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Why the Sherpa tragedy should change the way we view Everest.

Mount EverestOn 18 April this year, the largest tragedy involving Sherpas by profession occurred in the history of climbing Mount Everest.  Reading the news in my jet-lagged state after returning from another region of the Himalaya (Ladakh), my heart immediately went out to those effected.  I hurriedly raced through numerous media stories searching for the names of the missing or lost until a girlfriend of mine finally sent the list below through to me.


Although I have never personally climbed Everest, through a twenty year love affair with Nepal and Tibet, I have seen both its northern and southern sides. I know a few Nepalese in the mountaineering industry, including some very close and dear friends.  The sheer raft of emotions that ran through my head on hearing the news ranged from relief that all of my friends were OK, to anger at the fact that many Sherpas by profession are under-recognised for the significant role they play in mountaineering to, ultimately, tremendous sadness for those who lost their lives and the greater impact their deaths would have on both their families and communities.

The events that have transpired since this tragedy have been well known and documented by the world’s media since it occurred.  They have ultimately led to the 2o14 Everest season being closed.  Just today I read a blog post from a western climber who expressed dismay at the attitude of some of the Sherpas in base camp after their colleagues had died.  There is also a lot of “Well the western clients have lost out too” sentiment running around in the news.

While I don’t profess to be an expert in all things Mount Everest, I do have an established background in both organising and leading expeditions to many different places in the world and of all the emotions swimming around this event, it is perhaps the attitude of some western climbers that has disappointed me the most.  Sure, I am almost certain that there were some toxic attitudes running through the Nepalese crews at base camp after this event occurred but I can excuse some of that to the fact that Everest lures those from very poor backgrounds seeking very big pay and sometimes they will be up there without a lack of formal education.  What is the excuse of western climbers?

I have read reports that many western climbing clients have ‘sacrificed two months of their lives, given up their careers, mortgaged their houses, trained for three years, put their relatives under stress, worked long hours to earn the money’ etc. to climb Mount Everest.  Trust me, I can definitely sympathise with those people.  For three years most of my spare time and waking hours were consumed by organising an expedition in the Indian Ocean that had financial implications costing two and a half times more than the most expensive Everest permit, and it ultimately failed.

So what happened when my own massive expedition (the largest I’d ever tried to arrange) fail?  Did I go running around blaming the boat owner for not having his boat ready?  Or the authorities for making my life hell as I tried to get permission to land on some of the world’s most remote islands?  No.  I simply licked my wounds and retreated in silence.

What dismays me the most about the attitude of the expeditions who are hot footing their teams out of the Everest region as I type is the fact that they are not going lightly.  My question to them is:

“When did planning expeditions EVER involve a sure-fire guarantee of success?”


George Mallory had several attempts at Everest before he supposedly reach the summit of Mount Everest 90 years ago.  Organising and participating in expeditions has always been an exercise of risk.

To my understanding there is so much money involved in summit attempts on Mount Everest now, that people seem to have forgotten this. I find their consequential sense of entitlement quite ugly.  Reading some of the reports in the media about the attitudes prevailing amongst these clients, I am left feeling like they are spoiled children who are peeved that they didn’t get an iPhone for Christmas from parents who are on a limited budget.

I think it is important to remember that, without many of the professional Sherpas working on Everest during the season, many western climbers would have little or no chance of making it to the top of the world’s tallest peak.  I do know and appreciate that there are also many skilled and considered climbers also up there each year but even many of those are very dependent on the assistance that their Sherpa staff provide in terms of guiding, hauling gear, setting ropes and establishing camps.  Thankfully quite a number of clients think to repay that support in kind by sponsoring children, helping in education or simply giving back.  These kind acts used to be commonplace amongst foreign mountaineers in this region, but they now seem to be dwindling which is something I find very sad.  Sherpas provide the majority of climbers with a very rare gift – a more definite shot at climbing a mountain that has sent many past mountaineers packing before due to the weather or other circumstances.

TibetSo my message to all of those disappointed climbers leaving the Everest region is this: please allow the Nepalese the right to determine the remainder of the season.  Sure you may not like it and I’m sure even some of the Sherpa workers won’t like it either.  For the disgruntled few Sherpas in this situation, I can’t see their ‘strike’ lasting beyond this year but please cut these people some slack.  Sure you are disappointed in a trip that has cost you a lot of money for no benefit or reward.  Fine.  You are, at least, on your way home to families that love you, a place where you can most likely  earn an income, have a roof over your head, the ability to put food on the table for your children and a future.  You are alive.

Regardless of your thoughts on how the professional Sherpas reacted to their situation, many of them have lost fathers, brothers, sons and uncles in this tragedy.  These men are not going home.  Their deaths have thrust the world of their families into one of extreme uncertainty.  They have paid the ultimate price for the high risk work that they have chosen to do.  The impact on the lives of their families and communities is devastating and very long ranging.  Please do not criticise the professional Sherpas for demonstrating and demanding a better deal.  They are not just Sherpas, they are people who nearly always will place your welfare ahead of their own in one of the world’s most dangerous workplaces.  For that fact alone they need your support right now, not your criticism.

When you return to the mountain for your next attempt (and if any of you want to climb it badly enough, you will try again), please return with a stronger moral compass.  Please set a good example to both your fellow western climbers and the Nepalese working alongside you.  Show them that your compassion, leadership and equanimity is the way that all mountaineers should be. When you reach the top, please acknowledge ALL of your team, including the Sherpa staff who helped you get there.  Mention their names in your media interviews, in your blog posts, in your Facebook updates and any videos you make.  If you see them carrying heavier loads than you, offer to help them.  If one of them falls ill, do everything you would do to assist a fellow climber and help them too.   In the unfortunate case that a tragedy like this happens again, set a moral standard that most Nepalese would wish to emulate.  Don’t fight fire with fire or selfishness with selfishness.

The outcomes of this season may translate into a higher climbing fee for you next time you try but if that is the case, so be it.  If you are paying more to ensure the wellbeing and future of your fellow climbers working on your trip of a lifetime then you cannot put a dollar figure on that.  In return you may be lucky enough to make some wonderful Nepalese friends during your journey and you simply cannot speak of those friendships in economic terms.  My wish is for you to see the Sherpas as people, not as a disposable entity.  For your lives to be as enriched by them as much as they have enriched mine.  For it is not until you understand the psyche of the Nepalese that you will fully appreciate how special so many of them truly are.

2 thoughts on “Why the Sherpa tragedy should change the way we view Everest.

  1. Lee Ann Jones says:


    Well said, we are all human and it seems some think they are better than others……we all have blood in our veins. Your article is great, thanks for sharing and being a voice for the Sherpas.


    Lee Ann

  2. inger says:

    Thanks Leanne. I really appreciate your kind words towards the mountain people of Nepal. National Geographic published an excellent story about Sherpas on Saturday. If you are interested in reading more, here is the link: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/special-features/2014/04/140426-sherpa-culture-everest-disaster . Hope you are well! xo

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