Everest deaths cast spotlight on vulnerability of Sherpa guides

Sherpas sit at the base camp after a Mount Everest expedition was cancelled in Solukhumbu district on April 27, 2014. The recent death of 16 Sherpas in an avalanche on Mount Everest has brought inconsolable grief to their loved ones. -- FILE PHO
Sherpas sit at the base camp after a Mount Everest expedition was cancelled in Solukhumbu district on April 27, 2014. The recent death of 16 Sherpas in an avalanche on Mount Everest has brought inconsolable grief to their loved ones. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

NEPAL - The recent death of 16 Sherpas in an avalanche on Mount Everest has brought inconsolable grief to their loved ones. Unfortunately, the pain of their loss will be compounded by economic hardship, highlighting the responsibility that rich-country consumers often must bear, both before and after such workplace catastrophes in developing countries.

The death toll in Everest's worst-ever disaster was small compared, for example, to last year's collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 workers. But the consequences for the victims' families are similar, and the lessons are the same - a need for sweeping changes in attitudes and behaviour among all involved.

While climbing the world's highest mountain will always be dangerous, we must remember that on this occasion only Sherpas died, and in the years since Everest began attracting large inflows of Western climbers, Sherpas have accounted for most fatalities.

Such statistics sit uneasily with the idea of climbing as a symbol of comradeship and teamwork. When Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Edmund Hillary became the first people to reach Everest's peak in 1953, everyone shared the risks, challenges, and joys of the adventure. The recent Sherpa deaths, however, suggest a breakdown of these values - and possibly of some basic human values, too.

The loss underscores a growing divide between expedition members, who pay top dollar to reach the summit, and their highly skilled Sherpa guides, who are paid a relative pittance and too often are taken for granted. And Nepal's mountain communities remain desperately poor, despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent in development assistance.

But this can and must change. Sherpa climbers need to establish a sensible "code of operation" and stand behind it. At the same time, foreign expeditions and their leaders must see their role as more than "providing jobs" - a morally dubious outlook at best. The question is what kind of job Sherpa guides are expected to do.

Sherpas operate in the most treacherous conditions and are disproportionately exposed to danger. Their skill and judgment is usually the deciding factor in any expedition's success, and the challenges they face are much more difficult when foreign climbers are sipping coffee at base camp rather than pulling their weight. Those days must end; all climbers have a responsibility to "earn their summit."

Expedition sponsors, whose brands benefit from the Sherpas' accomplishments, must also take some responsibility - and that means doing more than just writing a check. Like any socially responsible company, they must evaluate how their funds are distributed and consider the broader impact of their behaviour on local communities.

Everest expeditions from the Nepal side have now rightly been cancelled as a sign of respect for those who died. Those climbers who believe that continuing would "honour" the lost Sherpas should consider alternative ways to express their reverence.

First, all climbers should show respect in a more unambiguous way. They should walk back down the mountain to the villages, near base camp, meet surviving family members and their community, and share their grief. Above all, they should be generous in easing the financial burden on families, especially those with young children, who may have lost their sole breadwinner.

Second, they could continue their support after the media spotlight has moved elsewhere. For example, they might contribute to the American Himalayan Foundation, which has established a Sherpa Family Fund to support the families of Sherpas who are killed or injured. Or they might engage in some other way the conditions that lead to such disasters in the first place, and the treatment afforded to the victims.

This is a responsibility that goes far beyond the ethics of mountain climbing. Like the Everest disaster, the calamity at Rana Plaza raises fundamental issues about our global economy - namely, the way wealthy consumers ignore the fate of the impoverished workers who provide their cheap goods and services.

Rana Plaza focused international attention on the plight of Bangladesh's four million garment workers, and their critical role in the global clothing industry. Subsequent investigations revealed low pay, abused employees, and dangerous working conditions in one of Bangladesh's most important economic sectors.

Yet governments and the private sector have so far failed to improve factory safety or properly compensate the 2,500 survivors. The Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, established by labour groups and clothing companies to help victims, has raised only about US$15 million of its US$40 million target. The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, supported by more than 130 institutional investors, is lobbying companies that benefit from low-cost supply chains in the garment industry to contribute more.

Unfortunately, if the Rana Plaza tragedy is any indication, interest in the Sherpas will also soon fade unless campaigners, foundations, and companies keep up the pressure for change. Whether the victims of exploitation are garment workers, mountain guides, or employed in myriad other corners of the global economy, they typically lack the resources to press successfully for meaningful change on their own. The point is that they should not have to.

Project Syndicate