Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Wednesday's History Question:
The Continued Exploitation of Climbing Everest

Wow - that's a lot of - rock.
A friend at the Golden Age Club (yes I have friends over 20) asked me what I thought about the thirteen Sherpas confirmed dead with three more missing after an avalanche on Mount Everest, April 18. He could not believe that the media has been really quiet over it, and asked me about the lack of coverage. He then wondered something: is it because sherpas are just "paid labourers in a lot of people's minds?" I pointed to the great Tenzing Norgay, who with Edmund Hillary, were the first people confirmed to have made the peak.

Until now, I have seen very little discussed in the media about the whole business of climbing the highest peak in the world and the impact on the sherpas who undertake it. Why do they undertake it? Are they forced to? Is this some sort of latent or not so hidden post-colonialism going on?

First - the definition of that lovely word post-colonialism. I see it as part of the world-system theory, where its the economic exploitation of people who were subjected at any time to colonialism - people from somewhere else taking their land, controlling them etc. - or who were placed on the periphery. It doesn't mean that there was political or military domination, but the people were placed in a position of subordination. For more, go read Stanford University's definition. An example is First Nations people in Canada, and the continent of Africa as a whole.

Do the sherpa's fit this definition? Their country - Nepal - was subject to various attempts by the British in the 1800s to be subjugated, with very little success as they played them against the Chinese for years.

What about just old-fashioned exploitation? The Guardian skirts around the issue with their coverage, and just states that the price maybe too high to pay.

This question of exploitation and colonial attitude to climbing Everest are rooted in the mountain's history. Before the first Western attempts, the sherpa people did not climb the mountains but lived among them. Things changed as the British launched expeditions. One bid in 1922 was a disaster. Detailed in Wade Davis' book, Into the Silence, the expedition was a geographic survey of the area. But the leaders decided to launch three attempts to the top. On the third and last one that year, the group was hit with an avalanche, and seven of the porters were killed. There is no mention of any sort of compensation to the dead men's families.

The 1922 expedition to Everest. 

The lack of death compensation and support for the sherpas had rankled Edmund Hillary, who set up the  Himalayan Trust in 1960 to support the economic, health and education of sherpa peoples. The Nepalese government was and still is a fractured, politically unstable country as well, so real assistance or control over the Everest climbs has been minimal. 

For every one climber, typically a client who has paid up to $50,000 to attempt Everest, there are at least two Sherpas carrying loads, according to National Geographic. These men and some women are paid about $125 US per load, or over $3000 a climb. In a country where $700 US a year is a good one, you can understand why they would risk their lives. Many enjoy it. Many do it because they can provide for themselves and families with it. For example, the great female climber/guide Pemba Doma Sherpa died on her way down in 2007, probably for the sake of letting her clients go first. She owned her own business and fundraiser for children's charities. I wonder what she would have said about being economically exploited at least.

Smushed between China and India, you'd think things would be better...oh. Right.
But Nepal is among the poorest and least developed countries in the world, with about one-quarter of its population living below the poverty line. Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, providing a livelihood for three-fourths of the population and accounting for a little over one-third of GDP. 

In his interview with the Guardian, Jamling Tenzing Norgay – the 48-year-old son of Sherpa mountain climber Tenzing Norgay - points out some truths to this economically dependent on Everest life:

"Sherpas don’t climb for recreation. They climb because it’s a job for them, a way of living. Climbing Mount Everest, they make around $3,000 to $4,000 per climb. If they were working in the villages, farming or anything else, it would take them a couple years to make that much. It’s lucrative work, but the risk is always there. It is their choice to go up on this mountain. They are not forced — they love climbing, they like to help clients, they like to see clients get to the top, to see others achieve their goals. But they are doing all the work on the mountain."

If the post-colonial attitude is still there, Times of economic exploitation may be ending: many sherpas have walked out on the current climbers going to Everest, in a mark of protest and solidarity with their dead friends. Because sometimes people can only be pushed so far.

For more films on the history of Everest and the Sherpa people:

Actual footage shot during 1924 Everest Expedition

A decent documentary on the 1924 expedition 

Hillary/Norgay Expedition of 1954

Sherpa People

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