Sherpa Politics and Everest’s Future

Shame. I experience considerable shame when I travel. I cannot help but compare all that we have in this culture to what the majority of the world does without and the contrast means that guilt feelings are often my predominant souvenir. This spring I wanted a different experience, one that was physically demanding but less emotionally perplexing; a holiday to a place of my dreams where I could use the body but turn off the mind. A destination that satisfied those criteria quickly became a trip to Everest base camp.

IMG_1169 I was excited beyond belief. In my dreams, I stand on the top of Everest. The dream will sometimes percolate into consciousness as an appetite or thirst unfulfilled, and I picture myself, ice axe above my head, smiling for the photo. This trip was to be a reconnaissance of Everest, a chance to get to the base of the mountain, climb a much smaller peak while there, and check out whether an Everest expedition could be a possibility in the future.Ama Dablam Bill

Everest had other plans. It had demanding lessons to teach but these had nothing to do with the egotistic goals I stuffed in the duffle bag with my crampons, glacier glasses and summit fever. They were, instead, lessons previously gleaned in other poor countries, those that profile how Westerners exploit the lives of the less fortunate. Everest is just a different take on the same old story -the Canadian clothing factories in Bangladesh paying their employees $1a day, the Chinese workers warehoused by Apple assembling cheap computers or the displaced New Guinea villagers whose land and livelihood has been lost to Mobil Oil. The list goes on. All are different versions of the same old exploitative relationship the developed world has towards the under developed one, justified to fulfill our meaningless desires at a cheaper cost. In the last place I expected to feel this way, I came home from Everest filled with angst, my duffel bag of Western shame still a heavy burden as I resume my comfortable First World life. EBC Pano-X2 Sixteen Sherpa lost their lives and nine were injured on Everest’s Khumbu glacier while I was in the area, enjoying myself. Their airlifted bodies dangling from the underbellies of buzzing helicopters were taken from the ice to their village homes, in some cases to be met by bewildered families who thought their men were still climbing the mountain. In the biggest disaster of Everest’s history, the lives of countless Sherpa families changed in a second. One has to ask, for what?Climbers%20Kumbu-XL

The Nepali government took the fallout. Nepal takes in $10 million per season from issuing permits to Westerners climbing Everest. The Sherpa were outraged when the government gave each family $400 per dead son to pay for burial and nothing more. In such a country where roads, sewer and infrastructure are at a premium, the fact that no safety net exists in the form of life insurance, Worker’s Compensation or medical coverage to buffer the effects of such a disaster should not come as a surprise. The American Alpine Association immediately jumped into the fray setting up a fund for the families of the lost Sherpa by soliciting donations from climbers and interested parties abroad.

As I watched the scenario unfold it was the questions that were unexpressed that I found much more disagreeable, for muffled in the resounding silence was the culpability of each of us who were there. No Sherpa pointed a finger at the West yet the Sherpa were there for us and few in our number had a chance on Everest or any other Himalayan peak for that matter, without them. What was our individual and collective responsibility for the dead? In North America it is the primarily the employer’s responsibility, not the government’s, to have adequate insurance in place to cover an employee in the face of a workplace accident or death. Did any of the companies that took climbers to Everest provide funds to the Sherpa families after the accident? It takes well over an hour to stroll through the tents of the various climbing companies at base camp and wealthy corporations populate Everest (such as Discovery Channel) as do other companies that collect from $40,000 to $110, 000 per person for the right to climb. Each of us was a part of such an organization. Do such organizations have insurance coverage for the Sherpa that are put in harms way? Western guides may be paid $25,000 or more for their work on Everest whereas a Sherpa guide makes between $2,500 and $5,000.Why are the experienced climbing Sherpa paid so little for a season on Everest when a Western guide is paid so much more for so much less risk? None of us had contemplated these questions. We were there to enjoy ourselves while the Sherpa fed us, packed our gear, set up the tents, doctored the ice ladders in the treacherous icefall, packed gear to high camp and helped us on climbs when we could go no further. What about the Sherpa who survive but are permanently disabled on the mountain? What is in place to look after them, knowing they live in a poor country with a corrupt government and little health care? And further; Why were donations solicited from abroad when these funds should come, at least in part, from the companies where the Sherpa are employed? I did not hear these questions asked, let alone receive answers. It felt that the story was spun to implicate the Nepali government and thus avoid all the unpleasantness that the questions would raise in the collective guilt that Westerners should feel knowing, once again, that we have not done the right thing in the first place. I cannot answer the questions that I have posed but the death of 16 Sherpa and the future of climbing Everest will demand the answers. Solutions need to come not from the Nepali government but from the individual integrity of those who love the Himalaya and the companies we pay to take us there. Doing the right thing will be costly but it needs to be factored into the cost of doing business.

