“I was just thinking, ‘that could have been me,’ ” says AC Sherpa, remembering the moments after he heard of the avalanche that killed 16 people on Mount Everest late last week.
He soon discovered that two guides he’d climbed with on a recent expedition were dead.
Sherpa — who runs a Redmond-based travel company and is a world record-setting climber himself — is just one example of the many connections between the Pacific Northwest and the Himalayas. And just one example of the heartbreak felt around this region in the wake of the deadliest day on the world’s highest mountain.
The Northwest has an internationally renowned mountaineering culture inspired by our white-capped, glacier-streaked mountains and nurtured by our region’s deep love of outdoor adventuring.
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As a result we are also home to a number of companies that organize climbing trips to the Himalayas.
In fact five of the guides — also known as “Sherpas” for the ethnic group they belong to — killed in the recent avalanche were employed by Alpine Ascents International, a company based in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood.
But our region’s connection to Nepal doesn’t begin and end at Mount Everest’s base.
Last Friday’s tragedy has galvanized a number of local businesses, organizations and nonprofits already giving back to Sherpa communities in Nepal — groups now hurrying to fundraise for the families affected by the avalanche.
“They say the people who died left 34 family members behind,” says AC Sherpa, who grew up in a village in the Solukhumbu District of Nepal and says he often saw families struggle after losing a father to the mountain. “A lot of (families) in my village had a father who died (guiding on the mountains), and he’d leave two or three kids behind (who) would try and make it with corn and potato farming.”
Sherpa says he never forgot those families, and as his business has grown, he’s made sure to pass on some of his success through his “7 Summits Foundation” which has brought electricity, laptops and medical care to his home region.
But the avalanche has redirected his current fundraising abilities toward compensation for victim’s families. All of the climbers killed in last week’s avalanche were Nepali guides.
Compensation is a sensitive subject in an industry where mandatory life-insurance payouts for high-altitude porters is a mere $11,000 (though the Nepalese government has said this week that it will increase that amount).
AC Sherpa has raised $15,000 through “The Everest Tragedy Fund,” established this week, with the goal of raising more than $50,000.
“It’s a really complicated situation,” says David Morton of The Juniper Fund, a Seattle-based foundation started by Morton and fellow climber Melissa Arnot to provide “relief funds” to families of Sherpas who die while guiding. “Despite the deaths, despite the risks, the Sherpa want this industry, they want these jobs.”
The pay — which averages about $5,000 per season and is significantly higher than the country’s per capita household income — is good, but the compensation is not enough, says Morton, who believes that mandatory life-insurance payout for Sherpas should be raised to $22,000.
Morton is no stranger to the risks of mountain climbing. Having participated in nine Everest expeditions, he was compelled to start The Juniper Fund after a Nepalese woman he knew through a trip lost her husband to a climbing accident.
He spoke with me via Skype from Everest’s base camp, where he’s working with a Hollywood film crew to help produce a feature-length film based on a 1996 Everest disaster that killed eight people, including Seattle climber Scott Fischer.
According to Morton, the film’s team lost three of their climbing Sherpas in last week’s avalanche. Morton himself lost two close friends.
The awful irony of experiencing a new tragedy while dramatizing a past one was not lost on Morton.
“We all understand this is a potential,” he said over a line faint and patchy with distance. “We are attracted to the power of the mountains, but they do have their tragic side, too.”
Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: email@example.com. Twitter: @SeaStute