Wade Davis is the author of Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest.
On June 7, 1922, George Mallory led 14 porters up the formidable face of the North Col of Everest. The air was still, with no wind. Suddenly the entire slope gave way, plunging seven Sherpas to their deaths. Expedition leader Charles Bruce later arranged compensation for the families. Each would receive 250 rupees, roughly £13, in quarterly instalments. In the official expedition account of the 1922 expedition, there would be no mention of the names of the Sherpa dead.
On April 18, 2014, an avalanche in the notorious Khumbu ice field on the south side of Everest killed 16 Sherpas who had been fixing rope and carrying loads for the commercial parties. Each man earned roughly $6,000 a season, escorting foreigners who pay up to $100,000 for a chance to reach the summit. The Nepalese government, which takes in millions in licences and climbing fees, offered the families of the dead $415 in compensation – in buying power, less than what the British dispersed nearly a century ago. Is it any wonder that 400 Sherpas working on the mountain walked off the job, shutting down every expedition on the eve of the climbing season?
Sherpas were not born to climb. In their language, there is not even a word for mountain summit. They were farmers, descendants of ethnic Tibetans who had settled in the Solu Khumbu region of Nepal, on the southern approaches to Everest, in the 15th century. As Buddhists, the idea of risking one’s life, this vital incarnation, in order to crawl over ice and rock into nothingness was for them the epitome of ignorance and delusion.
Their destiny as climbers unfolded in the wake of a paper, A Consideration Of The Possibility Of Ascending The Loftier Himalaya, presented by Arthur Kellas, high-altitude physiologist and veteran Himalayan explorer, at the Royal Geographical Society on the afternoon of May 18, 1916.
“Of the different types of coolies,” Kellas said, “the writer has found the Bhutia Nepalese [Sherpas] superior to all others he has employed. They are strong, good-natured and as they are Buddhists there is no difficulty about special foodstuffs. The Lepcha and Kumaonoi are of inferior physique. The Kashmiri of the plains were not found reliable on mountains. … A solitary traveller might find it worthwhile to take a few carefully selected Bhutia Nepalese with him as personal servants to any mountain region.”
Such passages, reading as if reviews of livestock, are disturbing to the contemporary ear, but in the context of the times, they come across as ringing endorsements. Kellas, more than any other British mountaineer of the era, placed his life in the hands of his native companions. In elevating the Sherpas, he transformed their fate, for better or for worse. Their capacity for endurance, their strength and ability to carry loads at altitude, their perseverance and loyalty, together with a cultural disposition that led them to embrace with apparent calm all the vicissitudes of life, would make them the foundation upon which all of modern Himalayan climbing expeditions would be grounded.
For the Sherpas, the motivations of the early British climbers remained a mystery. Many of the “Tigers,” the elite selected by the British for work high on the mountain, believed the British were actually searching for treasure, which in a certain sense was true. Fame and fortune most certainly awaited the first victors on Everest, rewards and ambitions that lure climbers to its flanks to this day.
When victory came at last in 1953, Edmund Hillary, a modest beekeeper from New Zealand, famously refused to say whether he or his companion, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had been the first to set foot on the summit of the world. They saw themselves simply as climbers, equal before the wrath of the mountain. In a single athletic accomplishment, they inverted history itself, transforming the very definition of what it meant to rule and to be ruled.
More than 4,000 climbers have made it to the top of Everest; hundreds more have died trying. Surely it is time to invoke the spirit of Hillary and Tenzing and fully recognize the Sherpas as equals on the mountain. They carry the weight of every expedition, confront the most terrible of hazards and come to the rescue of every benighted party.
Should they not receive the same compensation as every foreign guide and expedition leader? Should there not be trust funds set aside from these vast revenues to assure every man that his family will be cared for in the event of his death? And why not insist that every climber on the mountain carries his or her own gear? This alone would reduce numbers, lessen the chances of death, and just perhaps return glory and integrity to a mountain that once stood as a lone sentinel in the sky, and a symbol of so much that was noble and true.