Earth Day

Happy Earth Day! While kids make happy crafts, fingerpainting soy-based inks on recycled paper and participating in a macabre-sounding “endangered species scavenger hunt” at the zoo, I’m taking a walk, and keeping in mind some of the world’s most impressive hikers, the sherpas.

Photo by Laurence Tan for Reuters

Photo by Laurence Tan for Reuters

Sherpas are an ethnic group living in Nepal’s northeastern Himalaya Mountain region. They’re renowned for their superior mountaineering skills in their home territory, due to a combination of experience, bravery, and, some have suggested, genetic adaptations to life at high altitude. In a country with few economic opportunities, some sherpas take high-paying jobs on Mount Everest, locally known as Qomolangma, ferrying fuel, food, and shelter for western adventurers, setting up routes for them to follow — basically doing the work of climbing the mountain, while climbers kind of just come along for the (really rough) ride.

Last Friday, the deadliest Everest avalanche in recorded history struck, taking with it sixteen sherpas who were out setting up paths for their clients to follow. That avalanches happen on mountains and are likely to be deadly is a given, an obvious danger recognized by sherpas who work there. After sherpas found inadequate the Nepalese government’s pledges to help with medical funds for injured sherpas and financial relief for grieving families, they’ve gone on strike, effectively cancelling the 2014 climbing season. It takes a lot to walk away from the most lucrative job you’re likely to find, work that lets you send your children to private school in hope of a different future. As the Wall Street Journal quoted one sherpa who lost a friend to the avalanche, “It’s made us pause and question whether the money we make is really worth the loss of our own lives and the harm to our own mountain from the mountaineering.”

Nobody’s saying it, but one wonders whether climate change has anything to do with the rapid end to this year’s Everest season. Avalanches happen, and any would be deadly if there were people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Aside from shaking heads at bad luck and bemoaning tragedy, maybe we need to at least reframe how we approach some the world’s most imposing natural features, since, as a whole, we’re not really into doing much to slow climate change.

Here, things are pretty tame on these walks, big fluffy clouds and lots of flowers. As I gear up for what will be my first backpacking trip, it’s good to temper my enthusiasm with this bad news and not become some righteous outdoors zealot, to not get too lost myopically poking around websites wondering whether I’ll be any happier getting the titanium cookset that weighs 90 grams less than the other titanium cookset.

Read more about the Mount Everest avalanche in the news:
“Sherpas leave Everest; some expeditions nix climbs” at the Associated Press
“Mount Everest’s Sherpas Shut Down the Rest of This Year’s Climbing Season” at The Wire
“The world’s most renowned Sherpa talks Mt. Everest” at Washington Post
“After Avalanche, New York’s Sherpas Recall Perils of a Job They Left Behind” at the New York Times

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