Why climb Mount Everest? George Mallory spoke for all mountaineers when he famously replied, “Because it’s there”, way back in 1923. “The struggle is the struggle of life itself, upward and forever upward”, he said on another occasion about the challenge of mountaineering. To the Sherpas of the Himalaya, Mallory’s words would make eminent sense — if only from a totally different perspective. To them, climbing Everest — or helping others climb it — is indeed a struggle to go upward in life. Last week’s tragedy on Everest, in which 13 Sherpas were killed in an avalanche, is a grim testimony of what that struggle can mean. Nothing has lifted the lives of the Sherpas upward like climbing mountains, especially Everest, the highest of them all. For centuries, they remained among the poorest people in one of the world’s poorest countries. Then came the Westerners, such as Mallory, and discovered these hardy people of higher Himalaya. The Sherpas not only showed the “sahibs” the way upward but also fixed ropes, ferried equipment and even carried climbers sometimes, dead or alive. Life was never the same again for the Sherpas, as they began making some money from Himalayan climbs.
But the struggle was not always for an upward journey in life. Mountaineering showed the Sherpas a new way of dying too. Scores of them have died on Everest and other mountains in the Himalaya since the early years of the 20th century. So there is nothing extraordinary about the deaths last week, except that so many of them lost their lives in a single such accident. The deaths are unlikely to stop the Sherpas from going up Everest and other mountains. However, their threat to go on “strike” adds a new element to the business of mountaineering in Nepal. For a country whose economy depends largely on the revenue from mountaineering and related tourism, a ceasework by the Sherpas could mean serious economic and social trouble. The least that the government in Kathmandu can do is act in a more meaningful way to assuage the feelings of the Sherpas. The sum that the Nepal government has offered to the family of each Sherpa victim of the latest tragedy — a little over $400 — is a pittance. But, what is worse is that it reflects a lack of genuine concern for a group of people who earn a substantial part of the foreign exchange that Nepal desperately needs.
As for the Sherpas themselves, the tragedy should make them pause and ponder over the ways they live and die. It cannot be anyone’s case that they give up climbing as a source of livelihood. But they need to ask themselves what they do with the money they make from the mountains. The global climbing fraternity too owes it to the Sherpas to help them pursue other goals.