Day 6

Sherpa Tenzing Norgay's son on the fight for respect on Mount Everest

Everest is now open for climbing. But the number of climbers is way down — thanks to avalanches, earthquakes, record deaths and Sherpa labour issues. Brent talks to Norbu Tenzing about climbing Mount Everest from a Sherpa's point of view.
Edmund Hillary, left, and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa set the record in 1953 for being the first men to conquer Mt. Everest. (Picture Norgay Archive/Reuters)

In many ways the 2016 Everest season looks just like years past. Hundreds of climbers are preparing at Base Camp 1. Expedition leaders are making last-minute adjustments. Sherpas are hauling heavy goods through uncertain terrain. But this isn't like the other years.

Since the end of 2013, 38 people have died on the mountain. In 2014, a mound of ice the size of a house crashed into the icefall, crushing 16 Nepali workers. Last year, 22 people died when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked an over-packed Base Camp just days before the climb was set to start. 

Despite assuming a disproportionately large part of the risk, Sherpa climbing guides get a small part of the take. Norbu Tenzing, the son of legendary Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who along with Edmund Hillary was the first person to summit Everest, says they're just asking for what they deserve. 

It's the golden goose but it does need to be taken care of and given the kind of respect that a mountain like Everest deserves.- Norbu Tenzing
Tents at the Mount Everest base camp in 2015. (Azim Afif)

There have been fights and labour disputes, finger-pointing and a growing sense of resentment. But there's also opportunity for change. 

Tenzing says it's time to change the way climbing is managed on the world's highest mountain. 

"The demands of the Sherpas are really all about insurance," he tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "It went from $10,000 to $15,000 [in case of death] in 2014 but that's not enough."

Tenzing says Sherpa families rarely have more than one earner so that money is supposed to cover the cost of a house, education for the children and opportunity for future income, like a business for the widow. But, it barely covers the funeral costs. 

The Sherpas took a stand after the avalanche in 2014. Despite immense pressure from climbers and expedition leaders to continue the season, they refused to climb — a decision Tenzing calls a turning point. 

The business of Everest

The political situation on the Tibetan side of the mountain means the majority of climbs start in Nepal, which is also the most physically demanding route. 

"Up to 30 trips over the ice fall for a mere $30 is like playing Russian roulette with your life."- Norbu Tenzing

Sherpas make repeated passes through the worst of it: An icy, shifting area called "the ice fall." 

Despite assuming a disproportionately large part of the risk, Sherpa climbing guides get a small part of the take.

"Up to 30 trips over the ice fall for a mere $30 is like playing Russian roulette with your life," says Tenzing. 

Despite the terrible conditions and little gain, Tenzing says the Sherpas won't stop climbing. "There's a segment that will always need the work," he says. 

A porter carries crates containing oxygen tanks on his way towards Everest Base Camp on April 10, 2015. Less than a month later, an earthquake triggered an avalanche on the mountain that killled at least eight people. (Tashi Sherpa/Associated Press)

But he also says the issue isn't just money, it's also about respect for the Sherpas and the sanctity of Everest.

"It's the golden goose but it does need to be taken care of and given the kind of respect that a mountain like Everest deserves," says Tenzing. "I'm not sure it's a question of a power shift. It's more just people standing up for their rights and asking for what they rightly deserve."

I'm not sure it's a question of a power shift. It's more just people standing up for their rights and asking for what they rightly deserve.- Norbu Tenzing

Fewer climbers on the mountain

After the disasters of the last two years, demand for climbing Everest is low. There are roughly 400 climbers on the mountain, which is down from more than 800 last year. Tenzing says it means less money but it's not such a bad thing. 

"I think companies are just waiting to see what happens before they start up on Everest again next year," he says. 

Relatives carry the body of Ankaji Sherpa, who lost his life in an avalanche at Mount Everest in 2014. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)

He says there's not much to read in the tea leaves, except that people want to take a break. At the same time, the smaller numbers could present a solution. 

"The government has to qualify the people who want to climb Everest. Right now there's a range of experience and age, from 12 years old to 84-year-olds," Tenzing says. 

"They needs to regulate the mountain somehow and bring the number of people down to a manageable amount," he says. "If they do that, it would go a long way to reducing the risk." 

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