For anyone who follows climbing, this is the big news this morning. The Sherpa guides who are essential to most Everest climbers have decided that they will not work this season in the wake of an avalanche that killed 16 of their colleagues. This is a huge thing, considering that the Everest climbing season is the only income most of them will have all year. It also comes after years of escalating tensions between Sherpa guides and foreign climbers.

The guides take on the brunt of the risk, doing the advance work of setting fixed lines, placing ladders in the Khumbu Icefall, and carrying gear to/setting up advanced camps (Everest climbers have to make multiple trips partway up the mountain to acclimatize before their actual summit bid, staying overnight at progressively higher camps; these camps are also important for stashing gear and to give them a place to rest on both the ascent and descent). For this, some are paid very well, if they're skilled and lucky enough to have signed on with a very good commercial expedition. I believe Russell Brice, who is pretty well-known because he ran the expeditions filmed for the Discovery Channel reality show "Everest: Beyond the Limit" is known for treating the Sherpa he employs well. However, others make little money, especially for the amount of risk involved. In addition, the insurance that expeditions are required to carry for their guides is laughably small. It isn't even enough to cover the cost of a helicopter evac from base camp.

Advertisement

It's a complicated issue, because at the same time even the small amount of money they earn doing this is relatively huge compared to other lines of work in the area. The attention of foreign climbers has also brought in new opportunities for education and travel. Sir Edmund Hillary, the first foreign climber to successfully summit (and maybe the first person; he and Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who helped him, have not revealed who actually summitted first), is also known for founding the Himalayan Trust, which builds schools and medical facilities in Sherpa villages, for example. There is also considerable prestige involved in being a successful Everest guide.

Unfortunately, because they are stuck between a rock and a hard place (no pun intended), their requests for better pay and protections have thus far gone mostly unnoticed. Hopefully, this tragedy and their collective action in the aftermath will help improve working conditions in the future. Climbing mountains, especially 8,000-meter peaks, will always be dangerous, but that's all the more reason to treat the local guides well.