Why Sherpas are demanding better conditions

Mount Everest's deadliest avalanche killed 16 Sherpas last month and has left Nepal's climbing season at a standstill

The usually peaceful and remote Everest Base Camp has become a place of fights and protests that have brought into the world's spotlight the people without whom no expedition there would ever take place: the Sherpas.

For the first time in Nepal's climbing history, the guides who are the backbone of Himalayan mountaineering have gathered to demand better working conditions and regulations from the government. No expedition has left Base Camp since the deadly avalanche on 18 April, except to go home; the world's highest peak has little significance without Sherpa guides on it.

Since the Nepalese government opened the Himalayan summits for climbing in 1949, foreign mountaineers have flocked to the country to challenge themselves on the world's highest peaks. Many have died, some set world records, others performed feats of survival that have inspired best-selling books and Hollywood blockbusters. And behind the scenes of each success or failure were the Sherpa climbers.

Sherpa, from the Tibetan word Sherwa, means "people from the east" and refers to the ethnic group they belong to and not, as many people think, to the job they do. These people migrated from Tibet hundreds of years ago and settled in the Khumbu Valley in the foothills of Mount Everest. Sherpas were mainly farmers and yak herders, not mountaineers. The only reason they would climb up the Himalayan passes was for trading with neighbouring Tibet. In the 1920s, the British started to employ Sherpas as porters to carry supplies for expeditions to the Tibetan side of Everest. Since then, foreign climbers have relied on Sherpa expertise and help.

"At the beginning, the relationship between foreign climbers and Sherpas was a master and servant relationship," according to Elizabeth Hawley, the 91-year-old journalist and creator of the Himalayan Database. Now there is much more respect between the two parties in recognition of the mutual benefits from working together. "Even the world's most experienced mountaineer cannot climb Everest or any other Himalayan eight-thousander without the support of Sherpas," says Norbu Pemba Sherpa, who has been a guide on treks and expeditions for more than 10 years and owns Wild Yaks Expeditions.

Sherpa climbers were born on the Himalayas, in villages 11,000ft above sea level. They know their sacred mountains, each of which has its own spiritual value and dangers, too. Their genetic adaptation enables them to process oxygen much more effectively than lowland people do, giving them an advantage when working in the mountains and allowing them to assist their clients in the demanding conditions. Despite not being part of the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations, Sherpa climbers are required to undertake a 28-day training course at one of the various Himalayan mountaineering institutes before starting their careers.

Everest Base Camp is still asleep when Sherpa guides wake up, usually between 2am and 3am. They have to carry food supplies, gear, oxygen, medicines and other expedition material up to the other camps before the clients get there. They will then secure the route, fix the ropes and open the trek for the foreign mountaineers. They repeat the same procedure in every camp while the clients take time to acclimatise.

"As Sardar, chief Sherpa guide during an expedition, my job is to transport all the material to the higher camps and install the camps at the right place and right altitude," Norbu Pemba Sherpa says. "At Base Camp, for example, we set up kitchen and dining tents, storage tents, toilet and shower tents, sleeping tents, internet connection and other facilities for the climbers."

The risks are high but the money is too tempting to refuse an expedition offer to a mountain such as the Everest. "I love the thrill of being on the summit of such mountains but money is the main factor," says Dawa Sherpa, 22, who has just begun his career. "I would not put my life in such a danger otherwise."

Sherpa climbers can earn more than $5,000 (£2,945) in one season if they make it to the summit of the world's highest mountain. This includes their gear allowance, which varies from $1,100 to $2,000, their daily salary from $7 to $10 and a summit bonus of up to $1,500. The average annual income for other occupations in many regions of the Himalayas is $150.

Sherpa guides are employed by local trekking agencies that work in partnership with foreign companies. There are more than 1,000 agencies in Kathmandu and little control is exercised by the government to make sure that all operate within the law. There is no fixed salary, no holiday or sick-pay entitlement, and no pension contribution for Sherpas. Insurance packages vary according to the trekking company, while the government covers $10,000 in case of death or up to $5,000 for medical expenses. The job of Sherpas is dependent on their health: as long as they are strong enough to carry loads and clients' oxygen from one camp to the other, they will secure a future for their families.

The trekking and expedition business is a lucrative one for the Nepalese government. Foreign climbers can pay up to $60,000 for an expedition to Everest. For a two-person team in the spring season, for example, the government royalty fees rise to $25,000. More than 300 clients from around 40 different expedition teams were allowed on Everest this season. The government makes about $3m every year from permit charges.

"The government should show more consideration towards the work of Sherpas, Nima Nuro Sherpa, vice-president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, says.

The job of a Sherpa is hard and this is not all due to the extreme conditions. The 13-point list of demands that the Sherpas presented to the government last month is the first big step towards full recognition of their profession and the value put on the guides' lives.

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