May 2, 2014 1:25 pm

Everest’s deadly demands: a Sherpa’s view

The 16 who perished in last month’s avalanche are just the latest in a grim death toll that the community suffers each spring
A memorial to those killed on Everest©Dave Bouskill

A memorial to those killed on Everest, near the village of Lobuche

When there are gatherings in our valley, the women sit with the women and the men sit with the men, and the children tear about evading adult arms that reach out to obstruct their fun. The men form a long line on low benches along the front wall of the house, patriarchs sitting at the end closest to the fireplace with the wide-legged weariness of ageing masculinity; down through the established householders with their roars of laughter, past the young fathers bouncing sticky toddlers on their laps, through the self-conscious new and prospective grooms, to the awkward youths who cram together and snicker and mutter and jostle each other. Everyone wears down jackets.

In such a line as this, a gambler would have good odds that any man, picked at random, has stood atop Everest; chances better still that he has been partway up the mountain a dozen times only to return to base camp, collect another load, and head off to cross the treacherous icefall again. What elsewhere is extraordinary – the raw material that can be spun into charitable foundations, movie rights, pub boasts and motivational speaking tours – is quotidian in the villages of the Thame Valley. Even our monks shed their deep red robes in spring and come back snow-burnt, the marks of sun goggles etched pale across their cheekbones and their lips chapped, flaking white with bleeding crimson cracks.

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When I finished high school and left Kathmandu for university in New Zealand, I was conditioned for the reactions my last name would elicit. “They ask how many kilos you can carry,” says every Sherpa who has ever travelled abroad. But I was caught by a more common response: “Shuuurpa,” in the muted Antipodean accent. “Seriously? That’s awesome!”

It is something to behold, the open-hearted enthusiasm that the Sherpa name elicits in the western mind. It is (as every random company that has capitalised on it well knows) the branding mother lode – stimulating a vague positive association founded on six-odd decades of mountaineering mythbuilding. I wondered what deep, subconscious connections, what snippets of information, what flashes of imagery were being evoked.

“Awesome” how? I came to ask myself. More importantly, “awesome” for whom? Uncharitably, I imagined them imagining themselves as conquering heroes, assisted by a legion of Sherpa faithful ready – and cheerful – to lay down sweat and lives in service for arduous, but ultimately noble and glorious, personal successes. Still, it is undeniable that, in “post”-colonial democracies where ethnic minorities carry the burden of insidious and vicious prejudices at every turn, Sherpas are fortunate. Everyone loves us, everyone trusts us, and everyone wants their own collectable one of us. And we have a very large, very coveted piece of real estate in our back yard. It is a stereotype, sure, but a positive one.

Any vague hopes my new acquaintances may have had of me selflessly and singlehandedly lugging their furniture up stairs on moving days were swiftly dashed. I lived life some, and then meandered my way home more than half a decade later. Village-born though I was, and potato farmers and yak herders though my grandparents may have been, despite the yearly trips to the Khumbu homeland I am a Kathmandu city girl. But like post-arts degree twentysomethings the world over, I was adrift. So with equal parts defeat, hope, terror, self-congratulation and wildly under-informed plans and good intentions, I travelled “home” to live in Thamo, elevation: 3,550m, population: maybe 50 people on a good day. Village life. This should be amusing.

. . .

Sherpa women look out over Namche Bazaar©Juergen Loesel

Sherpa women look out over Namche Bazaar, the region’s largest town

That was spring 2012, on the first of the Nepali year. It seemed a fitting day for a new chapter.

Two weeks later, a first cousin died on Everest.

Family circumstances were such that I hadn’t seen him since we were both infants. My father and another cousin walked to Tengboche to attend the funeral. They returned grim-faced. Namgya had a wife and a three-month-old baby, and the then-standard 5 lakh (NRs500,000, roughly £3,000) payout for fatalities would not extend far past the death rites.

Morbidly, perhaps, I read a surprisingly long article on his death. Namgya’s safety harness had not been clipped in; veteran western (and only western) climbers were quoted by the half-dozen on the topic of his death. Overconfidence, the implication was, even though the quote hedged, “I wouldn’t say it’s because they are overconfident.”

