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Sherpas And The Everest Avalanche

A Sherpa boycott on Everest after a deadly avalanche. We’ll look at climbing, culture, life, death and money at the top of the world.

A Buddhist monk lights the funeral pyre of Nepalese mountaineer Ang Kaji Sherpa, killed in an avalanche on Mount Everest, during his funeral ceremony in Katmandu, Nepal, Monday, April 21, 2014.  (AP)

A Buddhist monk lights the funeral pyre of Nepalese mountaineer Ang Kaji Sherpa, killed in an avalanche on Mount Everest, during his funeral ceremony in Katmandu, Nepal, Monday, April 21, 2014. (AP)

For hundreds of climbers every year now, summiting Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest peak, is a moment of exquisite glory.  Literally a peak experience.  For hundreds of Sherpas – the locals in Nepal who lug up the gear – it’s a job.  A hard, dangerous job.  Last week, on the way up Mt. Everest, sixteen Sherpas died in a deadly ice fall.  It was a high-altitude catastrophe.  The deadliest day in modern mountaineering.  Now, the whole operation has ground to a halt.  The soul-searching on the mountainside and well beyond is deep.  This hour On Point:  a morality play at the top of the world.  Reconciling Sherpa risk and climber glory on Mt. Everest.

– Tom Ashbrook


David Breashears, mountaineer and founder and executive director of Glacier Works. (@davidbreashears)

Donatella Lorch, freelance reporter and blogger based in Katmandu, Nepal. (@tangledjourneys)

Conrad Anker, professional climber and mountaineer.Director, Khumbu Climbing Center. (@conradanker)

Peter Athans, professional climber and high-altitude mountaineering expert.

From Tom’s Reading List

National Geographic: Injured Sherpas Recall Deadly Avalanche — “Sixteen Sherpas died—all of them behind Kaji—in the deadliest single day in Everest climbing history. Two of the climbers have yet to be recovered from the ice, and the world’s most iconic mountain has again become a symbol of nature’s unforgiving power. ”

Outside Magazine: Everest Season Shutting Down? – “At Everest Base Camp after the disaster, many Sherpas met to discuss how to proceed, deciding that they didn’t want to continue the season after so many friends, colleagues, and relatives were killed. ‘[M]ost of the Sherpa climbers made decision not to climb Everest this year but then there are 1,2 companies who are being selfish  for their business purpose trying to push further more risking their Sherpa life,’ wrote Nyima Tsering, a climbing Sherpa who also runs Cafe 8848, in Namche Bazaar.”

Reuters: Nepal moves to ease tension among Sherpas after Everest disaster – “Nepal’s government decided on Wednesday to send a delegation of officials to the base camp of Mount Everest to cool anger among Sherpas over its response to last week’s deadly ice avalanche in which at least 13 guides were killed. Two Western expedition organisers said tension was running high at the camp among the roughly 400 Sherpas there, with many demanding that all climbs to the 8,850-metre (29,035-foot) summit be abandoned for the rest of the season and others keen to continue.”

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  • wauch

    I hope all the “bucket list” westerners determined to live out their vain aspirations to conquer nature and have tons of photos to document their Everest ascent are ashamed of themselves. These sherpas are the true heroes but those that they escort up Everest are pathetic and have blood on their hands.

    • Samy_2012

      Spot on!

      • Vic

        Compare and contrast how the public work of well compensated fire fighters and police officers are celebrated in the west against those of the Sherpas. Their deaths are mere footnotes in Wikipedia while every step into the trails off the beaten path in the Himalayas of white westerners are storied. How Sherpas’ help is documented, they and their work treated and their sacrifices trivialized is a quintessential example of ethnocentrism.

    • brettearle

      And just think:

      How empty all of the top surfaces of those coffee tables will be, in the affluent `burbs, without the requisite Photo Albums.

  • Samy_2012

    Tom I am so struck by the tragedy of this travesty. For 10 measly million dollars the Nepali people have to tolerate so much – the garbage collecting in the mountains, the indignity of being treated as lesser human beings & much more. The rule for mountain climbing should be, 100 million in tax to the People of Nepal, & Carry your OWN stuff, bring back your OWN GARBAGE. I am hearing horrendous stories of the huge mess of waste at Base camp from the many more tourists who make Base Camp their final destination. In this day & age that native populations continue to be exploited by an ever greedy (whether for cod, or tea, or gold, or the ego) population, is sickening. I quote Krakaeur from the New Yorker “Sherpas aren’t provided with nearly as much bottled oxygen, because it is so expensive to buy and to stock on the upper mountain, and they tend to be much better acclimatized than Westerners. Sherpas are almost never given dexamethasone prophylactically, because they don’t have personal physicians in their villages who will prescribe the drug on request. And perhaps most significant, Sherpas do all the heavy lifting on Everest, literally and figuratively. 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, whose backpacks seldom hold much more than a water bottle, a camera, an extra jacket, and lunch.”

