After Everest Disaster, Seattle’s Mountaineering Industry Faces Tough Questions

And some local Sherpas may have answers.

It was on a trek through the Himalayas that Pasang Gelzen Sherpa met the wealthy California businessman who would change his life. Sherpa (a name also used for both the ethnic group he belongs to and the work many of his people do on climbs and treks in Nepal) was a teenager. He had been helping to take Westerners on trips since he was 12, making a dollar a day.

The Nepalese teenager and the American businessman, a cell phone entrepreneur named Les Harris, got to talking in the mountains, a conversation they continued when Harris came back the following year, in 1988. “He asked me if I wanted to come to the U.S.,” Sherpa recalls. The young man didn’t think much of it. A lot of grateful Western clients had made similar remarks they failed to follow up on once they got home. When Harris got back to California, however, he sent Sherpa a three-page letter demonstrating his sincerity.

At 19, Sherpa came to the U.S. to visit Harris, who by then had retired to Hawaii. The teen stayed nine months, during which time Harris hired an English tutor for him. Harris also encouraged Sherpa, who had attended school for just four years, to return to the classroom. He followed his advice, eventually returning to the States to get a community-college degree in business studies, all the while being financially supported by Harris. “He just treated me as his kid,” Sherpa says.

Sherpa now runs a landscaping business out of his home, a pleasant rambler in Renton that he shares with his American wife, a writing instructor at the University of Washington. He says he is one of roughly 250 members of his ethnic group who live in the Northwest—many of them, like Sherpa, here because of some connection formed with Americans on expeditions in Nepal. They are a testament to the close bonds that have often bridged the divide between affluent Western adventurers and the relatively poor Sherpa who do the grueling and risky work: carrying heavy supplies back and forth to mountain camps, cooking, guiding.

Those bonds, however, have been tested by the April 18 avalanche that killed 16 Sherpa on Mount Everest, the worst disaster the fabled mountain has ever endured. Amid grieving and tense discussions in Nepal about whether this year’s climbing season will continue, questions are mounting about the treatment of Sherpa as well as about the mountaineering industry as a whole—an industry with ties to Washington state, home to several high-end expedition companies, including Seattle-based Alpine Ascents, which lost five Sherpa staff members in the avalanche.

Speaking in his Queen Anne office, Alpine Ascents program director Gordon Janow says his company is open to making improvements. “Sometimes, unfortunately, it takes an act of nature to make us take a harder look at the situation.”

In interviews last week, Pasang Gelzen Sherpa and Ang Chhiri “A.C.” Sherpa—who runs an international guiding company out of Redmond, one of the few such companies in the West owned by a Sherpa—both raised sharp concerns about tourism in their home country, despite recognizing ways in which it has benefited them and Nepal.

Over tea in his Renton home, Pasang Gelzen Sherpa, a past president of the Northwest Sherpa Association, acknowledges that Nepal’s economy relies heavily on tourism. At the same time, he says, “I really feel that trekking agencies have to value Sherpa life.” He begins to say his compatriots are “exploited,” but then shies away from using that word. “They’re paid,” he allows. And the $2,000 to $5,000 that Sherpa staff members make during the two-month climbing season—a fraction, however, of the $20,000 to $50,000 earned by Western guides—is several multiples of the average local wage.

Still, he says, if companies just spent a couple hundred dollars more per Sherpa staffer for life insurance, they could ensure a significantly higher payout when a tragedy like this strikes. Life insurance has emerged as a major point of debate in Nepal since the disaster, with Sherpa demanding that the government raise the minimum payout requirement, currently at about $10,000.

A.C. Sherpa, who came to Mercer Island as a 13-year-old to join his brother, who had married an American he met in Nepal, agrees. Speaking in his company’s small office, tucked into a dentistry practice owned by his wife, he says that although insurance companies in Nepal offer limited maximum payouts, he takes out extra insurance for his Sherpa staff from an American company. He also says he pays his Nepalese staff members up to $10,000 each for the season.

He points out that many Western companies charge their clients upward of $50,000—Alpine Ascents charges $65,000, according to Janow—and make “huge profits,” which he estimates at about $25,000 per person. The companies should cut their profits to ensure better treatment for Sherpa, he says. “Even if they make $10,000 to $15,000, they should be happy.”

It’s not just money that concerns Pasang Gelzen and A.C. Sherpa. Both feel that Everest is being overrun with tourists who, especially in recent years, have sometimes let their egos outstrip their respect for local culture and the environment. Both suggest that the Nepalese government should limit the number of visitors to the mountain—a tricky matter since the government derives considerable revenue from its $11,000-per-person permit fee.

“Everest is becoming like a marathon,” says A.C. Sherpa. “Everyone is running there.” He recounts a brawl that broke out last year between several Western climbers and roughly 100 Sherpa, when locals felt that the Westerners were using offensive language and disregarding safety precautions. He also cites the increasingly high-living ways of Western mountaineers. At the Everest base camp during an expedition in 2010, he says he saw a clients-only bar that one company had set up, serving whiskey and brandy. “It’s almost like they’re living like the Sultans of Brunei,” he says.

All the while, trash on the mountain is piling up, from human waste to discarded equipment to abandoned dead bodies. It’s an environmental hazard for a region that supplies millions of people throughout Asia with drinking water, says Pasang Gelzen Sherpa.

The Sherpa view the mountains as deities, both Pasang Gelzen and A.C. Sherpa observe. And they say there is a sense among their people that the Everest god caused the avalanche because of the disrespect she felt.

At the same time, Pasang Gelzen says he can’t help but wonder whether all the traffic contributed to the avalanche in a more tangible way. Some 100 Sherpa were ferrying supplies across a perilous part of the mountain, known as the Khumbu Icefall, when the snow and ice gave way. “Don’t you think that would put some pressure on there?” he asks.

In an office above the retail store and gear-check room of Alpine Ascents, Janow says he hasn’t heard anyone from Nepal offer that theory. But he acknowledges that more people on the mountain means more people exposed to risk. And especially in the past three years, he says, everyone has been talking about the increasing crowds. “Look at the base camp this year,” he says people will cluck.

The discussion hasn’t turned to limiting the number of people on the mountain. But he says the notion “certainly might be viable.”

As for the treatment of Sherpa, he is careful to note that most Western mountaineering entrepreneurs are climbers themselves who are drawn to Nepal because of “an affinity for the culture and the Sherpa people.” Over time, they have moved wages and conditions for Sherpa “in a positive direction,” he says. Alpine Ascents also maintains an education fund for Sherpa children.

Nevertheless, when asked if companies like his should ensure that Sherpa staff have greater life-insurance benefits, he says, “I think that’s true.” He also says his company might be willing to increase wages.

He says he expects those issues to come up in the talks among climbing companies that are sure to happen in the months ahead. Speaking on a day in which his company’s 12 clients and three guides are still in Nepal, preparing to go home, he says it’s too soon for such discussions.

“We’re all hurting from this tragedy.”

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