The collective action shows the sherpas as more than just victims of a commercial regime; many indeed take fierce pride in their craft; they just want to be treated well on the job.
GEFONT Secretary Ramesh Badal tells The Nation via e-mail that the workers have demanded long-term economic support for victims’ families, a guarantee for social security funds, and greater “awareness and publication on Climate Change.” The Ministry of Tourism government has stated that it agreed to meet the demands for victims’ restitution, but it is unclear when the reforms will actually be implemented.
While the sherpas’ struggle for cultural survival continues, the community anchors its future in a grassroots ethical vision: back in 2011, one intrepid guide and labor leader, Sherpa Dorje Khatri, planted the flag of the International Trade Union Confederation at Everest’s peak to help raise awareness of global warming. He spoke about the importance of ecological stewardship and, in a documentary on his journey, warned, “Climate is a workers’ problem everywhere.”
Dorje Khatri was lost to the avalanche: A soul reclaimed by the mountain he served above all. He left behind a community in limbo, a labor struggle unresolved, and a journey yet incomplete.