The recent tragic deaths on Good Friday, 18 April 2014, mark the highest count of fatal accidents on Mount Everest since official records began in 1922. Sixteen Sherpas, employed by six local expedition companies, died when an avalanche swept through their party as they prepared fixed ropes for climbing clients planning to ascend Sagarmatha (the Nepali name for Mt Everest).
As a single incident this appalling tragedy has brought into clear focus the dangers of such a fast-expanding tourist activity. Local and international press reports have kept their eyes on the Sherpa community’s anger at the disproportionate gap in income between Mount Everest’s high-paying tourist climbers and the local staff at the tourist companies who accompany them.
So saddened, incensed and disrespected does the local community feel, that it has decided, en masse, to walk away from the 2014 springtime Mount Everest climbing season, effectively closing the mountain off to Nepal-side climbers for the foreseeable future.
The recriminations following this tragedy should have a lasting impact on not only the Nepalese mountain community, which is so reliant on tourism, but also on the international trekking industry as a whole. As the bereaved families, local Sherpa and Himalayan tourism communities come to terms with this latest list of Everest fatalities (following 9 deaths last year and 10 in 2012), an urgent and essential debate has unfolded on how best to address local workers’ rights. This devastating accident has now shone a light on the lack of safety of their working environment, the disproportionate pay structures and unsatisfactory working insurance policies.
Nepal’s local mountaineering industry is inappropriately run, unaccountable and in desperate need of strict regulation: the US$415 (40,000 rupees) payment offered to the families of each dead Sherpa, by the Nepalese government, is unacceptably low. The short-sighted compensation scheme and insurance pay-out of US$15,620 (2 million rupees) is just as derisory and disproportionate.
I have always felt a deep affinity with Nepal and the Sherpa community having first trekked the Annapurna Circuit and Sanctuary routes in 1983. In addition we at Nomadic Thoughts have on many occasions arranged trips for clients to Nepal, India, Tibet and Bhutan. Indeed as organisers of trekking and outdoor pursuit activities across many other worldwide mountain ranges we do understand the need for all of these Nepal-based stakeholders to agree on the most appropriate way forward.
The hope is that while Nepal’s trekking industry is in stalemate, the international trekking and mountaineering tourism industry can learn from this dreadful lesson. As has been brutally highlighted, it is difficult to safeguard the stakeholders’ rights in the unregulated, expanding, big-buck adventure tourism industry. The collision of a high-rolling commercial world and an unsuspecting remote, rural community is difficult to manage at the best of times. Add in the zeal for man’s desire to visit, as well as reach the top of, the world’s highest mountain – and short term friction is inevitable, as are the difficulties in finding a sustainable long-term solution for all.
At a much less important level, there are other losers: tourism companies with hundreds of thousands of US dollars worth of advanced pre-paid bookings face potential ruin, and of course, clients wishing to ascend Everest will miss out on their long-awaited, pre-booked dream.
By the very nature of mountain communities, which are poor and inexperienced in dealing with international commercialisation, they are at risk of exploitation and misrepresentation. It is therefore essential that their local governments, travel companies and hopefully well-meaning clients engage in partnership with local communities. Communities that, without tourism, often struggle to maintain a sustainable existence in harsh mountain terrain, often historically reliant on subsistence farming.
The good news is that although the most famous of mountains is presently suffering from such a cruelly exposed crack in tourism infrastructure, there are many other examples of how mountain trekking organisations are doing their utmost for local communities as much as for their clients.
We at Nomadic Thoughts arrange short, as well as long, trekking trips through some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the Andes, Atlas, Himalayas and Mountains of the Moon – all guided and supported by local community personnel. For example, when my family and I embarked on a recent five day trek through the Ethiopian Highlands we stayed in community owned huts, while being guided by local village guides. Likewise our Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya treks are full supported by local community guides and porters.
That said, while we are ever conscious, as tour operators, of our responsibilities to bridge the gap between clients and the inhabitants of their chosen destinations, we are always eager to learn how best to further support all stakeholders – so please do let us know if you think there is any way we can improve, either when travelling on one of our trips, or observing locally under your own steam.
Certainly Mt Everest has changed since my first visit (ref’ my blog posting ‘Mount Everest – 60 & 30 Yeas On’) as this year’s Good Friday accident has highlighted.
The question this week is – will it change for the better, for one and all, from now on in?