World / Asia-Pacific

Sherpa families worried over strike

By Paavan Mathema in Kathmandu (China Daily) Updated: 2014-04-29 08:59

After tragedy on world's highest peak, guides seek better benefits from government

An unprecedented shutdown of Qomolangma after the worst accident on the world's highest peak has left grieving Nepalese sherpa guides and their families fearing for their livelihoods.

An avalanche on April 18 that tore through a group of sherpas - who were hauling gear up the mountain for their foreign clients before dawn - left 16 people dead and three others seriously wounded.

The resulting labor dispute, with sherpas clamoring for better death and injury benefits from the Nepalese government, which reaps huge revenues from the multi-million-dollar climbing industry, saw scores of expeditions cancelled.

The effective closure of the mountain, known in the West as Mount Everest, has dealt a huge blow to international climbers who pay large sums for the chance to fulfill their dreams of scaling the 8,848-meter-high peak.

But sherpas, who are often the sole breadwinners for their extended families, face a more desperate problem, with many left struggling to make ends meet in a country mired in poverty.

"All of us came here to climb and earn. To choose not to climb is a critical decision for us," Lam Babu Sherpa said as his expedition prepared to leave Qomolangma base camp. "A cancelled season will be hardest on us."

As the climbing business has grown in Nepal, sherpas, an ethnic group thought to be of Tibetan origin from the eastern Himalayas, have become indispensable as guides and porters for expeditions.

The best-known sherpa is Tenzing Norgay, who was the first to scale Qomolangma with New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary in 1953.

The term today is used for all local guides who assist Himalayan expeditions. The sherpas earn between $3,000 and $6,000 during the two- to three-month season, a relatively good wage in a country where hundreds of thousands of others are forced overseas in search of work.

The community numbers 600, ranging from cooks to guides and elite ice doctors who fix the ropes and ladders before climbers tackle the peak.

For Tenzing Chottar Sherpa, 27, who was taking part in his first expedition, it meant the chance to send his children to a private school, according to his wife, Ang Dali Sherpa.

He had promised to come home as soon as the season ended, and Ang Dali, 28, decided to wait until then to tell him she was pregnant with their third child.

Uncertain future

"He told me to take care of our kids, and be patient with our daughter, who is very naughty," she said of her last conversation with her husband, one of three sherpas whose bodies were not recovered from the avalanche.

With no savings, Ang Dali fears for her children.

"I wanted a better future for our kids. I never wanted them to become guides, but now who knows what will happen to them."

The disaster sparked a debate about compensation for the families of sherpas who are killed or injured, many of whom are forced to rely on the charity of Western climbers despite being key to the industry's success.

The Nepalese government pledged $400 for the families of those killed to cover funeral expenses, an offer rejected by angry sherpas, whose families only receive $10,000 in life insurance.

Medical coverage is about $3,000, which does not even cover the cost of a single helicopter trip out of base camp for treatment.

Agence France-Presse

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