“Strong Sherpa competitive spirit, intra-village rivalries . . . A bit complacent . . . Sometimes novices just plain forget . . . These guys just pretty much dance across the ladders.”

This was my first adult experience of the endless, repeating nature of death talk during the spring climbing season. So-and-so, from village such-and-such, his cousin – no, married to her sister, my aunt’s – it happened like this. He was such a good person. They say he fell into a crevasse. Om mani padme hum.

And then: “These boys, they go too fast. They hurry to get more work.”

For a lifetime of mountaineering talk, I’d always tuned out. Nuptse and Lhotse get mixed up in my head, and I can never remember the elevations of things, or how many acclimatisation nights there are before a summit. Every climbing company has a name that sounds the same – Adventure something, Mountain something.

But here was how it connected to life, to the cousin I barely knew, to other relatives I knew better who were still on the mountain. As a young high-altitude expedition worker, the more you carry, the more you are paid. There is a per kilo equation for payment, and there is value, both in hard cash and in securing future work, in proving you are good. Do so, and you get hired the next season, possibly by one of the better companies, climbing literally up the mountain and figuratively up the ranks. The best way to do all this is to move fast and carry a lot. And the best way to do that is to dance, possibly unclipped, across the icefall ladders.

And yet. This one potential factor, this one whisper of motivation, the veteran mountaineers did not mention when the article posed the question: “Why did Namgya skip a seemingly simple, and potentially life-saving step?”

. . .

The parents of Ang Kaji Sherpa©AP

The parents of Ang Kaji Sherpa, one of those killed in the avalanche, hold his portrait

The following spring, a friend from university arrives with her boyfriend. In Kathmandu, I introduce them to Khukuri rum, and the next day of collecting tickets and packing for the mountains aches for all of us. We fly to Lukla, where the air is crisp, and set off on foot, arriving home the next day. I open up the house, and it is eerily undisturbed despite my aunt’s visits. My friends have plenty of time and a trip to Gokyo Lakes won’t fill it all, so for days we sit around and read books and make coffee and listen to Kiwi reggae.

I’m bringing in some laundry when my mobile phone rings. It’s a friend from Kathmandu who works for an international news bureau – there’s been a fight, have you heard, who do you know at base camp?

The internet has gone mad. Links upon links, hundreds of comments, this one said, then he said, then he said, accusations, counter accusations, updates, debates, threats, tantrums, analysis, They, Us. I read and I read.

Two aunts and a woman I don’t know are weeding a field below ours. I go down and sit with them, and they break for a Thermos of tea and a huge pot of boiled potatoes, peeled with grit-stained hands and dipped in salt and chilli powder from a plastic bag. Did you hear about some fight? I ask, and they haven’t. But an icefall doctor [a Sherpa who fixes and maintains ropes in the Khumbu Icefall] has died, originally from down in Solu, but married to so-and-so in her village, two daughters . . . 

My friends and I leave for Gokyo. I carry a pack of cards and along the trail I teach them how to play Call Break, nabbing guides and porters to come and be our fourth player. I ask – hey, this fight? The foreigners are pissed off apparently, have you heard . . . ? Nothing, but – the icefall doctor, I was in Lukla once and we stayed in the same place for two days, such a nice guy, good experience, but . . . 

We reach Gokyo and the lodge owner, an aunt of a cousin, lets me use the internet for free. The catch is I have to go to the unheated outside room, a maze of satellite phone wiring and solar batteries, where a creaking PC is connected via LAN cable to the router. I can see my breath.

Unread messages, most on the latest in the brawl circus. So-and-so’s “expert” opinion that Sherpas are, as a culture, fundamentally incapable of violence; so-and-so’s equally “expert” opinion that the jig is up, they’ve always been spoiled brutes. And then that phrase: The Sherpa Mob. I snort with laughter, and make Sherpa Mobster jokes on Twitter until the cold creeps up to my thighs from the concrete floor and my fingers begin to seize.

I go inside the dining room to warm up. Husband-of-aunt-of-cousin has heard something about an argument but no details – someone must have done something to set someone off. But did you hear, Mingma, the icefall doctor, was it two daughters or three?

