AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Just ahead of peak climbing season on Mount Everest, tragedy has struck once again. At least 12 local climbers are dead and several more are missing after a massive avalanche this morning. The climbers, Nepalese Sherpas, were setting up ropes along a dangerous stretch of slope used by adventure tourism companies. This is looking to be the deadliest day in Mount Everest's history and the worst accident since 1996, when eight climbers died in a blizzard.
Grayson Schaffer, senior editor and writer for Outside Magazine, last year wrote a story that raises questions about the tough working conditions and minimal insurance coverage for Nepalese workers, who are the backbone of the mountaineering business in that part of the world. Grayson Schaffer joins us now. Welcome to the program.
GRAYSON SCHAFFER: Thanks for having me, Audie.
CORNISH: Now, as we mentioned, the Sherpas killed today were out preparing a well-known route, the South Call. Tell us what's involved in that, and just how dangerous is this work?
SCHAFFER: Yeah, this is the main route up Everest. This is the route that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay pioneered. And the first thing that you hit out of base camp is called the Khumbu Ice Fall, and it's one of the most dangerous features on the mountain. It's this kind of hanging glacier. The ice fall itself is sort of prone to collapses, where it's just these sort of teetering blocks of ice. And then above all of that is the west shoulder of Everest, which is also covered in ice that's constantly avalanching.
And so every day, they'll have avalanches come down off of the west shoulder of Everest. Now most of the time, those avalanches sort of go by harmlessly. But, you know, in recent years when you have 5-, 600 people on Mount Everest, all of a sudden you're putting a lot more people in the shooting gallery. This morning, it just happened that there was an avalanche right during what is Everest rush hour - at about 6:30 in the morning, when all of the Sherpas were carrying their loads up to Camp One and Camp Two, to stock those higher camps.
CORNISH: Now, you've reported extensively on this community. Give us some context about how important this work is for these people.
SCHAFFER: Well, being a porter on Everest is probably the best job going ,if you're a Sherpa in the Khumbu region and you want to stay and work where you live. You can make between $2- and $6,000 in a climbing season. You know, this is in a country where the median income is still around $550 or $600 a year. So the guys who are strong enough and fit enough to do this work make enough money to support not only their own families, but much of their extended families.
CORNISH: But what happens to these families when high-altitude porters die on the mountain?
SCHAFFER: Well, this is sort of, you know, the unseen tragedy of Mount Everest, which is the fallout back in the villages. I mean, these villages in the Khumbu are tiny - 40 or 50 houses. And in each of these villages there are houses with missing men where widows and orphans have had their husbands and fathers taken from them by the mountain. When a Sherpa dies, there's usually an insurance payment. In years past, it's been about $4,000.
Just for this season, the government raised the minimum requirements to about $11,000. But that's still - you're talking about $11,000 that needs to go to replace the income a worker would have for 10 or 20 years. There's a huge ripple effect that goes unseen by the climbing world. And, you know, if - many of the outfitters are intimately familiar with it but when you get down to the level of the doctors and lawyers and CEOs who climb with these companies, many fewer of them actually see what happens when a climber is lost in the mountains like this.
CORNISH: Doctors, lawyers, CEOs; you're referring to the clients - right? - the people who are actually the tourists here.
SCHAFFER: That's right, the sorts of type A kind of personalities who have the means to pay $50- to $90,000 at the high end, to go and climb the mountain. In many cases, it creates this sort of fraught scenario where Western clients essentially outsource a lot of the risk that they would normally take to these local Sherpas, to carry their equipment and gear up the mountain.
CORNISH: At the same time, would people consider ending the business, doing away with Sherpa involvement in commercial expeditions?
SCHAFFER: Well, that's the difficult question because certainly, nobody - least of all, the Sherpas - want to end this work. These are really good jobs for these guys, and they've elevated the Sherpas to a near-celebrity status, as an ethnicity. But I think a lot of people are trying to work in different ways, to try and make it safer.
But the reality is that the mountain is the mountain. And even if you get fitter, you can get better gear, you can get better science, you can't change the fact that there are avalanches that come down this mountain every single day. And if you put a critical mass of people on this mountain, there's a sense of inevitability that comes with these kinds of tragedies.
CORNISH: That's Grayson Schaffer. He's senior editor and writer for Outside Magazine. Thanks so much for talking with us.
SCHAFFER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.