Preface: Travis recently wrote a piece on just-released movie Sherpa, which presents the other half of the story of Himalayan mountain expeditions – the less publicised half. As I’m currently in the Himalayas on sabbatical, it was highly relevant to my interests. I hope to add a little contextual detail to the story, and highlight the ongoing challenges faced by the nation at present. Please note – I refer frequently to “Nepalis”, for the sake of brevity – but Nepal is made up of dozens of ethnic groups, including Sherpa, Newari, Tamang, Limbu, Rai, and more.
News of 2015’s devastating earthquakes in Nepal rippled around the world like a global aftershock. The western world was briefly grief-stricken for their Nepali brothers and sisters – the 8,800 deaths, the 150,000 or more injured, and the many hundreds of thousands rendered homeless. Briefly. A Google search for news of the recovery process produces hundreds of articles from late April and early May 2015, a dozen or so for late May and early June (“one month on”), and less than a handful since. Anxious for news of the situation my Nepali friends were facing, I’ve scoured news sites regularly – but the world has largely moved on.
I knew from intermittent text message conversations with my friends that their families were still living in tents, 10 months after the first quake, but with limited up-to-date statistics I struggled to determine the scale and progress of the situation – until I returned to Kathmandu last week. A sobering reality became apparent from the first drive from airport to guesthouse – tens of thousands of people remain living in a crowded, muddy tent city, each family living in tiny 2x5m shelters constructed from bamboo and tarpaulins. Some of these tent homes boast tiny, paltry vegetable patches, evidence that occupants are expecting to stay there at least another growing season. It’s bitterly cold in Kathmandu at the moment, but the warm torrential rains of monsoon approach – the second monsoon these families will have weathered in tents. From what I could see, given non-existent drainage, it’s likely that monsoon will turn the tent city into a quagmire of mud and disease. Official estimates suggest there’s anywhere between 150,000 and 450,000 people still homeless and dwelling in temporary shelters across the whole country, most in outlying rural villages, many of which have been cut off from infrastructure by the landslides of the quakes.
In Thamel (tourist central in Kathmandu), I saw perhaps 10-15 other westerners. It’s off-season, but the locals say even for off-season that’s particularly bad. The streets of Thamel are lined with trekking agencies, outdoor gear supply shops and souvenir shops – and last week most were empty (on previous visits to Kathmandu, Thamel has been filled with a veritable swarm of tourists preparing for or returning from treks). Additionally, the UNESCO heritage listed sites of Kathmandu – the other main tourist draws – are now 90% rubble, the ancient architectural treasures gone. Locals say they can be rebuilt, but admit it will not be to their original glory. The repairs to the heritage sites are expected to cost millions of dollars and take up to 10 years to complete.
The world poured aid money in to Nepal in the early days after the quake – but reports suggest that much of the money that went directly to the government from the World Bank has gone “missing”. Locals are not surprised – the Nepali government is renowned for corruption (NB – money that came via NGOs has been more effectively directed, but cannot come close to addressing the housing crisis). To add further complexity, the country is currently hamstrung by a blockade on the Indian border, preventing fuel and building materials from entering the country (Nepal gets 100% of its oil from India). Fuel prices throughout the country have skyrocketed as a result, as have the cost of building materials, rent and utilities. The flow-on effect hampers the rebuilding process significantly. In combination, the blockade and the earthquake have created a major humanitarian crisis. As one indicator of this, there has been an estimated 30% increase in rates of severe childhood malnutrition and sanitation-related diseases over the past year. The blockade is thought to be related to the Indian government’s concerns about issues with the Nepali constitution and government, both of which have been highly contentious since the Nepali civil war in 2001-2006. Others suggest that this is merely an excuse and that the issue is the increasing Chinese interest in Nepal. Incidentally, just to make life even more difficult, landslides along the Nepal-China border from the earthquake have also blocked several trade routes, which have not yet re-opened.
It’s clear on the ground that Nepal is being squeezed from all sides. It’s also clear that the country could take at least a decade or more to “recover” – that is, if conditions were optimal, and they’re not. Of course, recovery is a relative term, when the pre-disaster state was already well and truly third world.
