Today, twelve Sherpas died in an avalanche on Mount Everest, the worst accident in the mountain’s history. (Four are still missing.) The Sherpa community, an ethnic group in Nepal renowned for their mountaineering skills, has long guided foreign visitors up the world’s tallest peak. “Sherpas bear the real burden of climbing Mount Everest,” American mountaineer Conrad Anker told National Geographic. “They’re the ones who take the biggest risks.”

Last year we published a story by Stephanie Lowe that described the growing dangers of the mountain and the concerns of the Sherpa guides, whose very job is to risk their lives on Everest’s slopes.

From the article:

More worrisome, the mountain’s slopes have become crowded, a situation that veteran mountaineers deplore as dangerous. More than 200 people have died on Everest, and even though fatalities happen less frequently these days, the recent surge in climbers has meant that more than a quarter of those deaths have occurred since 2000. There is a very narrow window between May and June when Everest’s slopes are relatively less perilous, and during that time hundreds of climbers can crowd the so-called “Death Zone” — altitudes above 26,000 feet, where oxygen becomes scarce and mental faculties quickly deteriorate. (Climate change may also be making the climb more lethal, as the mountain’s layers of ice and snow melt and leave the path rockier and more treacherous.)

Last year, an expedition went up Everest to clear debris and retrieve the abandoned corpses of previous climbers. The five-person team ended up having to wait four hours in the Death Zone, as climbers going up “Hillary’s Step” — a sheer rock wall just below the summit — jammed the path down. A South Korean climber died, one of Everest’s four fatalities that day.

Nima Sherpa, a twenty-nine-year-old medic, ticks off the many afflictions that beset those who venture into Everest’s unrivaled altitudes: frostbite, snow blindness, hypothermia, delirium. The Sherpa guides who risk their lives climbing the Himalayas’ toughest peaks cannot dwell on these dangers, though: they have families to support. “The pay is good, and this is their work,” he points out.

And yet that is, perhaps, part of the problem. “When your family needs that money,” another guide says, “sometimes you don’t insist a weak climber turn back.”

Victor Tan Chen is In The Fray‘s editor in chief and the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. Site: | Facebook | Twitter: @victortanchen

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