The recent earthquake in Nepal, the most severe in living memory, is unfolding as
a tragic event that has, and still will, cause many thousands of deaths amongst some of the poorest in the Nepali population. Amongst those needing to be rescued in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, however, were around 200 mountaineers trapped high on Everest, partly wealthy patrons of the Everest tourist industry, but also mountain guides (Sherpas) from amongst the local community who guide, lead and sometimes organise these expeditions – often with far less pay than their Western counterparts. Some mountaineers have questioned the wisdom of diverting helicopters to this rescue mission which might have been better used to help communities elsewhere in Nepal, and while it is difficult to provide any judgement about decisions like this without experiencing the situation on the ground, it can only be right to focus attention on Nepal’s suffering population. The decision taken by the Nepali government to continue with the expedition season, despite many Sherpas mourning for friends and loved ones on Everest and in their home villages, seems particularly problematic. Before you read the rest of this article, please consider donating to the relief effort: http://www.dec.org.uk/appeals/nepal-earthquake-appeal .
Class relations at a global level are distilled in these mountaineering relationships and the business of mountain tourism in Nepal. It is difficult to think of another situation in which the world’s business and corporate elite come into such close contact with people from poor communities. While Sherpas are relatively well paid [though nowhere near European guides on Everest], life in their home communities is hard – in contrast, climbing Everest costs upwards of $41,000 per person (most of this is fees, equipment and other support staff). The earthquake is not the only recent event to highlight the class antagonism in these relationships. At a similar time last year (2014), an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas at Base Camp (18 mountaineers were killed in the earthquake avalanche this year), and the resultant strike and international attention focussed a long overdue discussion on the pay, compensation, insurance and working conditions for those who actually fix and create the vast sequence of ladders and ropes that allow Everest’s mountaineers to cross some of the most dangerous terrain on earth in relative safety. The previous year to that, in April 2013, a group of Sherpas attacked two elite European climbers who crossed their ropes as these lines were being fixed. Many European climbers failed to understand such aggression, since crossing ropes is common practice in the Alps. But for Sherpas, multiple days spent fixing lines increase the risks to their own lives, and for those on whom families, and even whole village communities rely for an income, any additional risk caused by Europeans is unacceptable – see blog post above. That class tensions contributed to these incidents received ready confirmation from Sherpas’ comments about ‘luxury adventurers’ in the aftermath.
The Sherpas are right to be angry, they are right to organize, and they would not be the first mountain guides to do so. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, when local mountain guides were still relatively poor locals to the Alps, Guides’ organisations routinely operated as militant Trade Unions, organising strikes, campaigning for maintenance of their religious rights to observe Sunday mass, and bargaining with Alpine authorities over pay and conditions. Examples included the Verein Katholischer Bergführer Sölden or the Kalser Führerverein, both representing guides in small valleys in the Eastern Alps regularly visited by German mountaineers. By the 1890s, many guides were challenging the deference and social expectations of wealthy urban mountaineers by refusing to simply adopt their assigned role as representatives of an idyllic and peaceful ‘mountain people’, and instead treating their clients on the basis of social equality. In fact, it is apparent that for the most part the German and Austrian Alpine Club (Alpenverein), which managed the registration and training of guides, could do little to combat these claims to equality, and as Kerwin Lee Klein has noted, guides were one group in the Eastern Alps for whom Socialism could be attractive in the years before WW1. Guides were, it is clear, able to benefit from continuously increasing pay for their highly-skilled and dangerous labour, health and injury insurance schemes which were amongst the first in Europe, extensive training programs, and control over what, exactly, they would be asked to do. Unsurprisingly, these decisions made by the Alpenverein in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries make few references to the militancy of Alpine Guides, and instead represent such generosity as the patronising benevolence of early mountaineers – but it seems difficult not to conclude that guides’ ability to organise and willingness to take collective action contributed to the improvement in working conditions of many guides in the Eastern Alps by 1914. The antagonisms we see on Everest today, then, echo a longer history of mountaineering stretching back over a century.
The tragedy of this week’s earthquake is not separate from the issues of social inequality that are highlighted so flagrantly by mountaineers and guides on Everest, but which are also at the root of Nepal’s relative difficulty in coping with the disaster. Nepal’s economy is not going to be fixed by thinking again about how mountaineering can improve people’s lives in the country, and no improvement in working conditions could have prevented the avalanche that decimated Base Camp. But if Sherpas were paid the same as their European partners (and this is not to deny the strides that have been made in recent years), it is possible that some of the devastation in their home villages might have been prevented and suffering alleviated more rapidly. Perhaps now we might understand why Sherpas have responded with such militancy to their wealthy employers and customers in recent years.
 Ötztal Heimatmuseum, exhibition material, summer 2013; Anneliese Gidl, Alpenverein: Die Städter entdecken die Alpen (Böhlau, 2007), pp. 182-3.
 Kerwin Lee Klein, ‘A vertical world: the Eastern Alps and modern mountaineering’, The Journal of Historical Sociology, 24 (4), pp. 519-548, p. 520.
 Gidl, Alpenverein, pp. 164-177, esp. p. 177; A Hofmann, ‘Der Bergführer-Lehrcurs in Loeben’, MDOeA XI(XXI): (1895), 79-81; Peter Hansen, ‘Modern mountains: The performative consciousness of modernity in Britain, 1870-1940’, in Martin Daunton and Bernhard Rieger, Meanings of Modernity: Britain from the Late-Victorian Era to World War II (Oxford, 2001), pp. 185-202k; Martin Scharfe, Berg-sucht: Eine Kulturgeschichte des Frühen Alpinismus (Böhlau, 2007), pp. 196-224.