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Climate change threatens more accidents on Mount Everest

Nimdige Sherpa holds a portrait of her son Ang Kaji Sherpa, killed in an avalanche on Mount Everest, with her husband Ankchu Sherpa. --AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha

Last month’s avalanche on Mount Everest that killed 16 Sherpas exposed a tourism industry that relies heavily on cheap labor from a poor country to allow wealthy foreigners the dream of summiting the world’s tallest mountain. It is likely that such avalanches will occur more often in the region of Nepal due to climate change, warn scientists.

Nepal’s glaciers have shrunk by almost one-quarter between 1977 and 2010, says the the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in a new report. Climate change will bring about more flooding, landslides and avalanches. It will affect the climbers who travel to the small Asian country, as well as the small villages tucked amid the mountains.

Pressure is increasing on Nepal as more tourists travel to hike in the country, many to see or climb Everest. The number of people who reached the top of Everest more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2013 to 658 people. The native Sherpa’s are essential to the climbers, serving as porters, guides and the climb preparation team.

“A lot of westerners look at them and say, “Woah! they are superhuman,” said Seattle-based photographer Luke Mislinski to Humanosphere, from Nepal. “But they are just like us and break down. Many only make it until their mid-thirties.”

Mislinski is current in Nepal documenting the work of Glen Young and Karma Sherpa, the co-founders of the Karma Project. The goal is to grown and support a Nepalese owned and run tourism company. It will focus on leading cultural exchange in Nepal, by guiding hikers to parts of the country that are not a part of the popular tourist routes in and around Everest. Despite these challenges, notable progress has been made. The proportion of poor people was halved in only seven years, says the World Bank.

“Everest is not the pristine cultural experience that it once was,” said Mislinski.

The villages that are along the route to Everest base camp have transformed from economies based on subsistence farming to tourist outposts and service stations.

“There are a lot of looming problems ahead. I think Everest is the tip of the iceburg,” said Mislinski.

Nepal is situated towards the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index, ranking 157 out of 187 countries. It is in part attributable to ten years of conflict and the slow process that follows a government transition.  Some twenty governments have been formed since democracy was introduced in 1990.

An avalanche on the morning of April 18th swept down the Khumbu Icefall, falling on the Sherpas who were carrying gear and preparing the area for the paying climbers. Seven people from Karma Sherpa’s small village of Sibuje were working on Everest the day of the avalanche. One of them was killed.

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National Geographic

The Sherpa issued a list of thirteen demands following the accident. It included calls for better life insurance, an education fund for the children of the deceased and the guarantee that all would be paid if the climbing season were to be cut short. Many Sherpa left Everest, as did the expedition companies that arrange for paying climbers to reach the summit. Some say they will never return to work on the mountain.

The incident exposed a long going tension between the Sherpas and the government of Nepal. There are also reports of intimidation of the Sherpas to stay off the mountain this season. As climber Tim Mosedale blogged from the Everest base camp:

Sherpas are being told that if they go on the hill, well, ‘we know where you live.’ Sherpas are turning against Sherpas and in this country where these threats are sometimes carried out they are taken very, very seriously…Time and again the Sherpas have stated that their argument is not with the Westerners and there is no animosity towards us. Their beef is with the government. They are sorry that we are caught in this tangled web on the sidelines but at the same time we (and the mountain) are being used as political leverage to get what they want. Obviously everyone wants better working conditions for the Sherpas but by holding us to ransom they are controlling the situation.

The unresolved issues following the deadly avalanche on Everest show both the problems posed by climate change and the challenges faced by the Sherpas and the people of Nepal.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.