On Mount Everest, Sherpa Guides Bear The Brunt Of The Danger Sherpa guides are 10 times more likely to die than commercial fishermen, the most dangerous, nonmilitary occupation in the U.S. But they're offered little financial protection by companies who charge Western climbers thousands of dollars for a trip up the mountain.

On Mount Everest, Sherpa Guides Bear The Brunt Of The Danger

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Sherpa people of Nepal have become famous for guiding mountain climbers up some of the world's highest peaks, especially Mount Everest. While Sherpa guides earn relatively good pay for their work, they and their families pay a price in injury and sometimes death. In fact, our guest, journalist Grayson Schaffer, says Sherpa guides are 10 times more likely to die than commercial fishermen - the most dangerous occupation in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In the August issue of Outside magazine, Schaffer writes about the frequency of debilitating injury and death for these Sherpas, and how little financial protection they're given by the companies that hire them even though those companies charge Western climbers thousands of dollars for a trip up Everest. Schaffer has also written about the dramatic increase in the number of climbers who join expeditions up Everest every year, and its impact on the experience. He says despite better at forecasting and rescue technology, 10 people died on Everest last year.

Grayson Schaffer is a senior editor and staff writer at Outside. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.


Well, Grayson Schaffer, welcome to FRESH AIR. So what are the challenges that humans face trying to climb Mount Everest? It's not a natural environment.

GRAYSON SCHAFFER: Well, there's generally two different types of hazards. They're sort of the physical kind of hazards - you know, crevasses, getting hit by an avalanche, falling, that type of thing. And then there's this sort of physiological challenges. You know, at the summit of Everest, there's something like a third of the amount of oxygen that you have at sea level, and so in order to get your body to work with that level of stress, you have to acclimatize very slowly. And so what people will do is what's called rotations, where you'll go up to camp two and back down on to camp three and back down, just getting your body used to the altitude, allowing your, you know, red blood cell count to go up so you can use more of that thin air that's up there.

And then in addition, once people get usually above about 23, 24,000 feet, they'll start on using bottled oxygen, and that is basically a scuba tank that goes to a delivery mask, and this is how people will get all the way to the summit of Everest. This is how mere mortals can get to the summit of Everest. There are, you know, a handful, probably fewer than 60 - if you get rid of the liars and the people who slept with oxygen - who have actually climbed Everest without any oxygen.

DAVIES: And when you're making the trip with Sherpas, how much of the work are they doing, how much of the work are you doing? I mean the basic work of preparing meals and pitching tents?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. I mean, Sherpas do - they do everything, and I think a lot of people are pretty quick to recognize that. Climbers often talk about risk mitigation, that they are constantly trying to mitigate the risk. And one of the sort of the dirtiest secrets of that, I think, is that the biggest thing you can do to mitigate your risk on a mountain like Everest is paying somebody to carry your tent and your stove and all of your equipment up the mountain, doing all those laps for you - because of the death rate is 1.2 percent for a climber going up Everest just making the minimum member of trips. You can imagine how high it would be if you also had to do all of the laps.

You know, once you get into base camp, the first thing that an exposition needs to do on Mount Everest from the south side is surmount the Khumbu ice fall, which is this giant hanging glacier between camp one and base camp. And in order to tame that thing, you've got to get up there and get these tiny aluminum ladders strong across crevasses, you've got to get fixed rope in, and then you've got to carry all of the gear -the stills, the tents, the oxygen bottles, everything needs to go up to camp one, camp two, camp three, camp four in this sort of pyramid style of building and depositing materiel. And so the Sherpas are really responsible for all of that, they set the route, they set the ladders.

And, you know, when you actually see climbers going up the mountain, one of the things that people will do is carry just their 8,000 meter down suit. This is the suit that kind of makes people look like the Michelin Man. And as they're going up this sort of shoulders on the mountain, they will put just that suit in their pack so it looks like they have a full pack but, in fact, it's very light. And then if you look at, you know, the Sherpa who's climbing next to him, that guy will have, you know a 50 or an 80 pound pack and you can tell that they're just straining into the straps.

DAVIES: Apart from their proximity to Everest and these other peaks, what makes them so good at what they do?

