The pictures are unbelievable. You can’t see the people at first—just their jackets, orange and blue and yellow, bright like birds against the snow. Hunched over in a line, along a thin ridge, on their way to the top of the highest mountain in the world. Some of the people in the pictures might already be dead. It’s difficult to tell with all that gear, the goggles and the masks. Some didn’t bring oxygen. It’s become popular to attempt the final stretch, in that part of the atmosphere too oxygen-poor to sustain the human body, without it.
It was May 2019, the peak of the Mount Everest climbing season. People had come from near and far—India, China, France, England, and of course the United States—as they do every year. They sought glory for different reasons, some inscrutable and some dead obvious. Some were experienced visitors on their second, the third—and in one case, eighth—climb. Others were climbing for the first time. They were there to represent their countries and plant a flag, or to tick off an item on their bucket lists. Many more were not climbers, at least not in the adventurer sense; they were Sherpas, the indigenous people who bolster the Everest industry by working as mountain guides, carrying dozens of pounds of equipment up the mountain for their glory-seeking clients. Caught in a traffic jam between the summit and the descent, 11 people died. Whatever peace or transcendence they hoped to find on Everest ended in that line, clamoring head-to-head with dozens of other people stuck in a cold and airless place. Most of the dead were brought back to their families quickly, but at least seven were not recovered till later, becoming temporary residents of a 200-person necropolis. Two-thirds of the bodies on Mount Everest have never been recovered due to the expense and danger of the task, and lie there instead as an eternal warning that conquest is not as assured as it looks.
Every country in that part of the world has tall mountains. Split between the countries of China, Nepal, India, and Bhutan, the Himalayas alone contain 14 peaks 26,200 feet above sea level or higher. In theory, mountaineers should have their pick. To most people, the difference between a 28,000 and a 29,000 foot peak is meaningless. High peaks are hard. But Everest is unlike its peers. The mountain’s reputation is built on 150 years of adventure tourism and propaganda to advance imperialist interests. Climbing Everest is really only glorious because centuries of propaganda, mostly by the British Empire, have affixed glory to it. And of course, like any non-Western country heavily trafficked by Westerners, much effort has been made to reduce the land’s indigenous people to window dressing, despite their complex histories and culture, and the crucial role they play in maintaining the tourist industry at the world’s third pole.
Early British colonizers initially approached the Himalayas mostly through mapping and exploration. However, without satellites and planes, measuring mountains was an arduous task. Around 1830, a Welsh land surveyor named George Everest, who was the Surveyor General of India, requested the brightest mathematical minds to help him check his numbers on a trigonometric survey of India. The plan was to map out the mountains in the North, and triangulate the exact height of each one, to the inch. The European surveyors assumed the mountain had no local name even though a multitude of tribes, speaking a variety of languages and practicing a number of religious traditions, live scattered in isolated pockets across the highlands and at its base. We know the most famous residents in the valley below as the Sherpa people, who are so deeply enmeshed in the history of mountaineering that their name is often used as a synonym for “mountain guide.” They comprise four tribes, most of them Buddhist and descended from nomads on the Tibetan plateau. For centuries, they lived and worked in high altitude. Almost every mountain accessible or visible to the tribes has a name, sometimes more than one. Everest, a mountain in the home territory of several nations and many more ethnic groups, has at least three. The Sherpas called it Qomolangma, Tibetan for “Goddess Mother of the World,” and designated the slopes as holy, a mother mountain. In Nepali it is called Sagarmatha, translated sometimes as “Sky’s Head,” sometimes as “The Mountain So High No Bird Can Fly Over It.”