The next day my friends and I trudge for what seems to be an eternity up the glacier to Gokyo’s fifth lake. It’s the best view of Everest, the lodge owners have assured us – better than from Kala Patthar. When it finally comes into view, Cho Oyu looms to our left as we face eastward – and there it is. Barren black rock, a rather bland dented triangle compared to the beautiful, dramatic ridges that surround it.

All of this, for that.

. . .

It is strange, trying to recall the last time you saw someone who lived, with such comforting regularity, at the periphery of your own life. My mind stubbornly insists that on the last day when my father and I were walking down towards Kathmandu for the winter, Au Tshiri called for us to come in for a cup of tea. But I know this may just be a trick of the brain, a composite of every other time he made that same invitation. In my memory, he’s spinning a thread of yak wool through a spindle that dangles from his fingers, but again this may just be echoes from every other time I saw him, leaning in a sunny spot somewhere beside his house with the nasturtiums that grow up the front on strings that guide them, calling out to me, “When did you come? Where is your father?”

I try now to remember when he began building the extension on his home, a retirement plan – a tea shop and bakery. For most of the last two years there had been the chipping of rocks, the digging of foundations, the laying of stone, the smell of fresh cement as I walked past, observing now a window had gone in, a wall was up, the roof . . . until my father and I stopped in on him one time as we passed – from where? – and it was finished, neatly painted, and he was inside making a tray of lamps for an offering. I’ll make tea he said, this can wait – no, no, we replied, we’ll come back another time.

It is spring again, and this year I am still in Kathmandu. The heat is stifling; I had forgotten what this time of year is like here. And then, on Friday, the news comes in, the body counts: four, no six, no 10 . . . I call my father. “I’m OK,” he says in his measured, understated way, “but things here are not good.” Four from our Thame Valley, he says. “I heard someone from Khumjung, and two from Pangboche. Au Tshiri went as well.”

For a moment, I think I have misunderstood.

On Monday the cremations happen. “It was a good day,” says my father, “very clear and none of the wind or rain that can make a cremation difficult. His sons were both there. The most auspicious spot was on the slope with the waterfall, you know the one. From there we could see the smoke from another cremation happening down-valley in Phurte. I guess another one was happening up-valley too, but not for the one in Yullajhung. They didn’t find his body.”

A cowardly part of me is glad I am here in Kathmandu with only the hum of the neighbour’s generator in my ears, not there, not listening to that conversation multiplied manyfold: so and so, from such and such a village, and so and so, from such and such a village, and so and so, such a nice man, with daughters and sons and wives and fathers, the brother of this one and the cousin of such and such. And the details, repeated over and over, that will break your heart – this was his last season, he said, or he had to go to pay off the debts from his brother’s operation, or his leg had only just healed from his last climbing accident two years ago, or his mother had a bad premonition and begged him not to go . . .

I picture next year, at gatherings around Khumbu, when the women sit with the women and the men sit with the men, when the children dart about and pull faces at each other from behind their parents’ backs, and the cups of tea are poured and served first to the patriarchs, then to the householders, down to the young fathers and husbands. In each line there will be gaps, like missing teeth – if remaining teeth could all shuffle forward, the way that the adolescents, now a little less awkward than last year, will move a little closer to the fire to fill the spaces of the ones that are missing.

Jemima Diki Sherpa has donated her fee for this article to the Himalayan Trust UK, which has launched an Avalanche Appeal to help the bereaved families and ensure their children are guaranteed an education. To donate, see justgiving.com/Himalayan-Trust-UK. A fundraising lecture takes place in London on June 5; see himalayantrust.co.uk. A version of this piece was first published on the author’s blog, whathasgood.com

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The statistics

The death of 16 Sherpas makes April 18 2014 the deadliest day in the history of Everest mountaineering – twice as costly as the infamous storm in May 1996 which became the subject of the book Into Thin Air.

In all, 263 people have now died on the mountain (according to Richard Salisbury of the Himalayan Database) including 103 Sherpas. The US magazine Outside last month calculated that the death rate for Sherpas on Everest over the past decade was more than 10 times higher than for US soldiers in Iraq from 2003 to 2007.

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Letter in response to this article:

Deep relationship of 61 years’ standing / From Mr John Keith

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