SCHAFFER: Basically, the word Sherpa means people from the east. And these are ethnic Tibetans who have fled China over the Nangpa La pass for the most part, which is a 19,000 foot pass near Cho Oyu, and ended up in this, you know, these sort of high valleys of the Khumbu region. And so these people have spent thousands of years at altitude and develop certain genetic enhancements that allow them to perform a little bit better at high altitude than the rest of us even with, you know, the acclimatization process.

DAVIES: Now, you open your piece by describing an accident in 2010. Do you want to tell us what happened?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. In 2010 an American climber named Melissa Arnot, who is out of Sun Valley and guides for a company called Rainier Mountaineering, was climbing a mountain called Baruntse, which is a 7,000 meter peak that's sort of near Mount Everest and she was climbing with a Sherpa named Chhewang Nima, who is a very well known, highly athletic Sherpa who had summited Mount Everest 19 times at that point and he was only two away from the record. And the two of them were climbing Baruntse and Chhewang and another Sherpa named Mima Gelgin(ph) had gone on ahead to set the route to the summit. At about 600 yards shy of the summit, Chhewang was pounding in a snow picket to attach a rope to for safety and the ground beneath him just sort of splits and falls away. And he's just instantly killed, swept off the mountain.

DAVIES: Now what kinds of insurance, if any, is required for Sherpas on an expedition? Because, I mean, in many cases they're injured, not killed. And there are expensive rescues. And then, of course, they're dealing with, you know, the needs of the family when a totality occurs. What kinds of insurance do they have?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. When a Sherpa dies in the mountains you have these two worlds that kind of diverge. And on the one side the Americans, you know, the Western climbers will see, you know, a fallen climber and feel sorry for him; feel, you know, devastated that they've lost a teammate. And they'll pass around a hat, usually, and try to come up with some money for the family.

And on the other side, there's a sort of private grieving that goes on in the villages. And the family generally gets since about 2000, 2002, there is a $4,500 insurance payment that the family will get from a private insurer that's mandated through the government. And then there's this whole series of rituals that the family will go through. They'll have a what's called a protest ceremony, a puja ceremony, where the body is cremated and sent to the afterlife for reincarnation.

And in Buddhist culture - the Sherpa are primarily Buddhist - the more expensive the puja, the better the afterlife the deceased gets. So it's extremely important for them, one, to get the body so that they can cremate it. And so in a lot of these mountaineering accidents, that becomes problematic because a lot of these bodies end up, you know, in the bottom of a crevasse or someplace where you just can't get to them.

And then the other is the expense that goes into these puja ceremonies, so a lot of times the family will get a $4,500 insurance payment and relatives of the family will have already committed them to shows of faith that will cost much more than that. And so for a lot of the widows of fallen climbers, they've lost not only their primary breadwinner, they've also instantly accrued debt in excess of the insurance payment. And a lot of these climbers were - have been supporting not only their own immediate families but the families of many of their brothers and sisters as well. So it creates this sort of domino effect of grief and stress, this sort of collateral damage of the climbing industry, much of which goes unseen by Western climbers.

DAVIES: Besides accidents on the mountain, there are - what? - strokes and embolisms, blood clots that occur?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. In addition to the things call the object of hazards, things like avalanches and crevasse falls and that sort of thing that are, you know, things that the mountain can do to you. There's a whole physiological range of ailments that become much more common once you go above base camp. These are things like strokes, cerebral and pulmonary edema are big ones, and there's also just something called sudden-death, where people just have a heart attack.

And very often you'll hear these stories of people saying, "I think my heart just stopped" - or pointing to their chest and then, you know, a few seconds later, falling over and dying. A lot of this stuff happens because of the blood thickening affects of altitude. As you climb above base camp, your blood gets thicker, judgment gets impaired and, of course, you get, you know, weaker, slower, sluggish, thick. You know, above 26,000 feet, they call that area the death zone and above that altitude, your body just can't acclimatize. You have, you know, a set amount of time that you can spend above that altitude, and then you have to descend.

DAVIES: Right. So sometimes you have Sherpas that are killed on the mountains - and of course, climbers as well. But in other cases, they suffer incapacitating injuries. And you write in the piece about some families that you visited who had, you know, Sherpas who were severely handicapped because of things that had happened on the mountain. What kind of, you know, circumstances did they face?