Radhanath Sikdar was recruited by George Everest from Hindu College to join the mapping effort in 1832. A brilliant young mathematician from a lower middle-class family in Kolkata, he received a variety of prestigious scholarships to college. He was the first Indian national on the survey, and, unlike George Everest, journeyed to physically lay eyes on the mountain in order to measure it. According to a letter from a colleague of Everest’s, one morning, Sikdar had exclaimed, “Sir, I have found the highest mountain in the world.” He had mis-measured the mountain peak at 29,000 feet. Upon recalculation, it was 29,002 feet high: indeed, the highest mountain in the world. The letter referred to Sikdar by a racist colonial term rather than by his name, but it was his discovery. Sikdar’s leading role in the discovery was acknowledged and celebrated at the time, but as the years wore on, he fell out of favor with the empire. He spent his mid-career years protesting the treatment of survey development workers, who were paid a paltry monthly salary of 30 rupees despite conducting the most dangerous parts of the work. Later, Sikdar would write and advocate against child marriage and for women’s education in India, publishing a feminist journal with a friend. In the end, his contribution to measuring the mountain was accidentally de-recognized after his death by the Survey Manual, a publication of worldwide topographic surveys. Accident or not, permanently recognizing homegrown genius would have defeated the ultimate purpose of this land exploration. The point was to colonize. To understand, measure, and name the landscape was to own it. Today, only Everest’s name meaningfully lives on as the name of the mountain.
Part of Mount Everest’s allure lies in the lethal difficulty of accessing it. It is unlikely that Sherpas in the valley below bothered to climb it all before Westerners came along. A huge, forbidding hunk of ice-covered, treacherous rock with no food sources—this is perhaps not the best energy investment for a villager who is just trying to get by. Nobody lives on Everest. Virtually no living things, except some stubborn varieties of moss, are stupid enough to try. Most ordinary people, or even serious mountaineers, would have immense difficulty reaching even halfway on their own; no one has ever summited alone. And before the advent of global tourism, Nepal had forbidden foreigners from crossing into its borders from its founding in 1769 until 1953, the year of the first successful summit of Mount Everest.
But before success came failure, which on the mountain is miserable and invariably ends in injury and death. (Shifting borders and ongoing territorial conflicts with China and India made exploration and failed climbs possible for early surveyors and foreign mountaineers. Half of the mountain remains in China, in the state of Tibet.) George Mallory was the first known person who tried to climb Everest, in1924. His life can be read, like any of ours, through a variety of lenses. He can be seen as a dedicated mountaineer, an admirable but misguided hero, or a foolhardy thrill-seeker. Mallory died on the slopes of Everest, certainly cold and likely alone. His ascent remains shrouded in mystery. No one knows how far up the mountain he went; if he indeed summited, and died on the way back down. His desiccated corpse, rope, and ice axe lie frozen below the last big ridge of the climb. These have become one of the many signposts that climbers use on their way up Mount Everest. Others include a man with green boots known as “Green Boots” and a woman whose conventionally attractive face is well-preserved enough to earn her the nickname “Sleeping Beauty.” Researchers have spent precious time and money sizing up Mallory’s corpse, looking for clues that he reached the summit, with no luck thus far.
The first successful attempt to climb Everest in recorded history was made by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Norgay was a Sherpa, indigenous to Nepal, and something of an adventurer himself. During the expedition, the others would not have made it without his support. In a later interview with the Indian and Nepalese presses, Hillary claimed that Norgay had reached the summit first. This was probably not true: standard mountaineering at the time called for the partner who had done less work to go first, and Norgay almost certainly carried much more of the load than the rest of the expedition. Most accounts of his participation in the summit, in National Geographic articles and guides called “Visit Nepal,” paint him as a happy man with a big smile, a willing assistant to the cause, rather than the most fundamental reason for its success. Unlike the ignored Sherpa guides of Mallory’s expedition, Norgay’s contribution is at least remembered; although Hillary received a knighthood, and Norgay did not. Nonetheless, he continues to be regarded as a hero among communities indigenous to the highlands of Nepal and Tibet. The story that he was actually the first to the top, whether true or not, has become a matter of regional pride.
In the center of the international whirlwind around the mountain, the Sherpas remain economically dependent on the work that wrote Norgay into history: guiding climbers to the summit. Without Sherpas, there would be no Everest expeditions. The work of hauling equipment and fixing lines requires brotherhood, trust, and consistency. Sherpa guides have their own set of rules and protocols they follow, some of which are religious and some of which are more practical. For one, the mountain doesn’t like cussing, and to have sex on her body is completely taboo. She has a temper. While colonizers regarded this sort of sentiment as naive local lore, it is true that Qomolangma kills people all the time. Respect for comrades is absolutely necessary for survival. Climbers, whose lives depend on the guides’ clear heads, ignore these rules at their own peril.
