The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A closer look at the dangerous work that Everest’s Sherpas undertake for Western climbers

Mountaineers pause while pushing for the summit of Everest in 2009. (Courtesy of Pemba Dorje Sherpa/AFP)

After a devastating avalanche killed 13 Nepali mountain guides, most of whom belonged to the Sherpa community, Nepal's mountaineering agencies have declared this year "Black Everest Year," calling for suspension of all climbing activities for the next seven days, and mulling whether to continue any expeditions this year.

Although the Nepali government has appealed the Sherpa guides and mountaineering staff to continue the expeditions, many Sherpa guides seem reluctant to return to the mountains this year. “Right now, I can’t even think of going back to the mountain,” said Tashi Dorje in an interview with the Associated Press. “We have not just lost our family members, but it is a loss for the whole mountaineering community and the country.”

A mass boycott by mountain guides less than two weeks before the peak climbing season would not only affect Everest expeditions, but also the livelihoods of hundreds of young guides who live in the mountain communities and rely on the climbing season for money. Without the guides, climbing Everest would be almost unimaginable, and without the foreign expeditions climbing Everest, the lives of the guides' families, predominantly members of the Sherpa community, would be severely disrupted.

Among the Sherpa guides who were killed was Ang Kaji Sherpa, who in 2012 served as a guide for the National Geographic/The North Face expedition to Everest and became the first member of that team to reach the summit. On Saturday, his parents, daughter and two sons waited for his body to be flown to Kathmandu, where a funeral ceremony would be held. Watch this video from 2012, which shows him react with excitement as he reached the summit for the first time two years ago.

A lead mountain guide earns as much as $6,000 during the three-month climbing season. The monthly average salary of Nepalis is $48. So why boycott a job when it is the only source of primary income for the family?

The Sherpas say Nepal's government has not expressed a sense of urgency to help them, despite profiting from the climbing fees charged to many mountain expeditions. Earlier this year in February, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation announced that it was bringing down the price it charges to climb Mount Everest to $11,000 from $25,000 per climber. For many years, aspiring climbers were paying up to $50,000 to receive a permit for climbing Everest. But very little of that trickled down to the hardworking guides.

Understanding the kind of risks Sherpas take and why they want better treatment from the government requires a very basic knowledge of what is it they do. Take a look at this short video that shows climbers using a ladder to cross a dangerous crevasse in the notorious Khumbu icefall, which is often referred to as a death trap in Everest. That ladder was almost likely fixed there by Sherpa guides.

Nepal's government announced that it was providing $415 for the families of the deceased climbers to cover funeral rites, but the Sherpas say the overall treatment needs to change. Last year, the government announced that it would change the insurance coverage amounts of policies that cover mountain guides, porters, liaison officers, search and rescue officials and workers, which includes cooks and helpers, at mountain base camps. According to the new policy that went into effect at the beginning of 2014, a mountain guide's accident and compensation insurance was doubled from $5,100 to $10,300. Insurance for workers at base camps was increased to $8,200 and the compensation for porters was increased to $5,100.

The Sherpas want the minimum insurance payment for those killed on Everest to be doubled to $20,800.

To get a sense of the nature and risks of their jobs -- Sherpas are responsible for hauling heavy gear (like oxygen tanks), fixing ropes and ladders for the climbers, guiding climbers on high altitude, cooking for the team at base camp -- take a look at the following two charts put together by Outside magazine.

The first chart shows the fatality rates based on profession, concluding that the Sherpas on Everest have the most dangerous jobs. In fact, being a Sherpa on Mount Everest is far more dangerous than being a U.S. soldier in Iraq during the four years of violence. You can read about how editors at Outside magazine came up with the fatalities based on numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Himalayan Database.

The second chart shows the number of Sherpas who have been killed on Mount Everest by year. As you will note, from 2000 to 2010 only six Sherpas died on Everest. Nine out of the last 14 years went without any deaths. Since then, 24 Sherpas have been killed in Everest (although the death toll from Friday's disaster is at 14, the remaining three who are missing are also presumed dead).

A simple explanation for the increase in death tolls in the last few years might be the rise in number of expeditions on Everest. Consider this: Two years ago, 234 climbers reached to the top of Mount Everest. Last year, that number nearly tripled, as 658 climbers made it to the top of the summit. More climbers mean more guides. More climbers trying to make it to the top of the mountain in a small window of favorable weather also means more risks. In 2012, four climbers were killed in what was dubbed a "traffic jam on Everest," which was a result of a large number of people attempting to scale the peak at the same time.

To understand where Sherpas are coming from, it's important to understand who they are. For the Sherpa community that lives at the foothills of Everest, the mountain is sacred. They refer to it as Chomolungma, which means "Goddess Mother of the Land" in Tibetan language. For years, they did not climb the mountain, for fear of offending the god. Once the westerners arrived, the Sherpas saw an opportunity to maintain their livelihood by guiding them to the mountains, their own backyard.

But even today, no Sherpa goes on an expedition without performing a ritual at a local monastery, praying to the goddess and asking her protect them throughout the climb. Visible at the mountain and parts of the route to the top are colorful Tibetan prayer flags, left for the winds to spread blessings.

As a very tightly-knit community mourns the loss of their friends and family, it is natural for the Sherpas to question whether climbing a mountain they consider holy for money is worth the risks.

But risks aside, what has angered Sherpas the most in the wake of the most devastating accident on Everest is the government's response. Reacting to the demands of the mountaineering agencies, Nepal's deputy prime minister said, "We will do what we can, keeping with the standard practice to provide compensation.”

About 400 climbers are currently waiting on the mountain to reach the top of the world's highest peak. According to the head of Nepal Mountaineering Association, nearly an equal number of Sherpa guides, porters, cooks and cleaners are with those climbers. Whether the government will listen to the demands of the Sherpa guides is a different story, but what is clear is that if the Sherpas decide not to return to the mountains sooner, the western climbers hoping to achieve glory by scaling Everest will either have to give up or do it alone.

Related: How dangerous is the road to Everest. See these images.