The avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas on Mount Everest last week, which took the title of deadliest incident there from the events of 1996 that were chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, has put an end to this year’s climbing season on the Nepal side of the mountain.
It seems no surprise to anyone that such a tragedy happened, given the well-documented, deteriorating conditions on Everest. As those conditions have worsened, the Sherpas have borne the brunt of the increased risk.
Despite the raft of millionaires hanging around base camp, as Grayson Schaffer wrote in Outside last year, the Sherpas are poorly compensate and badly insured:
Since passage of the 2002 Tourism Act Amendment, Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism and Aviation has required all local trekking agents to purchase rescue and life insurance for their porters. Sherpas working above Base Camp need at least $4,600 in death coverage and $575 in medical, while low-altitude porters must be insured at $3,500. Each expedition must also cover its Sherpas with, collectively, at least $4,000 in rescue insurance.
Still, it doesn’t take long to discover how inadequate most of these measures really are. While training is significant, no amount of practice inoculates Sherpas from the increased exposure to risk they’re asked to take on in the mountains. Walking through the Khumbu Icefall, a shifting glacier with the constant threat of calving, is considered so dangerous that some outfitters acclimatize their clients on neighboring peaks to avoid traveling through it. In a typical season, a climbing Sherpa might make a dozen round-trips through this area, some earning a bonus for each extra lap. Guides and clients usually make between two and four.
When it comes to rescue insurance, the $4,000 coverage is almost meaningless. High-altitude helicopter rescues, which became routine starting in 2011, have drastically increased the chances of surviving an accident above Camp II. They also cost $15,000 each—more than three times what the required insurance will cover. That gap has already led to embarrassing problems.
In 2012, Summit Climb Sherpa Lakpa Nuru was beaned by a falling rock on the Lhotse Face and lay bleeding and semiconscious at Camp II. Meanwhile his expedition leader, Arnold Coster, haggled with Summit Climb’s in-country trekking agent, Everest Parivar Expeditions, over a medevac’s $15,000 price tag. About a half-hour into the negotiation, Rainier Mountaineering guide Dave Hahn came over the radio from Camp II urging other expeditions in Base Camp to take up a collection before the rescue became a body recovery.
Also worth reading is T.R. Reid’s 2003 profile of the Sherpas in National Geographic.