    And I end with this quote from the son of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, ‘If you ask Sherpas why they climb, they say it’s because they don’t want their children to climb. They want their children to be educated.’ Jamling Tenzing Norgay

  • BOBinRSI

    Sure this is tragic but how different is it than getting crushed in a building collapse while stitching shirts or getting poisoned to death ripping apart e-waste?

    • brettearle

      It’s reasonably different.

      The Bangladesh Sweatshop Tragedies are, of course, worse

    • JS

      Mountain climbing is inherently dangerous work. Working in a garment factory shouldn’t be, wouldn’t you agree?

      • BOBinRSI

        I completely agree with you but the point I was trying to make is not so much about the risks of the job but rather poor serving affluent which I think is an issue full of complexities.

  • malkneil

    I’m getting a little tired of these rich trouser stains climbing Everest just so they can put another trophy on their mantle. All this has taken its toll on the mountain and, as expressed in this segment, the Sherpa community. Granted there are some legit mountaineers out there, but many are smug, ill-prepared entrepreneurs who need an ego boost while putting their lives and the lives of others in danger.

    • brettearle

      Krakauer’s book might shed some light on your point–with regard to Hubris.

      You are likely on to something.

  • nj_v2


    Climate change makes risks of climbing Mount Everest even greater, say scientists
    As Nepal reels from the death of 16 Sherpas there are fresh warnings that a changing climate is making mountainside unstable

    …”It’s Mother Nature who calls the shots,” Tim Rippel, an expedition leader, said in a blog post from Everest base camp as many of the 400 Sherpa guides were leaving, demanding better government compensation for the high risks they take in helping climbing companies ferry rich tourists up the peak. “The mountain has been deteriorating rapidly in the past three years due to global warming, and the breakdown in the Khumbu Icefall is dramatic,” he said. “We need to learn more about what is going on up there.”…

    …Meanwhile, heavier snow storms would lead to more snow accumulating, raising avalanche risks. Shifting wind patterns may also affect how snow and ice behave. Glacier movement could change, and an increase in melt water trickling down could cause a glacier to move more quickly.

    “Changes in snow and ice are going to strongly influence the stability of snow on a slope and the possibility of an avalanche,” said American glaciologist Tad Pfeffer with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder.…



    Could Climate Change Make Mount Everest Unclimbable?

    …Changes on the planet are affecting the world’s tallest mountain, casting doubt on its climbability and even its height. Sherpas are wondering whether warmer climates will render Mount Everest too dangerous to summit, and geologic changes in the Himalayas have raised uncertainties about its altitude, according to separate reports.

    You might think a warmer climate would render Everest easier to climb — fewer treacherous glaciers and snowbanks and so forth — but the opposite is true. Rockslides are increasing, and it’s much more difficult to clamber up bare rocks than to use metal crampons on thick ice. The conditions are deteriorating so much that the mountain may be unclimbable in a few years, according to Apa Sherpa, a Nepali climber who has reached the summit a record 21 times.

    Himalayan communities are already facing dramatic climate shifts, according to AFP, which interviewed Apa Sherpa while he’s participating in a 120-day hike. Glaciers have shrunk by 21 percent in the past 30 years, and it is getting colder in the winter and hotter in the summer.…


  • spirit17of76

    Boy I really relate to what has been said below – the climate change effect on melting ice (how could it be otherwise,) the trash on the mountain, hoards of tourist mountaineers who cannot make the entire climb and start high up, the relatively small ant of money Nepal receives and inadequate income and medical support for many of the Sherpas too. One other aspect though, is the numbers game. Any local person who goes up and down the mountain many, many, many times is at high risk. A western climber will go a few times and accidents will happen sometimes during their climbs. For a professional “carrier” that risk escalates proportionally. They are right to fear the very dangerous parts of the climb. It is a matter of the probabilities. Is it worth it. Can we roll back the clock? Can we find a different system?

  • Cliff Casavant

    Any county in this world if offered a very high paying job not needing yo hava degree and people will flock to sign up as the wage and quality of life out the weighs the danger

  • CarolWR

    The 16 sherpas died because of the most often unpredictable forces of nature on Everest. The Khumba Icefall is notorious for its treacherous terrain. Everybody is at risk. The avalanche was not caused
    by the rich client mountaineers. The avalanche just happened at the time of day it did and very tragically took the lives of working sherpas. It could have been guest climbers that died. Again, everybody knows the risks of the Khumba Icefall and high-altitude climbing.

    The issues of unskilled, summit fever mountaineers and putting sherpas, guides and other mountain climbers at risk; China and Nepalese governments selling too many permits; sherpa compensation for the work they do; trashing of Everest; bottlenecks of climbers; etc., etc. are separate from the death of sherpas from the avalanche.

    Nobody forced the sherpa porters to carry the loads, fix the ropes, set up tents, etc. Many are expert climbers, have summited a number of times, and devout Buddhists who believe their role as mountain porter as
    keeping climbers safe to enable the sherpa to escape the cycle of birth and rebirth and transcend the mortal world of pain and suffering.

