The deadliest avalanche in Mount Everest history is leading Sherpas in Nepal to consider a labor strike. The boycott would protest the amount of money provided by the Nepalese government to families of the deceased. Thirteen Sherpas were killed and more are presumed dead after last Friday's fatal avalanche. The government currently provides about $400 per family and the strike would aim to increase that amount to $10,000.
Sherpa guides have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, but many Sherpas are attracted by the relatively high pay of assisting climbers up Mount Everest. Sherpas make at least $2,000 per climbing season, considerably more than the median income of Nepal, which comes in at around $540 per year. Elite Sherpas can make as much as $4,000 - $5,000 in just two months. By comparison, Western guides make as much as $50,000, plus tips.
Alpine Ascents is a company the leads Everest climbs for $65,000 per person. Five of the Sherpas who died in last week's avalanche were employed by that company. Director of Programs Gordon Janow understands the importance of the Sherpa role in the business. "They're setting up the camps, carrying oxygen, walking side-by-side one-on-one," Janow says. Without Sherpas, he continues, "it'd be an entirely different style of expedition."
Perhaps even more difficult than the task of accompanying climbers to the summit, Sherpas also carry supplies and equipment on the climb. Legally, they are only supposed to carry 8 to 10 kilograms (17 to 22 pounds), but willingness to carry double that can also lead to double the earnings.
Right now, it's the start of climbing seasson and business is booming.
"You know there's a lot of money in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars that changes hands on Everest every year," says Nick Heil, editorial director of OutsideOnline.com and author of "Dark Summit," a book about the commercialization of climbing the Earth's highest mountain. "Only a small percentage of that goes into the hands and pockets and accounts of the work force that basically enables all of this to take place."
Sherpa's wages are not a part of the proposed boycott, but Janow says they're also worth discussing. However, he acknowledges it's a balancing act. If compensation rises too much, it could damage Nepal's climbing industry altogether.
"Like anything else, does it push the cost of it up so people aren't going?" Janow asks.
Sherpas face more than just the fear of death. Being a Sherpa means frequent exposure to injuries, yet there is little support for those who become disabled on the job. The Sherpas are also asking the government to provide $10,000 in compensation for guides who can no longer work in mountaineering due to their injuries.
“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VABEFORE YOU GO