And now, to the controversial issue that is fast bearing down on the nation (and the reason Travis’s article is relevant). The 2016 mountain climbing season is due to start soon, and recent estimates suggest bookings are at least 50% down. The trekking industry is the backbone of the nation’s fragile economy. Supporting this backbone are the Sherpas, the sought-after climbers of the Khumbu region. As Travis noted, the Sherpas were initially extremely bitter after significant loss of life from avalanche on the Everest slopes in 2014, and even more so after the earthquake-avalanche of 2015. Long frustrated by inequities in insurance and pay, stacked against the highest risk climbing jobs in summit expeditions, they argued that avalanches two seasons in a row were a sign that the goddess Sagarmatha (Everest) was angry. Angry at the excesses of the privileged paying customers on summit treks, the environmental damage to her slopes, and the lack of respect that inexperienced western climbers showed the mountain. Now, however, the Sherpas are panicking – the reality is, they have homes to rebuild too, and families to support (children to feed, educate, etc), but no income from the lucrative climbing season two years in a row. Regardless of whether they want to continue to participate in the various strike actions that initially flared up against the climbing industry post avalanche, most will be forced to return to the dangerous slopes above. Sherpas earn up to 100 times the pittance that is the national average income, even if this is a fraction of their western guide counterparts. Few Sherpas can justify refusing this income at present – typically, a single Sherpa’s pay will support a whole village of extended families.
Many Sherpas have contemplated working on lower, less risky treks – but here again there are complex issues. Perhaps obviously, the lower treks do not attract the exorbitant fees of the high mountain expeditions, because they lack the appeal to hubris – thus the relative income opportunity is reduced. Additionally, many of the popular trekking areas were severely damaged by the earthquake. For example, the Langtang valley circuit, previously a relatively high income earner because it was manageable for large volumes of average backpackers (as opposed to mountaineers), was destroyed completely. Base camps and access points for many treks now lack the infrastructure to support high numbers of trekkers.  The result is significantly reduced revenue across the board.
Having said all that, before a definitive conclusion is drawn that the Sherpas are only reluctant, dependant participants in the mountaineering business, some caution should be taken. Even Sherpas are not immune to the aforementioned hubris that attracts western climbers to the highest slopes. Sherpas who achieve repeated summit successes gain significant celebrity in Nepali society (and their average income is hundreds of times that of Nepalis in other industries). Those who can summit without bottled oxygen even more so – and if they can do so even whilst dragging the weight of a privileged and pampered westerner behind them, they have good reason to enjoy their celebrity. More privately, a Sherpa will quietly admit that they’re equally drawn to “just one more” summit attempt as the western professional climbers. Humankind is too easily seduced by the drive to go further, higher, faster, and the mountains are right there – waiting.
Where to from here? The political situation will remain complex and tenuous well into the future. Trade will re-open at some stage, but the timeline for this is unclear. The one industry the Nepalis can at least partially control is tourism. Thus, the Nepali government will likely agree to improved pay and insurance coverage to ensure that Sherpas return to the slopes – without the trekking industry, the economy would collapse further. The Sherpas will likely agree to return, because the livelihood the mountaineering industry offers them is far too valuable to pass up. The moral high-ground is easily lost to starvation – life in a developing nation is sufficiently fraught that moral high-grounds are rarely upheld for long.

For the average Nepali, the difficult daily business that is life goes on, regardless of whether one is in a tent, or a trekking camp. Should an outsider have an opinion on how this life is supported? The only recommendation I can give is that anyone interested in answering that question should book a trip to Nepal, spend some money here (even if you steer clear of the high peaks). Talk to the locals, support them, and learn from their fierce determination and good humour in the face of adversity. It’s worth it for all concerned. 

EMILY HARPER

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