Climbing Mount Everest: The Ethical Question

Climbing Mount Everest the Ethical QuestionIn light of the recent avalanche on Mount Everest, questions are being asked over the ethical nature of those who are making the climb. The sherpas who are hired to carry heavy tents and provisions are at the most risk. But often the payment they receive for their feats is not sufficient to cover the extent to which they put themselves in danger.

Since 1953, when Sir Edmund Hilary made it to the top of Everest under the guidance of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, over 300 people have lost their lives trying to make it to the summit. Many of them have been guides.

On Friday, at least 13 Nepalese sherpas died when ice in an overhanging glacier broke off and tumbled down the mountain. They were 5,800 meters up the slope and in the process of setting up ropes and other safety equipment. Three climbers are still missing, though it is thought that they may have been swept over a crevasse. The search has been called off due to increasingly bad weather. It is being called the deadliest disaster that has ever occurred on the mountain.

It has come to light that these days, many sherpas are treated as pack-horses. A large part of their work involves carrying the heavier supplies between camps on Everest so that the westerners can save their strength for the climb to the summit. There is a purpose to this, the thinner air and possibility of altitude sickness mean climbers must conserve their energy. But it is no less dangerous for the sherpas, a fact they are just beginning to realize. Due to the efforts on behalf of the guide community, Mount Everest is easier and safer than it has ever been before. For those who must return repeatedly to earn their daily bread, the risks are still high.

Here lies the ethical question. How much money would someone accept to risk his own life? According to the Himalayan Database, Sherpas are much more likely to die on the mountain than those they are paid to guide. Sherpas outrank other climbers in all circumstances save falls and risk of exposure. If the rate of death was as high for western ski instructors or rafting guides, then there is no doubt that those institutions would have collapsed. But in Nepal, there are 344 permits for Mount Everest this season alone. This means if the guides decide to stop work, then the government has to pay back tens of thousands of dollars that it made on those permits.

But stopping work is exactly what the guides have decided to do, at least until their demands are met. The decision to strike came after outrage at the Nepalese government who offered around $400 to cover funeral expenses for those who died on Friday. The guides are demanding that this be increased to around $1,000 per family, plus $10,000 for those who were disabled by the accident. In addition, they are requesting a fund be made for injured sherpas. They suggest that part of the $10,000-fee that climbers pay for the privilege of climbing the mountain could be made over to them in the form of this fund.

Mingma Sherpa of the Seven Summits Treks notes that sherpas form the “backbone” of the climbing industry in Nepal, but they are neglected by the government. Sherpas are putting themselves in danger by being on Mount Everest for long periods of time, but without any kind of compensation. Is it ethical that they take all the risks for little gain?

By Sara Watson


The New Yorker