Or rather they won’t! Was I the only person who raised a silent cheer at the news that the Nepalese Sherpas had walked off Everest, and that thus ‘this year’s Everest expeditions had been forced to cancel’?
Not that the Sherpas actually ‘own’ Everest or have any legal means to stop people climbing the mountain, but their actions have thrown into sharp relief that the wealthy American bankers who sign up to companies with names like ‘Adrenaline Junkies’ are incapable of climbing that mountain without a nanny in the form of a Sherpa to carry their equipment, cook their food, nurse their cuts and bruises and generally shepherd them up and safely down the mountain – to the waiting helicopter which flips them back to the airport and Manhattan where they can extoll their colleagues with tales of their bravery and enterprise.
There are genuinely experienced mountaineers still using their expertise to find new and ever more dangerous routes up Everest, but the vast majority of people who arrive with their brightly coloured kagoules and hand-plucked duck feather sleeping bags which they majestically hand to a waiting Sherpa are tourists with no more climbing ability than your average Minsk whale. Some of them don’t even make it past Base Camp, despite having paid £50,000 to one of the several ‘luxury expedition’ companies now in business.
I do concede that you need to be physically fit to even make the attempt. Personally, I didn’t even make it to Base Camp – not that I was planning an assault on the summit, but I had the mad idea that I would celebrate my 50th Birthday with a hot air ballon flight to see the sun rise over Everest(!!!). Sounded wonderful; but even at the first ‘tea-house’ I was wheezing like an arthritic donkey, and delighted to hear that the balloon flight company had packed up early that year due to bad weather. I allowed myself to be talked into descending the quickest way possible, by white water rafting – another adventure available on the slopes of Everest these days. An unforgettable adventure. Five hysterical gung-ho Americans screaming ‘paddle Goddammit, woman’ at a Raccoon clinging maniacally to the guide ropes with no intention of doing anything so daft as letting go and picking up a paddle….they did volunteer to put me ashore early as we raced past a forest clearing bearing the sign ‘Tiger sanctuary – enter at your own risk’. Bloody comedians…that is the last time I voluntarily enter a washing machine on full spin cycle.
I spent the rest of my time in Nepal wandering round Katmandu just listening to the conversation around me. It is a clash of the cultures. What follows is not a particular desire to knock American culture, its just that Katmandu was full of Americans, many ‘high’ after the obligatory visit to ‘Freak Street’ where once cannabis was legal for the religious sadhus, but is now kept under the counter for the hippy saddos – and I didn’t happen to meet any other British people.
Language that may seem perfectly ‘safe’ and acceptable when addressing a Ukrainian taxi-driver in downtown Manhattan lands like a lead ballon in the gentle world of Buddhism. ‘Oy, Tonto’ isn’t a phrase that I would use when I want a waiter to bring me another beer. You may have become desensitised to the meaning of the phrase ‘motherfu*ker’ – but they haven’t. Personally I’d question the wisdom and manners of addressing your Manhattan Ukranian taxi-driver thus, but it is utter madness to use that term towards a Sherpa guide and expect it to be taken as a term of endearment when you are half way up Everest.
In fairness, Ueli Steck, the offending westerner, was a) Swiss, and b) an experienced mountaineer attempting a traverse of the mountain without oxygen and without a sherpa guide. The principle still holds though – ‘Motherfu*ker’ is a term capable of giving great offence. Especially when the Sherpa is earnestly engaged in fixing guide ropes on the lethal Lhotse Face, the better that another season’s worth of western idiots can just ‘walk’ up Everest; he thinks you are responsible for the lump of ice that just landed on his head; and an apology would have been a better idea under the circumstances. Ueli Steck ended the day leaving all his equipment behind and being chased out of Base Camp Two back down the mountain by a 100 strong group of Sherpas hurling rocks and knives. It must have been a terrifying experience, and I’m sure he is, as reported, ‘traumatised’.
A century ago, the Sherpas were, literally, uneducated mountain goats, hauling the merchandise of traders across mountains where no one else could go. Edmund Hillary changed all that for them – 60 years ago. Since then, they have earned good money shepherding westerners up and down ‘their’ mountain; in the 1970s it was only a handful of experienced climbers each year – then the ‘commercial companies’ stepped in with their ‘Everest experience’. Now the Sherpas have responsibility for getting some 500 people a year to the peak – many of whom are not best suited, mentally or physically for the challenge. They are no longer the cream of the mountaineering crop. Many are people who have paid a lot of money for ‘their’ Sherpa to deliver their ‘Everest experience’. That change in the clienteles attitude has coincided with the benefit of good education for the current Sherpas over the past 20/30 years, courtesy of western money.
Last week, an avalanche buried 16 Sherpas, engaged in fixing the ropes and ladders that would allow this year’s crop of climbers to traverse the mountain safely. 16 times helicopters ferried limp bodies down the mountain for ritual burial as their fellow Sherpas watched in silence. Base Camp One was already full of extreme sports enthusiasts who had paid up to £50,000 each for the authentic ‘Sherpa risking his life for you and then calmly cooking your dinner’ experience.
They are furious that they won’t get a refund. The Sherpas have simply walked off the mountain and don’t intend to return.
Good for them. Sometimes money is insufficient compensation.