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Injured Sherpa Explains Why He'll Never Climb Mount Everest Again

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Monitors flash Kaji Sherpa's vital signs as he recovers in the ICU of Katmandu's Norvic International hospital. Miraculously, the 39-year-old senior climber survived the wall of deadly ice and snow that crushed 16 of his colleagues in the largest loss of life in a single day on Everest, the mountain Sherpas call "Mother Goddess of Earth."

The team had been preparing a path for their clients, fixing ropes on a treacherous stretch known as the "Popcorn" ice field, so-called for its bulging chunks of ice.

"There was a small hill" that acted as a buffer, Kaji says.

"The rest of my friends were below me and died," the veteran climber says. "I was partly covered by the snow, but I was able to come out of it, and when I did, I knew I was all right."

Kaji leans forward, pointing to his side: Remarkably, he sustained just two broken ribs and a small contusion on his lung.

But now, he says, his desire to even step foot on the mountain has been destroyed.

The father of four will return to a less dangerous vocation — farming potatoes, maize and wheat, he says.

Sherpas typically earn $5,000 climbing on Everest for a season that starts in March and runs thru mid-May. That's eight times Nepal's per capita income.

But one week after the deadliest disaster to strike Mount Everest, the country's lucrative climbing season is facing unprecedented turmoil. Sherpas, or local guides, vow to quit for the season. The decision has stoked tension at base camp and disarray in the government with the tourism minister helicoptering to the site Thursday in a bid to defuse anger.

The acclaimed Seattle-based expedition operator Alpine Ascents International lost five Sherpas in the disaster Friday and has canceled its climbs for the season. More big players in the world of high-altitude climbing are expected to follow suit.

A Floodgate Of Grievances

The reversal of fortunes represents a huge blow to one of the poorest countries in the world, whose reputation as a climbing mecca generates tens of millions of dollars each year from climbers and the companies that guide them.

But the recovering Kaji Sherpa supports the shutdown.

"I think it's better not to climb again because so many people are dying," he says.

Funeral services were held on Monday for six of the Sherpas who died in last Friday's disaster, an incident that opened a floodgate of grievances about how the Sherpa community is compensated, insured and medically treated.

The government has promised a sum equivalent to $400 as a death benefit to the families of the victims. The Sherpas demand closer to $10,000, plus a welfare fund from the millions of dollars in fees the government collects from each expedition. Katmandu has agreed in principle to the fund, but nothing has been finalized.

Another memorial ceremony unfolded this week, this one for 26-year-old Mingma Tenzing Sherpa. He died three weeks prior from what family members say were complications from altitude sickness he sustained at base camp on Mount Everest, 17,000 feet above sea level.

Mingma's mother, Da Chiki, says she's now drinking "to get over the sorrow" and says the untimely death of her only son and the 16 Sherpas last week is an indication enough that things should radically change.

"It's good if they cancel the expeditions. My son also wanted to climb because he wanted to make fast money. My son would say, 'After climbing two to three times, I will build a house,' " the 65-year-old mother recalls. "But where is the house? Everything has been shattered."

A Lucrative But Deadly Job

Grayson Schaffer, senior editor of Outside magazine, has written extensively on Sherpas. He says that over the past 15 years, at least as many Sherpas were "disabled by rockfall, frostbite, and altitude-related illnesses like stroke and edema" as have died while working in Nepal's mountains.

"According to the Himalayan Database, which keeps track of such things, 174 climbing Sherpas have died while working in the mountains in Nepal — 15 in the past decade on Everest alone," Schaffer wrote in an article published last July, "The Disposable Man: A Western History of Sherpas on Everest."

"There's no other service industry in the world that so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients," he wrote.

Yet he says there are benefits in climbing for paying clients, especially in impoverished Nepal.

While the economic disparity between the local guides and their foreign clients is glaring, Schaffer says the Sherpas have carved out a livelihood that is difficult to walk away from.

"If Everest were about the exploitation of poor men, this industry would've been shut down a long time ago," Schaffer says. "The reason this is difficult is because this industry has taken a lot of poor men and made them into relatively rich men."

The events that have unfolded in Nepal the past week, including the volatility at base camp as sides debated whether to stay or go, have centered on remuneration of men who do the most dangerous work on Mount Everest.

Yankila Sherpa, a member of the advisory board of Nepal's Mountaineering Association and managing director of Snow Leopard Trek, says it's difficult to quantify the Sherpas' contribution to the country and climbing community.

"It's these people who have been the ambassadors of this country," she says. "The Sherpas have introduced Nepal to the rest of the world."

Intensifying Burdens On Sherpas

At a condolence ceremony this week, families of the 16 men killed or missing in the disaster were handed checks from various private institutions, including Nepal's Mountaineering Association.

Susmita Maskey consoled the daughter of a fallen Sherpa who Maskey knew well. An expert climber herself, Maskey says the burden on Sherpas is intensifying as climbers with little experience increasingly find their way to Mount Everest.

"I've seen a lot of climbers coming from abroad without training," she says. "They don't have formal mountaineering training and completely rely on the Sherpa guides, putting their life in danger and putting the Sherpa's life in danger."

The debate at base camp, meanwhile, roils on.

Todd Burleson, president of Alpine Ascents International, says he is pulling his expeditions off of Everest for the season. Speaking from base camp, he explained his decision.

"We lost five Sherpas on the first day of our climb. And it was very devastating to my crew, my members and my climbing guides," he said. "These people are like our family — we've been here 22 years. So when you lose something like that, it is out of respect but it is also out of tremendous grief that everyone has experienced."

Burleson expects that more major expeditions will also call it quits in what many are calling a "historic" moment for Everest.

NPR correspondent Julie McCarthy is based in New Delhi. You can follow her @JulieMcCarthyJM

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