Alpine Ascents’ Todd Burleson Balks at Exploitation Claims, Might Stop Climbing Everest

“We have to reevaluate our entire world,” Todd Burleson told me last night from Nepal. The owner of Alpine Ascents International, a Seattle-based climbing company that lost five Sherpa in an April 18 avalanche on Mount Everest, was calling at 9:30 p.m. Seattle time—a little after 10 in the morning in the Himalayan village, Namche Bazaar, to which he and his team had retreated after packing up their Base Camp gear.

Burleson was calling because he felt the story I had written earlier this week about the tough questions facing the mountaineering industry after the disaster was, in his words, “incomplete.” He said he had been too busy dealing with the tragedy to answer an e-mail I had sent to him before writing the story. While his program director, Gordon Janow, had talked to me for the story, Burleson said he had things to add.

“We are not an evil empire,” he said. This was in reference to the suggestion, made by local ethnic Sherpa I had talked to as well as others in Nepal and around the world, that Western climbing companies should be giving more of their profits to the Sherpa who do much of the grueling and risky work on Everest.

While it has been widely reported that the Sherpa who work as porters, cooks and guides on the mountain make between $2,000 and $5,000 a year, Burleson said that tips from clients usually raise the workers’ intake to $7,000 or $8,000.

That’s roughly ten times the average yearly income in Nepal. Western companies, Burleson also maintained, pay far more than Nepalese outfitters. “They’re charging $19,000 to climb Everest”—Alpine Ascents charges $65,000 per client—“and $10,000 of that goes to royalty [the fees are charged by the Nepalese government].” While Alpine Ascents leads about a dozen people per expedition, Burleson says local companies “get 80 people together and turn them loose on one Sherpa.”

Burleson also questioned the suggestion made by one Seattle-area Sherpa I talked to who said climbing companies should be getting Western life insurance for their Nepalese staff to supplement the meager benefits (currently capped at about $10,000) now offered by local companies. He said he doubted that was feasible, but was pushing the Nepalese government, as are Sherpa there, to raise the insurance cap to $20,000.

Speaking on a day that he was preparing to visit the families of dead staff members, in part to say he would take care of their children’s schooling and other basic needs, he spoke in a voice raw with emotion. He pointed out that he had been climbing Everest for 32 years, since he was 22. “I’ve lived with these people for years,” he says of the locals. “These are my family.”

For all that, he indicated that he was contemplating giving that all up—at least for the time being—in the wake of the tragedy. “We’ve got to take a look at what happened. This is where we are right now.” While he stressed that the avalanche was an “anomaly,” and the first time Alpine Ascents had lost anyone in 17 years of climbing, he also said that he and his colleagues needed to figure out how to minimize future risks.

“Maybe we should not be climbing Everest. I do not have an easy answer. This is where we are right now.”

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