With the final toll rang, sixteen Sherpas died in the 2014 massive avalanche on Mt. Everest, I applauded the Nepalese for closing the climbing season entirely. In recent years way too many people have tried to reach it’s summit that really should not have been on the mountain in the first place. To have such a loss to not just climbers of marginal talent or questionable fitness, but to elite mountain men, is as terrifying as it is tragic.
You might think that such a tragedy would deter the masses of trophy climbers who seek Everest’s lofty summit - an increasingly frequent occurrence where paying clients get all the credit while Sherpas do all the work - but I say fat chance.
In fact, after the infamous 1996 tragedy well documented in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, people with money, but no experience in the mountains, were calling up guide services inquiring if they too could get to Everest’s summit. I’m sure many were turned away, but over time not enough, judging by the increasing amount of photos from recent years on Everest showing a very well travelled route.
I was never a great climber. I always considered myself of intermediate skills. But as much as I could I took the route less traveled. I’m not most proud of what elevation or peak I climbed in retrospect, but from a trip into the St. Elias Range along the Yukon/Alaska border when a team of Canadian friends and I flew in and climbed an modest unclimbed peak we had almost no information on. It didn’t even have a name. Peak 3040 was the closest thing on the map, with 3040 marking it’s elevation in meters. But it was an incredible experience, not just of accomplishment, but exploration. We were the only people within 100 miles. I wouldn’t trade this memory for anything, and that includes the “accomplishment” of having a Sherpa haul me up Mt. Everest, or even following others’ footsteps to the top - a mountain I’ve never even attempted to summit, I should add in discretion.
But lost in all the hubbub, and even in this entry, is the life of a Sherpa. It’s not that it’s often thankless, I’m sure the Sherpas don’t feel that way at all, nor do fellow climbers. But it’s in asking what actually is best for the Sherpas, their families, the country of Nepal and that region. Is the answer to restrict access? Demand previous high-altitude experience from climbers? Force more people to climb out of peak season? On different, more technical routes? Not use supplemental oxygen?
It doesn’t take a genius to see the ugly word here is money. You start putting big hurdles on climbing Everest and the lives the Sherpas have grown to enjoy, primarily things few see in a negative light such as access to education or medicine, may dramatically change, and not for the better. So for many of the Sherpas, tragedy or not, just like recent clients and clients to come, the route well traveled may still be the only route to take.