Thank you to my friend at Everest,Dalton Hobbs, for sharing his great photos.

Further articles to read: Sherpa: The Disposable Man by Grayson Schaffer

The Value of a Sherpa Life by Grayson Schaffer

Letting Go


photoYour children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.                                       The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran

One must choose whether to live one’s life or tell it.  Jean Paul Sartre

At a time when hair grows on my chin and wrinkles seem to metastasize, my daughter is blossoming into the woman. It is one of the world’s most reliable phenomena, the new replacing the old, one generation reaching its nadir as the next one rises. The old guard gives way to the new ripe with their vigor, energy and dreams, ready to forge new beginnings and carve a place that will be uniquely their own. It could be a bittersweet experience, witnessing and breathing the contrast of age versus youth but I am finding, thanks to my daughter, it is nothing of the sort. Contrary to what I may have expected this is a magic time, one where a doorway has opened to reveal a world of new possibilities and great joy.

In October my daughter and I undertook a journey. For a month my adult child and I visited India together. Our destination was Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. With a group of 14 other souls we spent weeks hiking into its remote base camp to see Kangchenjunga soar up another 2 miles before us. For 2 weeks in a country of 1.2 billion people our group was totally alone.

The journey was hard. We walked a hundred miles over absent trails at great altitude. We camped in the snow and freezing rain, wore the same clothes for 2 weeks, shared a small tent, fell in mud and freezing glacial streams, got sick, cold, fatigued and leech infested but more importantly my daughter and I laughed. We shared the majestic sunrise of the Himalayan peaks bathed in the purple, pink and gold of dawn. We high fived each other on mountain summits that had seemed impossible to reach only hours before. From within our group, strangers became friends. We met individuals whose practice it has been to face adversity and shoulder on. Many shared their stories of disease and tragedy and their resilience in the face of hardship left us in awe.


What I had not fully anticipated was the importance of the journey within the journey, the one my daughter and I took into our relationship with each other. For me, this was the most important journey of all. Mother daughter interactions can be fraught with danger and a trip of long duration, isolation and stress provides an ideal lab for brewing up conflict. Disagreement over issues of mutual respect, independence and power often form the substrate for such conflict. Knowing this fact prior to the journey, I had to ask myself difficult questions that required honest answers. For a successful trip I knew I needed to practice behaviors that let my daughter be the independent, responsible adult that she is. I knew that she was entitled to make her own mistakes and achieve her own successes without my interference. We needed a balance of power (the adult-adult kind, not the mother- daughter kind) and I needed to be respectful of her right to make her own choices. In other words, my job was to keep my mouth shut.

And what did I learn from this exercise? More than I could possibly imagine!

I witnessed my daughter through the eyes of others and they saw a capable young woman of great integrity, strength and empathy. I observed her make mistakes, accept them and adapt her behavior so they did not recur. I watched her accept hardship for just that, something transient to suffer, endure and then move on. I saw her overcome daily physical adversity and get up without complaint and do it again. Most importantly, I saw her enormous interpersonal skills, how she could instantly read a person, make others feel valued and included or reach out to someone who needed support. My daughter has people skills I will never possess and through her friendships she built me a safe bridge to others, paving the way for friendships of my own. Above all, I saw the light go on in the eyes of our companions simply in anticipation of her company and I felt a fist of pride that in some small way I might have helped her become the person she was.


Far away in a small corner of the planet I learned that the definition of a successful parent is not to raise good children but to raise good adults and then to stand back and let them go. I discovered that it is in the process of letting go that the whole world shines.DSCF0667