SCHAFFER: That's right. In many cases, you know, because rescues are becoming more common, more people are able to survive some of these injuries and ailments that they wouldn't have in the past. And so in each of the towns in the Khumbu region, and in certain neighborhoods in Katmandu, you'll find some of the people who have survived high altitudes, strokes or falls, or that sort of thing. And essentially, these people become sort of hidden casualties of the climbing industry where not only are they no longer their family's breadwinners, their family generally now has to take care of them as well. And so it's this kind of double burden.

So I met with the family of a man named Ang Temba, who was in Katmandu, and he had had a stroke around 2006 on the north side of Everest working for a Japanese team. And they had gotten him off the mountain and gotten him back down to Katmandu to the hospital and he had gotten some acupuncture treatment. And the doctor who saw him there said whatever you do, don't go back to mountaineering, you know, you've recovered from this, you're very lucky. And then, of course, the very next season he gets a job offer to go back and work for another company called Asian Trekking.

And the way his wife put it to me was pretty simple. I mean, she said: What other option do we have? I mean, this is the most lucrative job that this guy can possibly do. And given that or some other job in a country whose average per capita income is about $540, he can go up on Everest and make $5,000 or $6,000 in two months, he's going to say yes. And so he did.

And he goes back and he works on the mountain, and then he comes back and he's extremely weak. And a few weeks later she finds him passed out on the couch, and he's had another stroke. And at this point, he has lost all function on his right side and can barely speak. And so now, she's trying to make ends meet by renting rooms in their house. And she had tried to collect some of the insurance money for a death benefit and over the course of several years, she was actually able to do that because she was able to convince the insurer that his debilitation was complete and work-related.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Grayson Schaffer. He is a senior editor and staff writer at Outside magazine. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Grayson Schaffer. He is a senior editor and staff writer at Outside magazine. He has a piece in the August issue of the magazine about the dangers that Sherpas face in expeditions up Mount Everest and other peaks. It's called "Disposable Man."

So when Western climbers go to expeditions up Everest and other mountains, do they know, you know, what the arrangements are for the Sherpas and their needs?

SCHAFFER: You know, I think that there's a real misperception about that. There's an assumption that because it's 2013, that all of the sort of labor issues that might have been in the past, that those kind of things have been resolved and that these people are basically well cared for. At this point, we've recognized that climbing Mount Everest is no longer sort of the pinnacle of mountaineering achievement. There's no climb that you can do on the south face of Everest that is going to make Alpinist magazine write a profile of you. It's essentially the pinnacle of adventure tourism.

And the thing to understand about the Sherpa workforce is that there is no other tourism industry in the world that so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients. And that's just something that people have not yet, I think, connected the dots on; that a 1 percent mortality rate for somebody who is choosing to climb a mountain is acceptable. But a 1 percent mortality rate for the people they rely on to get their stuff up the mountains is, as a workplace safety statistic - is just outrageous.

DAVIES: Because they go again and again.

SCHAFFER: That's right. That's right. If you're a Western climber, you're paying, you're climbing the mountain once and you're done. If you're a Sherpa, you're doing lap after lap after lap through this roulette wheel of hazards that we know has a death rate, long term, of 1.2 percent; and that number makes climbing Everest as a Sherpa more dangerous than, you know, working on a crab boat in Alaska. It makes it more dangerous than being an infantryman in the first four years of the Iraq War.

The thing that hides that number is that the season is relatively short, you know. This is - we're talking about mostly through the end of May and then a small season again in the fall; and a relatively small workforce. But when you actually run the numbers of fatalities through any workplace safety statistic calculator you come up with, is just sort of outrageous number for how dangerous this line of work is.

DAVIES: It sets up quite a, you know, a set of personal relationships when you have, you know, the Western clients who have paid tens of thousands of dollars for this once-in-a-lifetime experience and the Western outfitters who've taken this money and have made all these arrangements and paid, you know, the local trekking agent to hire the Sherpas. And then they get on the mountain and there's this, you know, intense, close, personal relationship because you're engaged in this enormous undertaking.

And then when something goes wrong, it gets really tricky. Do the Western clients and the Western outfitters end up often, you know, just making cash outlays to Sherpas sometimes on an ongoing basis?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. I mean, it's incredibly difficult. And, you know, oftentimes the first thing they'll do is pass a hat around and just - you know, or put up a website creating a fund for a Sherpa's who's recently died. And a lot of times people, you know, Western climbers will leave feeling terrible and feeling, you know, making promises about the help that they're going to come through with.