In the spring climbing season of 2013, two climbers tried to push past Sherpas who were in the midst of the extraordinarily dangerous work of fixing lines in the Khumbu Icefall, a section full of frozen crevasses and rickety bridges in need of constant repair. A furious fistfight ensued on the mountain, likely born out of fear and stress, and the climbers and guides had to be physically separated. Some blamed the climber who lobbed the word “motherfucker” at one of the guides. Others pointed to the trash on the slopes and the general pressure on guides to overextend themselves and incentivize climbing during unsafe weather. No one was seriously hurt that day, aside from a few bruised eyes and sore egos; nonetheless, the Sherpas were keenly aware of how easily something could have gone wrong on that narrow, icy pass.
Tensions flare for good reason. Being a Sherpa guide is statistically one of the world’s most dangerous jobs. 305 people have died attempting to climb Mount Everest, more than one-third of which were Sherpas. The death rate of a Sherpa guide hovers at 1.2 percent, higher than the majority of service work, construction, and commercial fishing. A year after the infamous fistfight, 16 Sherpas died at the Khumbu Icefall. Mistakes are rare for guides who frequently navigate Everest as often as 20 or 30 times per climbing season; tragedies are much more likely to result from natural disasters. Sherpas are trained to be attuned to the seasonal moods of the mountain, but as climate change loosens glaciers and whips up storms out of season, these moods are not always predictable. In this case, annihilation was swift and deadly. The guides had been up early in the morning as usual, fixing lines so their clients could traverse the great crevasses safely. A freak avalanche thundered through camp too quickly for them to save themselves, and the Sherpas were buried.
This was a breaking point for the guide community. Sherpas are indispensable to the Everest climbing industry, and they know it. Unlike much of the world’s labor, they cannot be replaced with a robot or a computer screen or a more desperate person willing to work for less. Companies can fly climbers to basecamp, but they can’t walk them up. The knowledge of the mountains, and how to survive them, belongs to Sherpas alone. Mountain guides hold records for speed and for the number of times they’ve summited the mountain. In rural Nepal, these records are a source of pride for the community. On the other hand, since mountain climbing is their job, Sherpas are rarely recognized for their physical exploits and effort. These exploits are also a source of constant worry for guides’ families, underlaid with the nagging truth that there’s not much other choice in the region. Climbing income is crucial to the survival of Sherpa families. When deaths occur, they also take an additionally cruel emotional toll: Often, the bodies are unrecoverable because the effort it takes to haul them down is too great.
As the indignities of the job, the crowdedness of the summit, and the arrogance of climbers have increased over the years, so have the frustrations of Sherpa guides. Elite climbers started bringing personal, better-paid guides to the mountain. While the Nepalese government made millions from permitting inexperienced climbers to traffic the slopes, Sherpa guides had frequently been skipping breakfast to fix lines and repair bridges in the pre-dawn hours and, in the case of the avalanche, dying in the process. Mourning families received a pittance from the Nepalese government. In 2014, as grief gave way to anger over the avalanche, basecamp began to rumble with rumors of a work stoppage. The guides’ demands were simple: better insurance, a rescue fund, better training, and a premature end to the 2014 climbing season so that the guides could return home and mourn their dead.
Sherpa labor actions have existed for as long as the climbing industry. While Tenzing Norgay and his wide smile are the face of the first successful climb, the Hillary expedition started off on the wrong foot. One of the leaders had forced Sherpas to lie on the floor when they were staying at the British Embassy. In retaliation, the lower-ranking Sherpas peed on the road outside to send the leader a message. Strikes were frequent throughout the 1960s, with demands to increase the guides’ pay, improve their access to amenities, and elevate their standing with foreign climbers. The results have been largely positive. Sherpa guides have gained access to elite mountaineer training, healthcare, and life insurance.
