My heart goes out today to the thirteen Sherpa killed in last weeks avalanche on Mt. Everest's South side as well as those still stranded above the fall at Camp 1 on the deadliest day in history on the mountain. Though the closest feature to base camp, the Khumbu Icefall is notably the most dangerous segment of the climb. Huge collisions of slow glacial ice create seracs the size of building's and crevasses of equal enormity. The icy labyrinth is constantly moving, shifting, compounding, and during midday temperature highs, prone to avalanches.
Because this stretch of route is so dangerous, it requires the most amount of aid to ensure guided climbers' relative safety. Fixed lines are run across the route, aluminum ladders span crevasses and climb vertical ice, and the safest possible route has to be discovered every season in this ephemeral landscape.
This task, one of the most dangerous jobs on earth falls on the Sherpa, an ethnic group originally from Tibet, who settled in the Khumbu region of Nepal around five hundred years ago. Characterized by their ambivalence to altitude and superior climbing stamina, the Sherpa were the ideal porters for the early 19th and 20th century expeditions to the Himalaya and later, excellent guides for the mountaineering tourism industry.
The boom of commercial climbing has been a boon to the Sherpa. These brave climbers are compensated hugely in comparison to any other livelihood available to a Nepali and thus Sherpa men willingly work in these extreme circumstances, often with too much reliance on their natural abilities with little concern for safety training and oversight on behalf of employers.
The Ice Doctors, the Sherpa who prep the Khumbu Icefall are well aware of the risk though this tragedy is but another moment in the calamity climbing Everest has become. Once again, the economy of Everest has dictated choices that's resulted in loss of life, much like the deadliest day on Everest before now, the 1996 expedition immortalized in Jon Krakaur's Into Thin Air, when competitive markets drove two guides to risk theirs and their clients' lives to one up each other, to be the most successful guide company, to make more money. Human's can't survive in the Death Zone, but capitalism can.
Now that that infamous day has been eclipsed, we can still vilify money for manipulating people to do things they otherwise wouldn't. If not for money, the Ice Doctors wouldn't be ice doctors and the guides would not be guides, sending them to modify a route to make it easier for patrons who should not be climbing on Everest in the first place. In America, some can relate. Many people ignore the morality of the industries they work in simply because of the lives they afford. When there is demand, lauded by money, someone will supply. Mountaineering fell prey to this model and we continue to witness money's limitations on mountains, where inexperienced climbers cannot buy skill or safety and risk the lives of many.
Everest and the commercial mountaineering industry is a mess. Evidenced by something each year: a tragedy, a brawl, policy suggestions, government intervention; it seems appropriate that Everest, birthed by a massive collision of the Indian sub-continent with Asia, plays host to the collision of purist sport with capitalist industry. Climbers deserve to climb mountains, Sherpa deserve dignified livelihoods, but there must be some honesty in the conversation beginning with the client who must ask his or herself, "Am I a climber or a consumer?"