A Nepalese porter walks with his load from Everest base camp in May 2011. Porters walk for weeks to supply climbers, sometimes carrying loads heavier than their own body weight. Laurence Tan/Reuters
A walkout by Sherpa mountain climbers following the tragic deaths of 16 guides on Mount Everest will certainly have an impact on the Nepalese economy. High-altitude mountaineering and the industry that supports it are crucial parts of the area's tourism.
"It's hugely important. Everest is a capstone in the recreational tourism industry, not necessarily because of all the people that are going to climb it but it's such a huge draw into that region," said Nick Heil, author of Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Season.
Dozens of Sherpa guides left the Everest base camp Wednesday, after the deaths of their colleagues exposed an undercurrent of resentment by Sherpas over their pay, treatment and benefits.
"It's the iconic peak. It has a lot of allure," said Heil, who is also the editorial director of the online version of the adventure travel magazineOutside. "Not only do people trek and climb up in that area, but there's a lot of flight-seeing tours that come and go out of Katmandu. I think it's just a very appealing trip to go and be in that region and catch a glimpse of Everest."
Three Sherpa guides remain buried in ice and snow after Friday's deadly avalanche. Thirteen bodies have been recovered.
Since the accident, the Nepalese government has been in a dispute with the Sherpas, who have threatened to boycott the rest of the season. They want better pay for their risky work. The government has apparently met at least some of their demands.
Most attempts to reach the summit are made in mid-May, when weather is the most favourable. Thousands of Nepali guides and porters make their livelihoods during the climbing season, when climbers rely on them for everything from carrying gear and cooking food to high-altitude guiding. Without them, reaching the summit would be almost impossible.
“Tourism income has essentially transformed the Khumba economy. They’ve gone from subsistence herders and farmers, to tourism industry operators. Almost every household [on the southern flanks of Everest] is involved in the tourism industry at some level," said Broughton Coburn, author of The Vast Unknown: America's First Ascent of Everest.
While not rich by western standards, Sherpas make on average about $3,000 to $6,000 US for a season, which equates to about three months of work.
With Nepalese citizens earning a per capita income of around $700, according to World Bank figures, the revenue Sherpas earn ensures that they can support their families for the rest of the year. Not only does the job generate a lot of income relative to what they could make in other occupations, it also confers a lot of status, Heil said.
'Rock stars of their communities'
"Being a climbing Sherpa, particularly being among the lead climbing Sherpas, it's a very prestigious job and these guys tend to be the rock stars of their communities," Heil said.
"So there's a lot of status, a lot of prestige that's connected with working up there on the mountain and I think that lends a lot of appeal to doing this kind of work despite the obvious risks that are involved."
Heil said that Sherpas are also trying to negotiate that they would still be paid for the whole season, even if they were to boycott the remainder of it.
"The government and western outfitters may feel differently about that," Heil said.
Most of the money in climbing Everest goes to the Nepalese government or western outfitters where climbers will lay out about $40,000 to $60,000 for a climb. Meanwhile, the government collects about $3.3 million annually from climbing fees, which represents nearly 80 per cent of all the climbing fees of the nearby Himalayas.
Also reaping some of those foreign tourist dollars are other businesses, like hotels and restaurants, set up in the surrounding area.
"There's probably a good thousand people on the south side and that's just the people in base camp. All the villages on the way up, all the traffic that comes in and out of Katmandu on their way to the mountain. All of these things play a huge role in their tourist economy," Heil said.
A Sherpa strike would have a "considerable" economic impact, Heil said, but it would be somewhat mitigated this year by the fact that many of the climbers are already at Everest, meaning that initial revenue has already been generated.
"It's not like they're cancelling Everest before anyone showed up. So I don't know if the impact would be that high this year, but it would be probably notable at some level."
But Sherpa Pasang, of the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association, told the Associated Press that a total boycott would harm Nepal's mountaineering in the long term.
However, there is more to the region than just climbing the challenging mountain. The area is also known for all sorts of trekking and sightseeing, or climbing some of the smaller peaks.
"It’s beautiful. Most people who trek into the area don’t go to Everest base camp, they go to other valleys, or stay lower down, they trek over passes," Coburn said.
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