Nepal's Sherpas destitute as quake wrecks tourism

KHUMJUNG (Nepal) • Phurba Tashi Sherpa, the most accomplished high-altitude climber in history, holds a bucket and crowbar as he claws through the rubble of his home in Nepal seven months after a devastating earthquake shattered the country.

Despite years of guiding wealthy foreign clients up Mount Everest - something he has done 21 times, setting a joint record - the 44-year-old is now penniless.

Mr Phurba Tashi's predicament is shared by many Sherpas, whose homes, lodges and restaurants were destroyed during the disaster in April. They complain of a slow response from the government despite billions of dollars in Western aid.

Some retired guides must return to the peaks to earn money. Others are pulling their children out of schools in Kathmandu, and hotel owners are firing staff.

To make matters worse, bookings so far point to a sharp drop in the number of foreign mountaineers heading for Nepal next year. Many are being deterred by the ruined infrastructure and an economic blockade along the border with India that threatens supplies of fuel and equipment.

"Everything I worked for was destroyed in a minute," said Mr Phurba Tashi, standing in his village of Khumjung, a cluster of 80 stone houses perched on a plateau that is surrounded by breathtaking 7,000m-high mountains.

The earthquake that killed almost 9,000 people wrecked his eight-bedroom trekking lodge, badly damaged his house and caused a deadly avalanche 14.5km away on the world's tallest peak.

The Everest industry is in a state of upheaval following avalanches last year and this year that killed 35 people, in the two most deadly incidents since climbers began ascending.

"It has been two terrible years for Everest: We have had no summits and lots of fatalities," said Mr Garrett Madison, who runs Seattle-based Madison Mountaineering. The team doctor died this year on the mountain, and three Sherpas working for him were killed last year.

"It will take time to restore confidence," said Mr Madison.

Mr Phurba Tashi has been under immense pressure from his family to quit. "I would rather we were poor than he took the risks," said his wife Karma Doma.

Next year, he will take a break from climbing to appease his family, and try to earn a living as a potato farmer. But eventually, he says, he will have to return to the peaks to support his children.

He has spent his US$20,000 (around S$28,300) in life savings and borrowed US$10,000 to rebuild his home and lodge, both surrounded by rubble.

"A lot of people tell me that I should go one more time to break the record, but it doesn't mean anything to me," he said.

"Since the earthquake happened, when I look back at my career, my biggest disappointment is that I am still worrying about my future."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2015, with the headline 'Nepal's Sherpas destitute as quake wrecks tourism'. Print Edition | Subscribe