Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Trouble brewing on the mountain

I read Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air a few years ago and was absolutely mesmerized by his account of the deadliest climbing season on record. But what really struck me is the way that the Sherpa guides are used to make it as easy as possible for would-be mountaineers to make the climb. The Sherpas go up the mountain first and set up base camps, ladders and ropes for the wealthy climbers to use on their ascent.

While the climbers each pay upwards of $50,000 (or more) to make the climb, the Sherpas, who risk their lives every season for the enjoyment of the monied class, make about $4,000 to $5,000 a season. The western guides, on the other hand, rake in up to $50,000 for piggy-backing off the work of the Sherpas.

The folks who pay through the nose for the opportunity to climb the mountain get all the glory for standing on top of the world while the Sherpas, who have climbed the mountain more times than most can count, are nothing but a footnote.

The exploitation of Nepal, its people and its mountain is rarely mentioned in polite company.

But that may change.

Last week, at the beginning of the climbing season, an avalanche struck Everest. The victims of Mother Nature were the Sherpas who were setting up ladders and ropes for the wealthy climbers. If you've ever read Into Thin Air then you can draw a mental map of where the avalanche occurred in the Khumbu Ice Fall - one of the most treacherous parts of the lower climb.

Thirteen Sherpas are known dead and three more are missing (but presumed dead). The tragedy has raised questions about the way Sherpas are exploited during the climbing season. In the aftermath of the deadly avalanche the Nepali government has made payments of approximately $662 to the families of each of the Sherpas killed in the avalanche.

The Sherpas are now hinting at possible strikes during this year's climbing season in an effort to raise wages and benefits.

The mountain expedition business puts about $3 million a year in the Nepali treasury. Everyone, it seems, is getting rich except for the folks who actually put their lives on the line for the benefit of wealthy foreigners who want to check off one more item from their bucket lists.

What a perfect metaphor for capitalism.

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