Calhoun's Cannons for April 21, 2014
Yes, Nepal's a desperately poor country. Yes, the Sherpa guides need the money. That's the usual game, isn't it? Poor desperate "natives" basically paid to go into harm's way or paid to die so rich western adventurers can have their sport. But, c'mon. Thirteen? With three others still missing? Really? When is enough, enough?
Look, when Hillary and Norgay did it, now that was a challenge! But Everest's been done. Dude, it's so done that during climbing season the place looks like an ice-filled e-ticket ride at Disneyland, with long lines of climbers waiting to summit. And the sacred mountain is now a garbage dump filled with empty oxygen bottles, discarded climbing junk, human excrement, and dead bodies. It's ridiculous. Time to move on.
But, instead, what we've got now is a yearly stream of rich outsiders willing to cough up $100,000 bucks just so they can have bragging rights. Or fulfill some kind of egotistical personal need to expend huge amounts of energy and money to get altitude sickness, have a stroke, lose some fingers and toes to frostbite, freeze to death or die in an ice fall. That's great, I get it, high personal drama, "man against nature," that sort of thing. Fine.
And I get that many top Sherpa guides are extraordinary mountaineers in their own right and are earning a great living being guides. As an L.A. Times story by Binaj Gurubachayra and Tim Sullivan (AP) notes, " "A day after the disaster, many Sherpa guides spoke of their work in ways that reflect the complexities of poor people working in a deeply hazardous place. . . . 'The mountains are a death trap,' said Norbu Tshering, a 50-year-old Sherpa and mountain guide who lives mostly in Katmandu. . . . 'But we have no other work and most of our people take up this profession, which has now become a tradition for all of us.' he said."
A tradition "born out of sheer desperation," he forgot to add.
And I get that the "Everest Economy" brings in tens of millions of dollars a year to Nepal, money the government will do nothing to endanger. But Sherpas do not have a tradition of "sport climbing" Everest just for fun. They live in the mountains, they know the mountains and they do not willingly go into the mountains just for the heck of it. No sane Sherpa would. Here's the Times again, "For the Sherpas, the once-obscure mountain people whose name has become synonymous with Everest and whose entire culture has been changed by decades of working as guides and porters for wealthy foreigners, it was a brutal reminder of the risks they face."
The risks they face so they can try "to make a better life for themselves and their families in a desperately poor country," he forgot to add.
What the Sherpas and all the people of Nepal really need is help building an economy that makes guiding a real choice, like, "Do I take this micro-loan and start and grow a small business to support my family, or do I risk death on the mountain while hauling tons of crap up Everest so some rich guy can sit around sipping a glass of wine regaling his friends about how tough his climb was? Hmmmm, let me think."
Now that would be a "choice," just as it is for the wealthy westerners who show up with pockets full of cash, looking for a thrill.
So here's a modest proposal: From now on, western mountaineers could hire Sherpas to schlep up their tons of stuff but only to the safer, lowest base camp. Past that point, all those wealthy, challenge-driven climbers would be responsible for laying their own guide-ropes, putting in their own ice-ladders, and blazing their own trails across the deadly "popcorn" fields and ice-falls, all the way up to the summit. And if they die by the dozens while doing it, well, isn't that what the idea of "Everest" is all about --personal best against a formidable, unpredictable, deadly foe?
And if they're unable to do that on their own, then maybe it's time they just got off the mountain altogether.