Page 15 of the Times of India dated April 20, 2014 has a picture on the centre of the page. The caption reads “A Sherpa is comforted by a relative as she mourns the death of her father, one of the 13 Nepalese guides killed in the avalanche on Mount Everest on Friday” (italics are mine, I will say why a little later). I think to myself, ‘is this the best a reporter with a photographer can do?’ I scan the internet over two days, my mailbox fills up with news from the mountain, of this horrible accident – one that has buried three Sherpas forever and of 13 bodies that have been recovered and brought down for elaborate funeral rites. There are descriptions of the rescue, photographs of the rituals, heart rending pictures of family members…
Celebrity Himalayan experts are introspecting, analysing, bringing in their teams to collate statistics on Sherpa deaths on Everest, figuring out ways to compensate, to make the mountain safer, to stand on high moral ground about Everest tourism and so on.
Don’t get me wrong – they are justified. They mean well. But the essential attitude of almost every climber / well wisher is paternalistic.
Flashback to 1922 when seven Sherpas died on an Everest expedition led by Mallory – a shock wave ran through the veins of the climbing community of those years who felt as responsible for their men as the climbing community feels today. Of course the sherpas of today are savvier; they demand their price for doing what they do – which is dancing with death. However, there has always been a sense of wonder, a sense of guilt that some climbers have about the time that sherpas spend in the danger zone to make the area safe and quick to move through for the clients. In the meantime technology has assured western climbers that they are much safer on the mountain themselves – they shoot themselves with different steroids, acclimatize in artificial conditions –
Jon Krakauer says in his blogpost
‘It’s becoming increasingly common for Western guides and members to acclimatize in hypobaric chambers before they arrive in Nepal, or on other, less hazardous Himalayan peaks in advance of their summit assaults, greatly reducing the number of times they must expose themselves to the perils of the Icefall. Some members now make only a single round trip through it, while each of the sherpas supporting them must still pass through that hazardous terrain between two and three dozen times. Most Western climbers feel more than a little guilty about this, but I know of none who have ever offered to take an extra lap through the Icefall with a heavy load in order to reduce a sherpa’s exposure.’
My argument is not to demand better technology for survival of these men. I am sure there will be ways. I have something much more simple and human to suggest.
Recognition of Identity.
As soon as the climbing community starts to recognize these men as individual human beings , not as a collective, the whole approach to the value of their lives may change. Do you know that there is absolutely no record of the names of all the Sherpas killed in 1922?
Although our attitudes are not as bad today, it will take a marathon effort for any one of you to find the 16 names of those who have perished on Everest in 2014. Some newspapers have featured one or two of the Sherpas, some have named some who died…
If we immediately stop referring to Dorjee Sherpa, Ang Chiring Sherpa, Mingma Sherpa, Ningma Sherpa, Ang Kaji Sherpa, Pasang Karma Sherpa, Lakpa Tenzing Sherpa, Chiring Wangchu Sherpa, Wangele Sherpa, Khem Dorjee Sherpa, Phurba Temba Sherpa, and Tamang Sherpa among others as ‘13 brave Sherpas died in the most horrible tragedy on Everest’ in a similar tone as ’12 sturdy mules were washed away by the river in a flash flood’, we might, just might be able to see them as individual humans who deserve separate obituaries by friends, families, fellow climbers in every climbing journal in the world. A name leads to a picture, a picture leads to an association, an association makes another person real and only when one sees that real person for his laughter and his foibles and his weaknesses and strengths that one can grow to feel the pain of his wife or father or sister or mother or friend.
The caption in TOI should have read “Ang Doma is comforted by Pasang, her brother, as she mourns the death of her father Lakpa Tenzing Sherpa, one of the 13 Nepalese guides killed in the avalanche on Mount Everest on Friday (names are imaginary – please forgive me). The other Sherpas who perished in Friday’s accident were ….. ”
We really need to feel the pain of loss if we want to bring about a change in the approach to this mountain.
Nandini Purandare & Deepa Balsavar, The Sherpa Project