Outside magazine has a piece I finally got around to reading, and would recommend: The Disposable Man: A Western History of Sherpas on Everest.
While the title mentions Everest, it is about all mountaineering in Nepal. Every mountaineer will agree—and the article mentions this as well—that hardly anyone would be summitting peaks such as Everest if it weren’t for Sherpas’ assistance. No successful or unsuccessful climber has failed to mention the pivotal role Sherpas play on the mountain. Consider this: Most clients of guided tours have one oxygen bottle waiting for them above the Balcony on their way down from the summit. In almost every case, a Sherpa belonging to the group left it there. It seems like the high-altitude version of spoon-feeding but recognize that without such practices, we’d be seeing far more casualties, fewer tourists and fewer opportunities for Sherpas to earn a good living. (The big caveat being that the opportunity is life threatening.)
Mountaineers travelling to high altitudes too are entering something that is potentially life threatening. But they do it as a choice. Contrast that to the hapless situation of Sherpas who climb to earn a living. Sherpas have no cushion to fall back on: it’s either all or nothing. More specifically, their families have nothing to fall back on.
I don’t know what a good solution is. The article depressed me in equal measure as well as inspired me to go to the mountains. That itself conveys that a solution where we cut down on mountaineering is not going to work. But it gives a clue what ought to be done: There are always going to be people who yearn for the mountains. Most of them need Sherpas and the Sherpas need them. Perhaps the disparity in worst-case scenarios for climbers and Sherpas ought to be reduced. I realize that part of the disparity is the society Sherpas inhabit and the one that climbers and guides inhabit—in terms of the effects of disabilities in leading a respectable life.
The other disparity is money. I think of local companies such as RMI and how respected the company and its guides are, and how well the guides are paid. Sherpas need something similar. An American guide taking clients to Everest likely earns as much as all the Sherpas on the expedition put together. (The company the guide works for probably earns from each Everest expedition a few times that.)
The premium here is in part for marketing and how well known their brand is. Safety protocols can be emulated, and indeed, most high-tier guiding companies have similar protocols. Perhaps some day, we will have educated Sherpas who can run their own guiding services, market it well across the globe and control their destinies.
Until then—and I’m sorry to put it bluntly—they are relying on mountaineers’ guilt.