It hasn’t stopped since the morning of 18 April. A continual outpouring of emotions ring in from every corner of the globe. They call because of my ownership to a last name and a brand that has dedicated itself to honouring these unsung heroes. The condolences and the compassionate acts of solace, questions like “what’s going to happen now?”, “who”ll care of the families”, resonate painfully.
The French have a term ‘enfants perdus’, for soldiers that are assigned the most dangerous post. It is an apt description of those who risked their lives on the slopes of Mt Everest slopes this spring, now entombed in ice.
The media weighed in through the Internet and newsprint, not waiting for the ice to melt on the first body. The poignancy of grief filled words, the fury laden narrative against a system whose first knee jerk response was to dispense off a pitiful platitude of $400 for each victim, the angry analysis of the unfair deck stacked against the Sherpa, have helped to create a massive groundswell of universal condemnation for the status quo. Nothing is going to remain the same ever again. I am more sad than furious right now because in the end we let ourselves down.
The morality of the market rationale that plays out every season baffles and aggravates the state of mind. How does one reconcile to the convolutions of profit and price, where those most responsible for the ultimate success of an expedition take the highest and most number of risks but are assigned the lowest value in this bizarre equation. The Nepal Government rakes in millions of dollars every climbing season from Mt Everest, the expedition agencies, western and Nepali, eagerly calculate the spring climbing months to be their breakout revenue season where each client’s desire for the ultimate adrenaline high is often sold for tens of thousands per climber. And each inevitable year the queue to pay grows longer while the proportion for the Sherpa still remains woefully stagnant in the risk to reward math.
And, as has been done every spring for the past 40 years, skilled Sherpas are roped in to do the dirtiest and the most dangerous work. Day in day out from April through May, over the bone chilling maws of the Khumbu Icefall, in the piercing jet stream that blinds and cuts the body and spirit, hunkering through white out blizzards that can bury climbers, through thunderous avalanches that pulverize everything into oblivion, these intrepid Himalayans traverse up and down, sometimes sideways but then again up and down again in the space of just one expedition. They fix ropes, lay ladders, carry the heaviest of loads and face the first brunt of a mountain’s treacherous moods. And that’s exactly what they were doing that early morning of 18 April, when an enraged goddess avenged itself on them.
How can a city dweller Sherpa pass judgment on the complex persuasions that make sane men chance their lives in pursuit of not glory, but the hope of making it back home with a few thousand dollars to feed the family for the rest of the year. After all, the closest to a peak I have been is when I woke up one fall morning in Thyangboche to mistakenly think I could scramble up the face of Ama Dablam, so arms-length close it looked from the frozen lenticle of the little tea house. Far be it for me to wax my unlimited ignorance into the domain of high altitude mountaineering when even a climb up three flights of stairs impacts my blood oxygen level. Weight and age are willing conspirators that prevent me from the bravado of making even the Island Peak my personal Everest.
My last name is an accidental claim of birth and not an achievement. My mind boggles and refuses to compute what superhuman gasps of effort it must take to carry loads thigh deep in snow, and every second wandering if the next step is the last. I know now even more so after last week, who my heroes are.
I have been close to my idols, these men of the mountains, the tigers of the snows, these valiant vanguards of the golden age of pure mountaineering, when names like Ang Thargay, Da Namgyal, Gyalzen Mikchen,Tenzing, Ngawang Gombu walked the hallowed pathways of Birch Hill. I speak of men who stood next to the alpine giants as equals in every respect. I speak of an era almost forgotten, recalling the names of legends now obscure as rare coins. They were my heroes then, and will be always so because in them I saw the indomitable spirit and the easy humility of wisdom, which have now become the bedrock of everything the world knows as Sherpa.
I read their stories, and reveled in the borrowed glory of being next to them, the child’s awe for “how just close” he’d been to the big one and chest-filled proud of their natural tendency to shy away from the limelight and their innate resistance to stealing someone’s else’s. They gave me the courage to dream when I rediscovered my own roots 12 years ago on the streets of sea level
A new generation of super Sherpas sprouted in Nepal from the eighties, the banner decade for Mt Everest. We got to boast of Pertemba, Ang Rita, Sundare , Babu Chiri and the biggest little man, Apa. Our women too staked a claim in this precious real estate. World- please meet Pasang Lhamu and Pemba Doma. Between all of them, the total number of summits to Everest started to feel like a stock index. Sherpas (100 plus , the world 30 or something close to that). All of them feted and paraded for that brief pat of gratitude and glamor and then filed away as footnotes to someone’s chronicle of Everest.