    • CarolWR

      The Khumbu avalanche and its resultant tragedy may be an omen for many sherpas that this year will not be a good climbing season. Sagarmartha has spoken.

      It is an opportunity to discuss the many issues (as outlined) regarding climbing Everest.

  • Karsang Sherpa

    Just as easy it is to make the Nepali government the punching bag, some of the responsibility has to be borne by international agencies and international guides who benefit from the business of climbing Everest. These international agencies and guides knew that the Sherpas were not paid enough all along, their life insurance coverage was simply not enough, and above all, they took most of risk. So how come these agencies didn’t buy another $23,000 of life insurance by paying a mere $200 per Sherpa guide?

  • Samy_2012

    FROM Julie McCarthy’s NPR blog today.

    “Another memorial ceremony unfolded this week, this one for 26-year-old Mingma Tenzing Sherpa. He died three weeks prior from what family members say were complications from altitude sickness he sustained at base camp on Mount Everest, 17,000 feet above sea level.

    Mingma’s mother, Da Chiki, says she’s now drinking “to get over the sorrow” and says the untimely death of her only son and the 16 Sherpas last week is indication enough that things should radically change.

    “It’s good if they cancel the expeditions. My son also wanted to climb because he wanted to make fast money. My son would say, ‘After climbing two to three times, I will build a house,’ ” the 65-year-old mother recalls. “But where is the house? Everything has been shattered.”

    A Lucrative But Deadly Job

    Grayson Schaffer, senior editor of Outside magazine, has written extensively on Sherpas. He says that over the past 15 years, at least as many Sherpas were “disabled by rockfall, frostbite, and altitude-related illnesses like stroke and edema” as have died while working in Nepal’s mountains.

    “According to the Himalayan Database, which keeps track of such things, 174 climbing Sherpas have died while working in the mountains in Nepal — 15 in the past decade on Everest alone,” Schaffer wrote in an article published last July, “The Disposable Man: A Western History of Sherpas on Everest.”

    “There’s no other service industry in the world that so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients,” he wrote.”

    • stillin

      I think all the people who could afford to fly over there, and buy the very best equipment on the planet, can afford to build the house, set up an revolving bank account for the families of the Sherpa’s who died helping the tourists reach their dreams.

  • Chris Johnson

    The gentrification of a mountain

  • Thinking

    Tom Ashbrook must have asked every commentator on this show about the ‘moral implications’ regarding this. Here’s a newsflash – there is none. Yes, this is a tragedy, but the Sherpas are volunteers, correct?
    No one is forcing them to take these jobs. And that’s what they are – jobs. What if a worker fell off a wind turbine that supplies wind energy to
    the local community? Is using that power a moral dilemma? What about the farmer who’s injured in a combine on an organic farm? Should we not use that power or eat that food? In order to avoid hypocrisy, the commenter who said that the climbers have blood on their hands needs to ‘walk the dog back’ through all of the businesses or jobs that support his/her lifestyle and stop using that particular good or service if any human has been injured in the production of that good or service. Should the climbers carry their own stuff and haul out their own garbage? Probably so, but again, these are jobs for which no one is forced to do. Should we not have porters in airports? It’s not your business whether someone wants to climb a mountain or not
    and even less so who helps them do it.

    There were also complaints about the Sherpas’ compensation which, by one commentator’s attestation is 10 times that of the average Nepalese. If it were 100 times then you’d complain about income disparity or the fact that the pay is so good that they have no choice but to take the jobs. But I’m sure that one of you on this message board has the correct prescription for exactly what they and everyone else in Nepal should earn. (Probably more than one.) Should Apple open a production factory in Kathmandu?

  • Chainsaw

    I bet there are plenty of sherpas who would take those jobs. I’m sure however, that the sherpas presently employed see the foreign guides making huge money while they do the most dangerous work of setting the ropes so the foreigners can skip along to the top.
    I’ve been to Everest base camp, and the sherpas are very welcoming people. I think it would take a long list of grievances to bring them to this point.

  • Rod Tayler

    I was really diappointed that Tom Ashbrook cut Dave Breashears off, even after Dave told Tom he’d talk as long as Tom wanted to. If I wanted sound bites and commercial breaks (yes, Tom was selling future segments), I’d listen to WTAG or the like. Don’t worry, WBUR, I won’t leave you for WGBH. I’ll never listen to those Koch-suckers again!

  • The poster formerly known as t

    It’s better to take an informed risk than an uniformed one: mistakes and ignorance can cause avoidable injury. I think that most of the construction workers DON’T understand the risks while the managerial workers DO. I wonder if you were the grunt or the engineer who knows a lot more about risky conditions than the workers who worked under your supervision and I wonder if you ever witheld information about a risky situation because you wanted to work completed faster. even if that meant one person leaving on a stretcher.

  • stillin

    tips? An account should be set up for them and it should have been set up a long time ago…so now they can do it, times up.

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