Dying on Mount Everest

The cost of climbing Mt. Everest is about the money, risk-sharing and above all—the challenge of leadership.

Too much money is at stake, and too many people, including some who can’t even carry their own personal equipment or light a stove, still want to climb to the top.

The single deadliest day in the recorded history of climbing Mount Everest occurred this year on 18 April, Good Friday when a massive avalanche raced down the west shoulder of Everest and slammed into a trail used by high-altitude Sherpa porters, killing 16 of them. Though the lower section of Everest, the Khumbu icefall, has claimed many lives in the past owing to its structure—an inherently unstable series of loose blocks of ice and snow creeping down the mountain—this time the danger came without warning from above.

Most of the 39 expeditions on the Nepal side of Everest promptly packed up and left, though teams climbing with Sherpas from the Tibet side continued onward. The impact of this disaster will reverberate for better or worse in the coming years, and has already exposed leadership issues—just who is looking out for the Sherpas?— and some unfair equations that prevail.

For instance, in 1993 the Government of Nepal hiked the peak permit fees per foreigner dramatically and millions of dollars began to be collected each year, but little of that trickles back into the Khumbu communities from which the Sherpas hail.

Secondly, in recent times, the burden of risk has greatly shifted from foreign climbers to Sherpa porter-climbers. The average risk a Sherpa climber takes is double that or more, than taken by a foreign climber—simply because Sherpas not only climb, but do so now while carrying most of the expedition’s load. Today, for every seasoned climber on Everest, you have an equal or greater number of neophytes with just the minimum experience of not just mountaineering, but of carrying their own loads. Many have never experienced a self-supported expedition where they made their own climbing decisions, carried their own equipment.

Nevertheless, the load carrying balance was not always thus askew. Up to the 1990s, the high threshold of skill needed to join an Everest expedition and other barriers such as selection into a national team, meant there was no shortage of upcoming climbers willing to go through a selection process to be invited to join as ‘junior’ climbers. Happy to carry loads through the dangerous Khumbu icefall at the foot of the mountain without a guarantee of getting a place on a summit team; risks in those days were more evenly distributed between seasoned mountaineers and their Sherpa porters.

The families of the 16 Sherpas who died, will at best receive meager insurance payouts amounting to just one to two years wages. This fact, coupled with unequal treatment by the Nepalese Government, has caused resentment to boil over in the Sherpa community.

And so, though the money is good—an Everest Sherpa can make US$ 3000–5000 per season, in a nation where a university graduate makes US$ 1000 a year—few Sherpas I have worked with ever want their children to follow in their footsteps. They want a good education and an ‘easier’ life for their children.

Given the justified international furore and the Sherpa community digging its heels in, insurance limits are likely to go up, along with Sherpa pay. There may even be a greater equalization in the stature of the Sherpa, a few now qualifying as actual certified guides by American and European Union standards; and commensurately, their voice in making decisions as to when to go up the mountain.

However, restrictions as to who can or won’t be allowed to climb, based on competencies are unlikely to be enforced. There is just too much money at stake, and too many people, including some who can’t even carry their own personal equipment or light a stove, but who still want to climb to the top.

The key leadership challenges in an uncertain near future for the Sherpas working on the Nepal side of the peak are many, but here are some key, timeless skills needed in the coming months.

Core leadership:

A unified voice from a small core group of representatives, be they Sherpas, Tamangs or some of the other minorities, to balance the interests of three groups—the more militant Sherpa factions (who have less appreciation of the long-term issues), a government partly responsible for inequities in peak-fees wealth distribution, and foreign climbing interests.

Setting priorities:

A clear set of needs and wants, prioritized, to allow for clear-headed negotiations. This helps immensely when faced with giving up something for something else.

Third-party counsel:

A disinterested party above commercial interests and communal politics; someone respected by the various parties looking for a resolution to the current impasse and tensions.

Risk-sharing:

Foreign climbers to come to the mountain with a changed risk-sharing mindset, and thus be better prepared in terms of experience, strength and ability to endure harder conditions. Life and the business of climbing Everest will continue. But it will never be business as usual again on the world’s highest peak.

About the author: David Lim is Asia’s Leadership Coach, and best known for leading the 1st Singapore Mt Everest Expedition. Since 1999, he has helped organizations build teams and grow leaders. Send him a note today at david@everestmotivation.com to subscribe to a no-cost leadership e-newsletter.


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