The 2014 strike also worked. The demands were granted and the Sherpa community took space to mourn. While sympathetic climbers donated money to the dead Sherpas’ families after the avalanche, others were less understanding. According to a New York Times report, the reaction of most climbers was uncomfortable. Only a conscientious few were willing to turn around and go home. Climber David Roberts noted the general attitude as: “this is a tragedy, but we have paid all this money to get here.” The climbers had come to reach the top, and they had no interest in letting anything get in their way. “There is even,” Roberts said, “this macho sense of getting back on their horse.”
Today, an internet search for information about climbing Mount Everest leads to a number of friendly outdoor guides, outfitters, and sellers of so-called adventure packages. The latter amount to a slightly discounted combination of training, equipment, flights to the location, and trustworthy Sherpa guides to be paid in Nepali rupees. In the space of a year, the guides will earn the equivalent of $5,000. The sites sell these packages as rugged adventures. The names of British and American explorers loom large; their faces, chipped and reddened by the high winds, grin out from the webpage. The sites do not mention Sikdar or Norgay. That could be anyone up there, the websites imply, maybe even you, standing on the top of the world and positively ripped—as long as you’re a Westerner, of course.
Companies sell several routes up the mountain to prospective adventurers. Nepal issues more climbing permits than China, and that face of the mountain is easier to climb. To summit in one shot from the bottom to the top is an outrageously stupid endeavor which would invariably end in death. There are four basecamps that must be reached first, one after the other, so that climbers can acclimate. The whole endeavor takes three months. There are extreme dangers along the way. The Khumbu Icefall, at the head of a glacier, is rife with cracks and crevasses that can open unexpectedly beneath during daytime melts. Avalanches occur frequently there. The Hillary Step, named for Sir Edmund, is in the “Death Zone” where human cells will begin to die no matter how much anyone has paid to be there. The Step is so sheer and narrow that climbers must traverse it single file. Though parts of the Step famously crumbled during a 2015 earthquake, reducing the difficulty of the climb, what remains is still incredibly narrow and steep. This is where the traffic jam killed 11 climbers in May 2019.
If you want to risk death, there are several pricing options. The basic package might cost $69,000. This doesn’t include the flight, or the $11,000 climbing permit itself, which Nepal will grant to just about anyone who can pay for it. For just $100,000 more than the basic option, the luxury package promises a personal chef, personal toilet tents, a private heated kitchen, a private shower—and overall, less interaction with other climbers. Sherpa guides will carry the VIP client’s television, lawn chair, specialty ingredients for their upper-crust meals, and coolers packed with light beer for consumption at base camp. However, even non-VIPs can count on Sherpa guides to perform the drudgery of mountain climbing, taking on most of the climbers’ equipment and fixing their lines to ensure the climbers can reach glory in the timeframe of their vacation. You can have the mountain and your comforts, as long as you can pay for them.
The romanticism of climbing as rugged exploration has transformed into a much more 21st-century-friendly model based on profit and conquest. For those climbers with an extreme-sport approach to mountain climbing, the social rewards for the most daring, the most innovative, the most reckless are endless. Documentary crews and magazines will pay for the adventurous to conquer a high mountain and then a higher one yet, or to conquer it without equipment, or in record time, or while running. According to Outside Magazine, one of the primary causes of traffic on Everest these days is the stream of film crews constantly trailing mountaineers. And even with all the comforts available to wealthy climbers, more glory goes to those who attempt with as few amenities as possible. It’s become fashionable for the most extreme climbers to summit without supplemental oxygen, which is crucial for keeping brain cells alive and wits sharp above the fourth camp.
Mount Everest is only a few feet taller than any number of the tallest peaks in the Himalayas, but it is (if you can believe it) the easiest and most straightforward to summit. Annapurna and K2 are favored by the most serious mountaineers, the kind of people for whom the idea of hiring someone to carry one’s equipment is unthinkable. In his book Into Thin Air, outdoor writer and experienced mountaineer Jon Krakauer—who specializes in reporting on the folly of macho encounters with wilderness—notes that in the climbing community, Everest is considered something of a low-hanging fruit. Many serious mountaineers do climb it, comparing it to a strenuous hike, unlike the more technically challenging sheer rock face of the pyramid-shaped K2, which has claimed the lives of one-third of the total climbers who have attempted it. Besides, for a serious mountaineer, Everest’s VIP package-climber dilettantes are a bit annoying.