And one of the people who I spoke with for this story was Norbu Tenzing Norgay, who is the eldest living son of Everest pioneer Tenzing Norgay. And, you know, his point was that this sort of thing is going - been going on for years and years, since the very beginning; in fact, since the very first two Sherpas were hired in 1895, who both died on the mountain.

When you have these casualties, Westerners are very quick to make promises and certainly, not all of those promises are kept. And his point was that it's not enough to make promises. You've got to come through with action on this kind of thing. And if we're just leaving it up to the chance generosity of the teams that were climbing with the Sherpas, what you end up with is this situation where the Sherpas who are working for the most reputable outfitters are more or less taken care of, or are taken care of somewhat well.

And then you have the Sherpas who die working for these budget outfitters. And their families can literally go from being comfortable to being destitute overnight.

DAVIES: You know, in the accident that you open the piece with, Melissa Arnot, this veteran climber, is agonized by the death of the Sherpa that she's with, Chhewang Nima, and she shells out what was - I don't know - $15,000 or so, to get a helicopter to attempt to retrieve his body. It's ultimately unsuccessful, but you describe that she makes an annual visit to his widow. You want to describe that?

SCHAFFER: I think that this is something that she's really torn by. She has committed, at least sort of to herself, to pay Chhewang's widow, Lhamu Chhiki, about what Chhewang would have made every year that she is still guiding. So she has sort of placed herself in that role of breadwinner for that family, where she is trying to make up for what she feels like she owes them.

You know, I think she feels a real mixture of guilt and sadness and, you know, she explained that when we went to meet with Lhamu Chhiki and she delivered this envelope last fall, that this was the toughest thing that she does every year. And it certainly was an emotional experience there, being there with her and with Chhewang's widow.

DAVIES: It's an envelope of hundred-dollar bills.

SCHAFFER: Yeah. There's lots of different ways that you can look at it and, you know, you could think about it sort of crassly or that she's, you know, that she's sort of one of the few who is courageous enough to do the right thing; or, you know, what the hell was she doing hiring this guy to climb Baruntse in the first place. I mean, it's a really fraught situation, and I don't think there's an easy answer.

I mean, I think that the one thing that nobody is suggesting out of any of this is that work permits in the Himalayas for Sherpas should be canceled. I don't think there's anybody, least of all the Sherpa workforce, who want Westerners to be climbing only on their own without their help because this is still - has been such a profitable industry for them, even if it is a dangerous one.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Grayson Schaffer. He's a senior editor and staff writer at Outside Magazine. And we'll talk some more after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Grayson Schaffer. He's a senior editor and staff writer at Outside Magazine. He has a piece in the August issue about the dangers that Sherpas face in expeditions up Mount Everest. It's called "Disposable Man." You've written another piece about the sheer volume of humanity that is going up Everest and is, you know, is summiting the peak has become more common.

And you describe going to the base camp which is, I guess, 17,600 feet altitude. You want to describe just what you saw when you got there?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. I mean, the base camp is this sort of - it's the most amazing thing. I had placed base camp on maps, you know, for years and years working at Outside and had always sort of thought of it as being right at this sort of crook in the elbow where the Khumbu icefall comes down and sweeps left into the Khumbu Glacier.

And in fact, that's where the base camp starts, but it wraps for almost a mile down around that entire bend. And really, it takes over that entire glacier. I mean, this is at least a thousand tents with your Western climbers, your Sherpa workforce, journalists, helicopters. There's an emergency room that's set up there to give medical support to the climbers and to the Sherpas.

A couple of expeditions have had full bars set up. There was a whiskey tasting room last year. It's this - I mean, it's just this sort of amazing sprawl of humanity at 17,600 feet.

DAVIES: So it's like a miner's boomtown, almost.

SCHAFFER: It's very much like that. I think, you know, there's a lot of commerce going on there. You know, when the porter comes up who's carrying nothing but beer on his back, they call that guy the beer truck. And then you've got the sort of refuse and human waste needs to go in and out every day. So there'll be, you know, yak trains and trains of porters coming in carrying new supplies in.

And carrying the blue barrels of waste out. And, yeah, it's this sort of fully functioning city that pops up every spring.

