It often happens that foreign mountaineers or trekkers, and their local guides or porters, die in the Nepal Himalaya.
Last week’s blizzards in the Annapurna region – which left almost 40 dead, 80 missing and hundreds in need of rescue – are the worst incident yet in a familiar annual tragedy. There then follows an annual circus of finger pointing and amnesia, which takes little account of realities. This in turn exposes the gulf between the tourists and the locals. In fact, the shortcomings of this relationship are probably as much a cause of these disasters as the inherent danger of the mountains.
Mt Everest (a few hundred miles east of the latest disaster) is a place where various passions and self-indulgences – including bravery, ambition, ego and piety – are given full reign. The world loves to watch this deadly drama, largely informed by cliches which were made at least a century ago. So, when a fight broke out in 2013 between Sherpa high altitude workers and a group of Western climbers, the scuffle blew up in the media. Western reports said that the foreigners “could have been killed” by a Sherpa “mob”.
These stories were followed by Sherpas complaining that they’d been provoked, placed in danger and treated with contempt. It was a petty incident but it showed the fault-lines, and how quickly the image of the brave, loyal, self-sacrificing locals will give way to worse assumptions the moment trouble starts. In the international media, the “Everest brawl” eclipsed the death that season of Mingmar Sherpa, one of the “icefall doctors”, killed while laying the route through the dangerous Khumbu Icefall.
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Something much worse happened the following spring, when an avalanche in the icefall killed 16 Nepalis who were laying the route for foreign clients. Most of them came from the same close-knit community. It was the single worst disaster ever on the mountain, and it brought grievances over pay and safety conditions powerfully to the fore.
Grieving Sherpas were angry that only a modest fraction of the money paid by foreign clients is received by those who do the most dangerous work, and angry at the small sum offered in compensation for those who died. They decided to go on strike for the remainder of the season, “throw[ing] the plans of hundreds of foreign mountaineers into chaos“. The usual cliches praising the Sherpas’ brave loyalty became muted, partly to be replaced by complaints that some of them had become aggressive.
Trekking is the more popular younger sibling of mountaineering, and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Trekking guides and porters are usually poorly equipped. Like in mountaineering, only a fraction of the money reaches those who do the hard work – and who faced a life and death crisis in last week’s blizzard. They receive no training in safety. (When the storm struck they were as helpless as their foreign bosses.) The terms of the relationship, and the language barrier, mean that communication will often be limited. And while people may be all smiles while things are going well, when a situation turns into something they can’t understand some foreigners are quick to believe it is they who are being cheated.
The Nepali government receives much revenue from tourism, but has done little to promote safety (or other standards) in the industry. For example, corner-cutting domestic airlines have been killing passengers for years, while the government does nothing. The Trekking Agent’s Association of Nepal – a business lobby – demands permits and fees from tourists, seemingly designed only to extract money, while doing little or nothing to raise standards. TAAN’s response to the latest disaster was to demand that all trekkers must travel through their agencies – not withstanding the obvious fact that their unprepared staff, caught in the Annapurna blizzards, died with their clients in equal numbers.
Nepali social media, and people I spoke to on the scene, were full of stories of tourists dismissing their guides’ advice as the storm worsened; and of un-thanked local heroes struggling through the blizzard with their hands wrapped in plastic bags – men who support their families on the pittance they receive by labouring under tourists’ luggage.
But while not all surviving tourists were so contemptuous or peremptory, some were willing to allege that their staff (who had died) connived in the deaths of foreign clients. Clearly mistakes were made. But although the foreigners couldn’t have understood a word that was said among the Nepalis as the crisis deepened; although the Nepalis would surely have survived if they weren’t guiding unacclimatised tourists through the blizzard; without any objective evidence; on the word of a single tourist; despite conflicting details; the foreign media was sometimes shockingly quick to exchange the fair-weather cliche of the stout Nepali porter for a more invidious oriental stereotype. In these flimsy tales, it was the poor perished workers who were to blame – and the fact they asked to be paid for the risks they took seals the case against them.
It should be obvious that the mountains will never be safe. Certain simple measures, such as weather warnings, would help. Probably the monument to the victims of this disaster will serve as the best warning to those who pass the same way.
But if the industry is to really improve, it must be through far greater respect for the people who carry the loads and show the way. It means training, better equipment, and investment in low-status workers. More respect, in other words, for the mountain people; from the trekking and mountaineering industries, from their own government, and from their foreign guests. Real respect extends beyond grinning selfies and patronising platitudes in praise of porters’ strength, bravery or loyalty – which turn to distrust and gross aspersions when things go wrong.
Thomas Bell has reported on Nepal for over a decade. His new book of history and reportage, ‘Kathmandu’, is published by Random House India.