Krakauer’s book describes an environment in which summiting Everest has become more and more of a competitive activity. He happens to have been present during one of Everest’s most infamous disasters, a 1996 freak storm that killed six people. Foolishly, they had pushed ahead instead of turning back. While Into Thin Air was made into a movie, it seems unlikely that 2019’s deadlier traffic jam will receive the same treatment. The 2019 event lacked the drama of storms and avalanches, resembling something more like a contagious wave of heart attacks in a grocery store line. The climbers keeled over while standing in line to view the top from just a few feet further up, which feels like a slightly shameful way to go.
The disaster of May 2019 was a long time coming. Every decade or so, a mass fatality on the mountain causes the adventure companies, Nepali bureaucrats, and eager would-be climbers to stop and weigh, yet another time, the risks and rewards of encouraging this industry to flourish. After the 1996 storm, much was made in the media of the petty rivalries and arrogance that led to the climbers being stranded in the storm, and Krakauer attempted to push for stricter limits on the fitness and experience of potential climbers. Very little changed politically as a result, since 1996 was a fairly average year on the mountain in terms of fatalities. In contrast, the disastrous if uncinematic May climbing season led to some new rules: Climbers must undergo basic high-altitude climbing training before setting foot on the mountain, in addition to experience on another, smaller Nepalese Himalayan peak. Climbers are required to hire Sherpa guides, a move that is likely a result of Sherpa labor agitation. These steps are sure to make everyone safer. But as long as there are climbers on the mountain, there will be tragedy. Like the rest of the world, the Himalayan weather patterns are less predictable lately, making the springtime climbing window less safe than it used to be. At the same time, adventure companies are offering more and more amenities, while promising success with more certainty. Nepal may be issuing fewer permits but the country, not wealthy to begin with, makes over $4.5 million per year on Everest permits alone. The economy of the country, and the highlands around Everest, depends on travelers and trekkers. Without a doubt, people willing to pay for access will slip through the cracks of these new rules. It will only take one less-deadly climbing season or two. So long as adventure industries, magazines, star climbers, and whole countries stand to profit, the romance of it will rush back.
Media in affluent nations is rife with images of solo self-actualization that are inextricably tied to the classic colonial dream of the uninhabited landscape. Wealthy climbers, who have benefited from access to the best training and equipment are viewed as embodiments of physical strength and grace, in communion with solitude and masters of nature. It’s much easier to look heroic as an adventurer in a foreign land than as someone who’s lived by the mountain all their life and is simply climbing it for a job.
It’s probably time to reassess what lies at the root of this romantic vision. Wanderlust, and the call to adventure, are not free from age-old colonial enterprises. Exploration creates profit for everyone from outdoor magazines to government bureaucrats to outfitters to the already affluent climbers themselves. Even the most “serious” mountaineering in the Himalayas has never been free of the risky, poorly compensated labor of indigenous workers. If anyone is the hero of this story, it’s the Sherpa mountaineer who traverses the mountain by day and by night, 20 or 30 times a year, to the CEO’s once-in-a-lifetime. No one who’s traveled the world to climb Mount Everest has ever done it alone: The guide has always been there, bringing up the rear. Despite capitalist myth-making, nothing is ever accomplished alone. Why do any of us read about Mount Everest, or write about it, for that matter? Perhaps, for those who lead relatively comfortable lives, we live vicariously through tales of mastering elements, of being on top of the world, of the possibility of real stakes, of struggling for survival and winning. And on the flip side, the fascinating, horrid excesses of the very rich are always fun to hate. Given a chance, many more would-be adventurers would no doubt like to come and see it all for themselves. But unlike equally unprepared members of the owning-class, most readers of this story probably don’t have $75,000 or more to blow on a colonialist death wish. So here you are, finishing out this article and moving onto the next, in your chair, like a coward, thank God.