We just didn’t know how to brag, so along the way the gravy train took a different route. The ‘phoreners’ came, first in trickles, serious mountaineers, who became ‘saabs’ and then turned into ‘saathis’. The life time camaraderie of brotherhood was palpable between these genuine cohorts, these Mad Men of mountaineering. And even the ordinary Nepali could take a swig of pride in the honest exploits that came in brief dispatches from the summit or in the evening news of the BBC . There was a sense of pure purpose and passion. If there was any exploitation, one heard only distant murmur of how a ‘first ascenter’ was actually half carried up to the top, but typical of the Khumbuley, he laughed it off, for what did it matter, first, second, third, as long as they could get her to the peak and let her enjoy her day in the sun. The Sherpa got his quota of khadags, his precious new down gear and money to last him till next Losar and the surreptitious gratitude of a client who sent gifts and small baksheesh every year. Meanwhile, the client went on lecture circuits becoming the motivational toast of the month featured in interviews, cover stories and reaping in the benefits of having tasted thin air on the peak of peaks.
Then came the deluge. We’d made Everest easy it seemed. Some of the saathis seemed to have discovered a hidden mother lode of trophy seekers with easy money to spare and soon they came in droves. Expedition after expedition bringing socialites, investment bankers, rich retirees, software moguls, wealthy Arabs, spoilt rich Asians, sons , daughters, scions of wealthy names, all were allowed to indulge their inner mountaineer for the top of the world. Everest Base camp became a jamboree of high profile expeditions with higher profile clients, wishing to taste the ultimate high. No previous experience needed, just a bit high altitude training for six months, bring your pack and Amex or Visa, and we’ll do the rest. We have the best climbers in the world to take care of it all for you. The call of the mountain gave way to the lure of commerce and all of a sudden, those in the know, knew what to charge and share with their partners in Nepal. But someone forgot to send the memo to the actual Sherpa climbers, the ones who were supposed to ‘take care of it all’.
The Sherpas watched in bemusement and in the quintessential Buddhist way of accepting what life throws at you, went about doing what they do best, in the hope that their ‘jindags’ would take care of them if something went wrong. Grateful for the opportunity, that they at least had work for the season, they never thought to question the specious generosity of being employed. Are we the guilty ones before we look to blame others for taking advantage of our own, especially those that need us every season?
As Nepalis we have a built in resourcefulness to the mixed vicissitudes of life’s daily obstacles. We are wired to react, because that is how we have learnt to survive our deprivation of the basic necessities, that one takes so much for granted in the west. We’re without water, fine, let’s just get a tanker to fill our bucket. No electricity? Let’s get an inverter to run our household. No petrol? No problem … let’s pay the neighbourhood petrol pump guy a bit extra to save some for us on the side. Each different issue brings different of the moment resolutions and it’s the same in how mountaineering has evolved over the past few decades. Or it seems that way. Nobody seems to be planning for the future and setting check points in place for accidents. The distant horizon is too
distant, let’s focus on the next hill.
Why does it take a national tragedy for us to reexamine our bearings? Why, I ask as many others now do, could we not have foreseen that such a day would come and prepared ourselves for the aftermath? We cannot predict nature’s tantrums and in that we have common ground, for we do not blame anybody for the shifting of the mountain or the movement of rocks; that is the risk inherent in venture. What we cannot accept is the furtive manipulation and complicit acceptance to make more for ourselves and pay less to those that risk their lives on our behalf.
Summer is upon us, but the mountain blows cold today and the chill we feel is not of the wind but of the desolation of the families whose fathers and husbands and brothers are gone forever from this world. As a Buddhist, I will pray that the next realm bring them better fortune and as a Sherpa, I ask the Mother Goddess on Chomolungma to be merciful and understanding.
Om Mani Padme Hum.
Tashi Sherpa is the founder and CEO of Sherpa Adventure GearGo back to previous page