The moment he heard about the ice fall on Mount Everest, Mingma T. Sherpa got on the phone to find out if his brother was among the victims.
The Woodinville man called relatives in Nepal. He called Everest base camp.
Finally, he got word that his brother, who carries oxygen and food to the high camps, was safe.
But several of Mingma’s friends and former neighbors from the villages of the Khumbu region were not as lucky.
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“For us Sherpas, who do the climbing, going to Mount Everest — going to any mountain — is like going to war,” he said. And almost as deadly.
In his hometown, families who have lost husbands, fathers or brothers to the mountains are not uncommon, he said. But he hopes this tragedy will open the world’s eyes to the staggering risks Sherpas face so that elite climbers can stand on the planet’s highest perch.
Mingma spent several years as a climbing and trekking guide in Nepal before moving to Washington in 2006, part of a small Sherpa community drawn by the Northwest’s climbing culture.
He’s summited Everest and guided groups high on the mountain and to base camp more than 200 times, so he knows what the job entails.
“The Sherpas take all the ropes, they fix all the ladders in the ice fall, they do everything to help the climbers.”
Climbers, who pay $50,000 to $100,000 for the experience of a lifetime, venture out only when the weather is favorable and the route is ready. “The foreign people face risk, but I would say the Sherpas face 100 percent more risk.”
They’re willing to accept the danger because good-paying jobs are rare in Nepal. But Mingma feels that not enough of the profits from the climbing industry trickle down to the Sherpas.
On average, a Sherpa earns perhaps $4,000 a year, Mingma estimated. That’s a good wage in Nepal, but each worker is supporting an extended family. And though the government recently raised the mandatory life insurance for Sherpas on Everest (to $11,000, according to Outside Magazine), the benefits are too low to compensate for the loss of a loved one — and a family’s main source of income, he feels.
“Education is not free in Nepal,” Mingma said. “I worry about the kids of the people who were killed on Everest. I don’t know how they will be able to pay the school fees.”
The company he works for, Sherpa Adventure Gear, manufactures and tests outdoor clothing in Nepal, and devotes a portion of its profits to sponsoring Nepalese children who have lost parents in climbing accidents.
“These kinds of accidents happen a lot,” he said. “But I think this one may make a difference.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that Mingma T. Sherpa has climbed Everest and guided multiple groups high on the mountain.
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or email@example.com