There is trouble brewing on the slopes of Mt Everest. A few weeks ago there was a large avalanche which killed 16 Sherpas. The avalanche apparently happened in the middle of the Kumbu icefall, a notoriously dangerous part of the standard route up Everest.
In the wake of this tragedy there has been an outpouring of first grieve and then anger by the Sherpas about their treatment, and the low levels of compensation paid to the victims families. As a result a defacto strike of Sherpas has now occurred. Given that the optimum time to climb Everest is within the next few weeks, this has led to several team abandoning their attempts to climb.
It is something a dilemma for climbers. Catering to climbers and trekkers has led to the development of a substantial cottage industry along the Everest trail. This has provided many Sherpas with a good income, far more (and more dependable) than they can earn from farming or other activities. Its also worth noting that the only way to get anything from the road head at Jiri (about 14 days walk from Everest Base camp) or Lukla (an airfield about midway between Jiri and base camp) to anywhere else in the Everest region, is either on someones back (I once saw a chest of drawers walking along the path from Lukla up to Namche! Only to realise there was a porter carrying it!) or on the back of a Yak.
But of course, climbing on high mountains like this is extremely dangerous. And inevitably because Sherpas have to make multiple trips equipping camps in advance of the western clients, this means multiple passes through dangerous territory such as the Kumbu Icefall. Which is a bit like running across no-man’s land on the Western front, sooner or later you’re luck’s going to run out. Thus, the Sherpa’s end up baring an fairly heavy part of the risk. And part of the problem has been that certain climbing companies have emerged in the last few years who can all but guarantee to get anyone who is moderately fit to the top of Everest…for the right fee of course!
And its also worth remembering that a good deal of the revenue for trekking permits doesnt go to the locals or the Sherpas but to the Nepali government, hence the current anger. Which is more a dispute between the Sherpas and the government rather than the Sherpas and the climbers.
After the 1996 disaster it was suggested that the use of supplementary oxygen should be banned on Everest, as this would effectively put the summit out of reach of all but the most accomplished climbers. However, one has to raise the question as to who exactly is going to hang around and enforce such a policy at 8,000m. And as noted there is very little prospect of the Nepali government giving up the revenue it makes from allowing wealthy climbers essentially buying their way to the top.
But clearly these events do show the dangerous consequences of this attempt to commercialise Everest climbing. The crowds moving up Everest make the commercial expeditions of 1996 look tame in comparison. Inevitably, putting lots of people up on top of a mountain that dangerous, is going to result in fatalities and there is no real way to avoid that. Unless the industry of selling the summit of Everest to punters is curbed, large death tolls like this are just unavoidable.