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Mt. Everest disaster raises questions of compensation for Sherpas

In April, an avalanche on Mt. Everest killed 16 Nepalese guides in the worst accident in the mountain's history. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Chip Brown of National Geographic on how the deadly disaster has affected the Sherpa community and the climbing industry.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now: the risky business of working at the world's highest peak.

    Hari Sreenivasan revisits a tragedy earlier this year on Mount Everest.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Last month in the Himalayan Mountains, a freak blizzard caught trekkers off guard, killing at least 40 people, half of them Nepalese. And that disaster came during what was already a terrible year for mountaineering in Nepal.

    On April 18, 16 Sherpas, elite climbers, from an ethnic group living high in the Himalayas were killed in an avalanche on Mount Everest. It was the worst single loss of life in the mountain's history, and it shocked the climbing community.

    Many are asking hard questions now about what Sherpas do and how they're compensated for their work. The disaster and its aftermath are recounted in the "National Geographic"'s November edition in a story called "Sorrow on the Mountain."

    And here to tell us more is its author, Chip Brown.

    So, what happened on April 18?

  • CHIP BROWN, National Geographic:

    On April 18, around 6:45 in the morning, several — as many as 100 Sherpas were on their way up to the Khumbu Icefall and about 1,000 feet above them at a very — where the trail goes near the side of this gorge, upwards of 30 million pounds of ice fell out of a hanging glacier, and 16 of them were killed.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You said 100 of them. And it's hard to imagine a traffic jam, a crowd of people.

  • CHIP BROWN:

    Yes, there was a very big traffic jam where they had to down-climb these ladders, because going through the Khumbu Icefall is a labyrinth of ice formations and crevasses. And there are ladders that go up these cliffs sometimes that are as big as 10-story buildings. And they go across crevasses and then they have to down-climb, so it can be a very elaborate trip.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And most of these Sherpas are actually carrying gear for the climbers. You said…

  • CHIP BROWN:

    Yes, upwards of 100 pounds.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    One hundred pounds. And some of this is furniture, and espresso machines and heated carpets for the climbers.

  • CHIP BROWN:

    Well, I don't know if — they have carried espresso machines. But in this case, they were carrying dining tents, chairs, cooking pots.

    I heard one story about a Sherpa who was able to shelter himself from the ice behind a large momo pot, which is a pot that — makes the Sherpa dumplings in. They were carrying the gear for their clients and their own gear also.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Some people are going to listen to this story and say, well, there's always risk involved in mountaineering.

    Why is it that this climb and this tragedy is sparking a conversation in the Nepalese community, in the Sherpa community?

  • CHIP BROWN:

    I think because so many people died at once.

    In previous — there's only been three famous years where there were, like, group deaths, and none of them were bigger than last year. It's not unusual for one or two Sherpas to die in the course of a climbing season. You have as many as 300 people going up the mountain in any one climbing season now.

    You — some Westerners die. Their bodies are still up there. Sherpas are pretty good at taking care of themselves at high altitude, but this is what they call — the Khumbu is what they call objective dangers, and there's really nothing you can do.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Do you think that this will change the climbing culture? You said in your reporting that some of these Sherpas were getting $415 from the Nepalese government as compensation, barely enough to cover a funeral.

  • CHIP BROWN:

    Yes. That was the first offer from the Nepal government, which is — was their kind of emergency fund.

    They have increased their insurance rates. And they're getting more money for insurance. They have — Sherpa compensation has gotten better over the years. Ironically, it's the Western — most of the Western guiding companies that pay more money than some of the locally owned companies.

    This is an immense amount of income for some people. It's their year's worth of income. It's hard to see them not going back. There are Sherpas I talked to who said, I will never put on crampons again.

    That was — they just have lost too many people. There are mothers that have lost more than one son. As somebody once said, no Sherpa wife is comfortable when her husband is on the mountain. But this has — the has brought an enormous wealth to the Sherpa community. And that wealth has produced all kinds of ancillary benefits, education, sending — Sherpas have migrated all over the world.

    One of the largest Sherpa populations is in New York City. Sherpas send their kids to boarding school. So, they take the risks basically to better themselves. There are not a lot of other economic opportunities in the Khumbu, where they live.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Chip Brown.

    The story is called "Sorrow on the Mountain" in the November issue of "National Geographic."

    Thanks so much.

  • CHIP BROWN:

    Thank you.

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