How the Everest Avalanche Sparked a Labor Fight

Written by Bryce Covert

Last Friday, an avalanche on Mount Everest killed at least 13 Sherpas, members of an ethnic group that work on the mountain to secure safety equipment, carry supplies, and help climbers who are trying to reach the peak. Three others are still missing. It is the worst climbing accident on the mountain in history, but no Western climbers or guides were harmed.

In the wake of the accident, many Sherpas are making demands for better payment and working conditions while threatening a strike.

What are Sherpas current working conditions? Somewhere between 350 to 450 Sherpas work above Everest’s base camp during the season, which lasts two months. Despite the fact that climbers each pay a $10,000 peak fee to Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism and tens of thousands to commercial climbing guide companies, Sherpas usually get about $125 per climb for each legal load, although some take on more to earn more. They usually haul about $3,000 to $5,000 a season, although given that the average yearly salary in Nepal is about $700, many are drawn to the pay. But Western guides can make $50,000 to $100,000.

The work the Sherpas do is dangerous and grueling. They fix lines and ladders, set up camps ahead of the paying clients, and carry much of their loads, taking on much of the risk. As Jon Krakauer writes in the New Yorker, “The mostly foreign-owned guiding companies assign the most dangerous and physically demanding jobs to their sherpa staff, thereby mitigating the risk to their Western guides and members,” and the work they do “requires them to spend vastly more time on the most dangerous parts of the mountain.” While climbing the mountain is dangerous for everyone, because Sherpas do this riskier work to make it safer, they have a very high death rate: 4,053 die for every 100,000 full-time workers. That’s many times worse than the fatality rate for miners — 25 died for every 100,000 between 2000 and 2010 — and military members in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. Yet the risks have been declining for commercial climbers: between 1921 and 1996, there was one death for every four successful ascents, but that has plummeted to one death for every 88 ascents in the years since.

What are Sherpas demanding in the wake of the accident? Three days after the tragedy, a group of Sherpas proposed a first-ever work stoppage that could throw a wrench into the 334 expeditions planned for this season, although they are divided on whether to go ahead with the season. Given that they have only earned a few weeks’ wages, giving up the season could be very difficult financially.

A representative group has also presented a 13-point list of requests to the country’s Ministry of Tourism. The demands include an immediate payment of 40,000 rupees, or about $400, to the families of the victims, covering the costs of treatment for the injured, and a payment of 10 million rupees, or about $100,000, to those who won’t be able to continue working on the mountain due to their injuries. It also calls for allowing expedition teams to call off the season’s climbing and refusing to fix ropes and ladders this season, plus perks and salaries paid to the Sherpas if climbing is suspended. They have called for the creation of a relief fund through 30 percent of the royalties from issuing permits, something guides and Sherpas have called for for many years, as well as doubling their current life insurance policy payments from the current million rupees, or $10,000, to two million rupees, or $20,000. Some have called for even more: Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, has pushed for the government to pay $1,041 to each family of the deceased.

What is the Nepalese government doing so far in response? So far the government has responded to many of these requests. It has agreed to create the relief fund with some of the revenue it gets from the expeditions. It has promised to pay 40,000 rupees to each Sherpa’s family. And it has agreed to provide pensions for older Sherpas and educational assistance for their children, other requests made by the workers at meetings on Sunday and Monday. It seems the work stoppage may be called off, as Ang Tshering Sherpa said after the meetings that “climbing will be resumed.” The government will meet with Sherpas again on Tuesday to outline concrete plans to meet their demands.

But the money still falls short of what the Sherpas had asked for. The government says 5 percent of its earnings will go to the relief fund, instead of the 30 percent workers have demanded. The government earns about $3.5 million a year from the fees. The increased insurance payout will also only rise to 1.5 million rupees under the government’s plan, instead of 2 million.

This post originally appeared on ThinkProgress

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Susan T.
Susan T3 years ago

Is it true that the slopes of Mt Everest are littered with garbage, O2 canisters and bodies? for shame. Go Sherpas!

gerhard wolski
Past Member 3 years ago

It's absolutely not Ok to build an autobahn to the highest peak of the world in order rich tourists can "climb" on the steep and dangerous mountain. And even members of the Sherpa community are used to do that under mortal danger (it's their business for a short time) for the rich and wealthy it's just another playground. l have heard (source: Reinhold Messner, first without oxygen aid on Everest) that there are even so-called climbers who fly in and out from basic camp to lunch or supper in Kathmandu. What a perversion. He who cannot go up should stay at the foot of a mountain, and not to be carried into thin and deadly air where he cannot set foot on without the full support of Sherpas. And not to be forgotten: these Sherpas risk their lives daily for that game - and in "case of ..." (as happened now) their poor families do not get sufficient financial backing, facing the abyss in every respect, lost the father, husband and main earner. What a mess!

william Miller
william Miller3 years ago

I hope they hold out for everything they want. they deserve that and more.

Biby C.
Biby C3 years ago

After having made several trips to Nepal, I've grown to be very fond of the Nepalese people. They're warm, friendly and caring. It was indeed with a heavy heart that I read about the disaster. Sad as it may be, it's a reality that these sherpas face. We can only hope that they will be better protected and better paid for putting their lives on the line. And I sincerely hope the Nepalese government will not go ahead with their plan of cutting the fee for climbing Everest. It will only create more disasters because it's already very crowded up there during climbing season.

Rose Becke3 years ago

The sherpas are the heroes

Lynn C.
Lynn C3 years ago

This is w r o n g!

Carole R.
Carole R3 years ago

Thanks for the post.

Anne F.
Anne F3 years ago

Westerners with their hyperbaric chambers and additional oxygen are taking the easy way, while the hired hands are working in dangerous conditions (made worse by warming climate in the Himalayas). The mountain has been climbed without the use of oxygen.

Marija Mohoric
Marija M3 years ago

tks for sharing

Elizabeth F.
Elizabeth F3 years ago

thanks for letting us know