Asia-Pacific News

After Everest disaster, sherpas contemplate strike

Ellen Barry and Graham Bowley

The 22 Sherpas who set out together toward Mount Everest's Camp 2 on Friday morning were "full of joy and excitement," but Kaji Sherpa was apprehensive: They were crossing a notoriously dangerous ice field, and they were moving too slowly.

Two of the ladders used to bridge deep crevasses had broken, perhaps under the weight of ice that had fallen the previous night, and the Sherpas were backed up, carrying heavy loads of equipment for their clients. Kaji Sherpa, 39, took a wary look at the jam and sped ahead, so he was some distance away when the avalanche came.

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"A cliff of snow, like a house, came directly toward us, and many were killed at the same time," he said from his hospital bed in Katmandu, Nepal, where he was being treated for broken ribs. "There was nowhere to escape. If there was an open field, we could have dropped the baggage and escaped. But there was snow all around us that could have easily fallen if we stepped on it. So we were helpless."

During the four-hour wait for help, he heard cries of pain from the dying, he said, and when he was able to look around he saw "the hands and legs of climbers scattered around the avalanche site." By Sunday, he had come to a decision: He would not scale Mount Everest again, ending his life's work of preparing the long ascent for Western clients who wait at lower camps.

Family members of the Everest avalanche victims light oil lamps at Sherpa Monastery in Kathmandu on April 20, 2014.
Prakash Mathema | AFP | Getty Images

"For me, it is better not to climb from this time onwards," he said. "The Sherpas have suffered a lot. Those who stay at the base camp get food round the clock, while the Sherpa has to climb the mountain with an empty belly. He has to walk in the night all the time, as there is the risk of ice melting in the morning."

Three days have passed since an avalanche killed at least 13 Sherpas as they carried gear for international expedition groups. It was the worst single-day death toll in the mountain's history, and it has focused a spotlight on the role of the local Sherpas, members of an ethnic group renowned for their skill at high-altitude climbing. They earn $3,000 to $5,000 a season — two to three months — and put themselves at great risk for affluent clients.

On Sunday, disappointed at the Nepali government's offer of 40,000 rupees, or about $408, as compensation for the families of the dead, some Sherpas gathered at Everest's base camp proposed a "work stoppage" that could disrupt or cancel the 334 expeditions planned for the 2014 climbing season.

Such a strike would be unprecedented, according to Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, who has pressed the government to increase the compensation package to $1,041 per family. He added that Sherpas were divided over whether to continue scaling Everest.

The dispute "has not yet been resolved," he said.

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The tension promises to heighten on Monday, when groups of Sherpas plan to carry the bodies of their dead colleagues through the streets of Katmandu, Nepal's capital.

Many of the international commercial teams still at the base camp are weighing whether to continue their push to the summit or abandon their expeditions. Everest is attracting more climbers each year, most of them members of groups that pay professional Western guides to lead them up the mountain. Clients prepare for months or years, often investing tens of thousands of dollars, and some experts said they would be unlikely to turn around.

"I don't think this is going to slow down the machine, which will escalate through May," said David Roberts, a climber and the author of several books about climbing. "Even though it is the greatest tragedy in the history of Everest, right now at base camp they are saying, 'This is a tragedy, but we have paid all this money to get here.' "

"There is even this macho sense of getting back on their horse," he added.

Some climbers, however, said their passion for the ascent was gone. Ed Marzec, 67, a retired lawyer from Los Angeles, said he had insisted his expedition include Asha Gurung, 28, a Sherpa, in part because Mr. Gurung had saved his life on an earlier trek. Mr. Gurung — the father of two children, ages 1 and 3 — is one of three men who are missing and presumed dead on the ice field, ridged with deep crevasses.

"He would never want to talk about it, he said it was part of his job, and now he is under tons and tons of ice and snow and he is not able to come back," Mr. Marzec said in a phone interview, his voice cracking. Mr. Marzec said he had spent two years training for the ascent and invested about $100,000 of his own money, but would cancel his expedition if the Sherpas declared a strike.

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"This is the least I can do," he said. "If you see people going up, they are people so wrapped up in themselves that they don't understand the bigger picture. The mountain will be there next year, and for the next thousand years. This is the first chance the Sherpas will have to put themselves out there, and I hope they get some benefit from it."

Mr. Marzec said on his website that large American tour operators were pressing the Sherpas to back off the threat of a strike. "I am ashamed by our greed and embarrassed by our lack of compassion," he wrote.

Alan Arnette, a climbing expert who runs a respected website, said about 1,000 mountaineers were on Everest now, at the start of the season. Of those, about 600 are Sherpas. The rest are mostly on commercial teams that pay upward of $40,000 to be guided to the summit. Among the expeditions whose Sherpas were killed was a team from the Discovery Channel that had planned to film the first winged jumpsuit flight off the summit of Everest.

"I am safe at base camp but I have lost my Sherpa team in the avalanche yesterday," Joby Ogwyn, the star of the channel's "Everest Jump Live," wrote in a Facebook post on Friday. "These men were the salt of the earth. Far better men than me. My heart is broken."

On Sunday, the channel announced that it was canceling the event. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the whole Sherpa community," it said in a statement.