DAVIES: Now, this happens of course because so many people - more people want to climb Everest. And the season is very short, right? What's the window at which you can actually try and summit?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. In general, people try to get the icefall open in early April and the summit windows generally happen between May one and about May 25th. And if you're lucky, there will be three or four different summit windows that people can sort of filter into and, you know, claim their summit and get down.

Last year was different in that it was unusually dry and a lot - the route melted out so there was a lot of rock fall, which is very dangerous, and that slowed the speed at which they could get the ropes up the mountain. And then you had the situation where there was really only two weather windows.

And the first of those didn't come until May 18th. And so because that window was so late, almost everybody who was on the mountain tried to pack into that same weather window. And so this is where we had this very iconic photo of what we call like the conga line or ants marching. Where you had 150 or 200 people all in a line on the Lhotse face like they were, you know, waiting to try to, you know, get tickets at a sold out concert or something.

But you have to remember that they're at 23,000 feet doing this sort of elephant walk, you know, in a very dangerous place. It was just a recipe for disaster.

DAVIES: Right. And of course, you can't breathe comfortably at that altitude without additional oxygen and you don't want to stay at that altitude any longer than you have to. And I assume that many people up there at the same time slows things down.

SCHAFFER: Yeah. The most dangerous thing that you can do, you know, when you're at the Hillary step, which is sort of the last steep rock obstacle before the summit, is wait around. And in this case, you know, you have these photos of people sort of clinging to every rock, outcropping, you know, waiting up to two hours to get through this bottleneck.

And in 1996 during the "Into Thin Air" disaster, I mean, they sort of credited the death toll to this freak storm that rolled in. Here the weather was beautiful for most of the summit window. People died because they were waiting around, because they got tired, because they, you know, did - it took them 36 hours to climb the mountain.

I mean, basically you just had people walking until they died. And that was sort of the more, I think, the scarier thing about it was the banality of it where there really wasn't anything that you can point to in the environment that killed people. It was just hubris.

DAVIES: And different kinds of people are trying to make the trip, right? I mean, it used to be that you had to have some experience and a level of fitness.

SCHAFFER: That's right. It used to be that Everest was sort of like a capstone experience, you know, to finish off an already great climbing career. I mean, this was until the late '80s only sort of the top echelon of national teams would be doing this sort of for God and country, that sort of thing. You know, becoming the first Israeli or the first Egyptian to climb Everest, that sort of thing.

You still see a bit of that but more now this is, you know, doctors and lawyers and people of means who just decide that they want to climb Mount Everest. That either - that it's a dream for them or that that's something that they want to do, regardless of whether they have a lot of experience climbing. And in 2012, we saw a couple of people who had never even strapped on crampons who, you know, who paid the money, showed up, and gave it a try.

DAVIES: When people die that high up the mountain what happens to their bodies?

SCHAFFER: Well, it used to be that the body would be left on the mountain. You know, on Everest there are still a number of bodies, including Scott Fischer's who died during that Everest '96 tragedy, where these bodies are right where they, you know, right where the people stopped moving.

Now, because of the helicopter flights that can come in to 22,000 - 23,000 feet, a number of families are willing to pay exorbitant fees to send teams, often of Sherpas, up the mountain with a Sked, which is sort of like a mountain stretcher, to try to get the bodies off the mountain.

DAVIES: When this train of 150 were, you know, going up last May, would they pass bodies as they climbed?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. I mean, you know, bodies are on Everest, both on the north and south side. Bodies are often cited as landmarks. So they'll say, you know, on the north side they'll say, oh, you know, where were you? Oh, we were, you know, right in the area of Green Boots. And so that's - Green Boots is the name of an Indian climber who died, I believe, in 2006 who's sort of become a landmark on the north side.

On the south side they talk about, you know, the body of Scott Fischer as being sort of a landmark to let people know sort of where you are on the triangle face.

DAVIES: Well, Grayson Schaffer, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

SCHAFFER: No problem. Thanks for having me, Dave.

GROSS: Grayson Schaffer spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. His article, "Disposable Man," is published in the August edition of Outside Magazine. On our website you'll find a slideshow of Schaffer's photographs of Sherpas as well as his video about the accident he discussed and a link to his article. That's at freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. Our blog is on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

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