A veteran New Zealand hiking guide has welcomed the decision by Nepalese sherpas to abandon this year’s climbing season on Mount Everest after a massive avalanche killed at least 13 of their colleagues last week.
The move throws the plans of hundreds of foreign mountaineers into chaos, with many of them waiting in base camp after paying tens of thousands of dollars to scale the world’s highest peak.
But New Zealander John Gully, the founder and managing director of Everest Treks, said he did not ‘‘give a damn about the plans of wealthy white men’’ when compared with the loss being experienced by the families of the sherpas who were killed in Friday’s avalanche - the most deadly recorded climbing accident in Everest history.
At least 13 sherpas died when a block of ice tore loose from the mountain and triggered a cascade that ripped through teams of guides hauling gear. Three more sherpas remain missing and are presumed dead.
‘‘It’s a very good move to cancel the expeditions for the year,’’ Mr Gully told Fairfax Media from Nepal.
‘‘The tragedy is that all of these young sherpa men have died, and it’s being done out of respect to them and their families, and also to the mountain.
‘‘Basically I don’t give a damn about the plans of wealthy white men, because that’s insignificant in comparison to this tragedy.
‘‘Over the last 20 years the mountain has become just a way for wealthy Western people to massage their egos and I struggle with the commercialisation on the mountain, and I struggle with people that put their hand up to say ‘Look at me, I’m a super hero.’
‘‘The mountain is the spiritual mountain for all sherpa, and the spirit has been disturbed.’’
Sherpas perform essential tasks on the 8848-metre mountain, carrying equipment and food, as well as repairing ladders and fixing ropes to reduce risks for their clients.
They earn between US$3000 (NZ$3489) and US$6000 a season, but their insurance cover is almost always inadequate when accidents happen.
Now that the sherpas have boycotted the season, many of the climbers would forfeit most or all of the money they have spent to climb Everest, which can amount to NZ$100,000.
Mr Gully has been trekking in the Everest region for 25 years, and has guided many New Zealanders and Australians. He managed climbing expeditions to Mount Everest from 1988 to 1990, before concentrating on trekking on established trails in the Everest region, and conservation work.
One of Mr Gully’s friends and a former sherpa, Chhepal, told Fairfax Media that eight of his friends had died in last week’s avalanche.
‘‘I have lost eight very good friends. The sherpas belong to four families. All of them are married,’’ he said.
‘‘It’s very hard to decide [to abandon the season]. The sherpas are doing climbing expeditions for money. But if they keep pushing the sherpas it will keep happening for a long, long time.’’
REDUCE RISKS - HILLARY
Peter Hillary says Everest needs to be better managed to reduce risking the lives of more Sherpas,
The guides were hauling gear to the higher camps their foreign clients would use to attempt to reach the 8848 metre summit.
‘‘The Nepalese climbers are providing the backbone and infrastructure for these guided expeditions,’’ Hillary says.
‘‘They’re in the firing line for a substantial portion of the time.
‘‘These people have been killed, their households will be grieving.
‘‘They are left without income, they are left without that precious person. It’s a tragic situation.
‘‘But the real issue is one of reality. It’s a numbers game.’’
Hillary, from Epsom, is on the board of the Auckland-based Himalayan Trust which has launched an appeal to help the Sherpa families.
Funds raised will cover educational and living expenses of the children of victims to ensure they have a guaranteed schooling despite the loss of their father’s livelihood.
The Non-Resident Nepalese Association, which has branches in 65 countries including New Zealand, will provide one million rupees - about $NZ12,000 - for each the victims families, New Zealand president Chakra Thapa says.
Of Nepal’s many ethnic groups, Sherpa are the main peoples who help foreign climbers carry gear and secure the route for them. They are often the main breadwinners of the family.
So far Sherpa families have received 40,000 rupees - about NZ$480 - compensation from the Nepalese government for funeral expenses.
According to reports guides have abandoned this season’s climbing to honour their friends.
They are demanding the government set up a relief fund for those killed or injured in climbing accidents, more insurance money and better compensation.
The government has agreed to a relief fund and has met some of the demands but it falls below what Sherpas wanted.
Hillary, who summited Everest twice in 1990 and in 2002, says the government of such a poor country cannot be blamed.
And cutting the numbers of climbers attempting to summit would only take away much needed income for Nepalese, he says.
The government announced in February that from next year the cost of a single foreigners permit will be slashed from $NZ29,000 to NZ$12,700 to attract more mountaineers.
That is despite the concerns of more climbers joining thousands who already crowd the mountain in the high season.
‘‘Where people make billions in Aspen and Chamonix...to tell the Nepalese maybe they shouldn’t have so many people up there...they need to manage it better.
‘‘They need to bring in better systems.
‘‘A lot of thought needs to go into it. There needs to be a better way of moving the logistics up on the mountain to reduce the exposure of the Sherpas.
‘‘But in the end you have to ask yourself, if you want to take money away from Nepalese people then limit the number of people going up.
‘‘I feel for the livelihoods for Nepalese, and Sherpas in particular.’’
More than 4000 climbers have summited Everest since it was first conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Hundreds have died trying.
Sir Edmund Hillary founded and led the Himalayan Trust from 1960 until his death in 2008.
The trust will also donate a portion of funds raised from a gala dinner at Auckland Museum on May 29 to the Sherpa families.
Go to himalayantrust.co.nz to donate online or post cheques to Himalayan Trust, PO Box 43, Auckland 1140.
- Fairfax Media