Argument

Everest Shrugged

Why the deadliest day on the world’s tallest mountain won't change the lives of Nepal's sherpas.

In January, when actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin arrived in Nepal, it seemed like they might provide the big headline for this year's Everest climbing season. They were in the country to shoot a blockbuster due out in 2015, based on Jon Krakauer's best-selling book Into Thin Air. The book is a firsthand account of the mountain's deadliest year: 1996, when eight climbers died in a freak storm, along with seven others from falls and other events.

Then last week, on the morning of April 18, as some of this year's first climbers lumbered through the dicey terrain between 18,000 and 21,000 feet, an avalanche throttled down the mountain and killed 16 men. All of them were sherpas, the local staff who take climbers up the mountain. Their name is derived from the ethnic group Sherpa, which lives in the valleys ringing the mountain's southern slope; some but not all Everest workers come from this group.

In a matter of minutes, Everest, an annual staging ground for record breaking, had broken its own record for the deadliest climbing season in the peak's history.

Deaths on Everest, the world's highest peak, are not uncommon, even among the most skilled and experienced climbers. People slip and fall into crevasses, avalanches happen without warning. But this is not the whole story.

As support staff on expeditions, sherpas go up the mountain earlier and more often than their clients, passing through treacherous terrain such as the Khumbu Icefall (where the recent avalanche occurred) with camping gear, food, and oxygen bottles on their backs. In other words, if it's a game of glacier roulette, sherpas hold the gun to their heads many more times than their clients. Charts produced by Outside Magazine in 2013 showed that working as a sherpa on Everest was far more deadly than serving as an American soldier in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. Yet many sherpas' names are not known, their lives -- and deaths -- quickly buried beneath the lore of Everest: stories of foreigners who climb the fastest, with the least oxygen, or for some far-away charity or noble cause.

Promises to improve the sherpas' situation -- to compensate them better, to ensure that they are better protected during climbs, to develop their communities -- have long been hollow. In the wake of the recent disaster, sherpas have threatened to strike: that is, not take people up the mountain. The government has hastily pledged to increase financial support to working sherpas and to compensate the families of the deceased, but doubts remain that there is the will for this to actually happen. Indeed, after the initial outcry dies down, business as usual is likely to continue on the world's tallest peak.

In an interview on Tuesday, Madhusudan Burlakoti, chief of Nepal's Tourism Industry Division of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, insisted, "The expeditions will continue up the mountain. There is no reason to think it's unsafe now because of this natural disaster that happened. These things happen in cycles, and we will address them as they come."

Pressed on whether the government thought Everest was overcrowded with commercial climbers, as a famous 2012 photo exposed, and whether that put staff unnecessarily at risk, Burlakoti explained, "If it's overcrowded, we will rig another rope and have two lines so everyone can go up."

We?

He clarified: "The sherpa workers can rig another line of ropes."

***

Everest is also no stranger to controversy, especially when it comes to disputes between Nepali staff and foreign clients. As anthropologist Sherry Ortner of the University of California, Los Angeles writes in her iconic ethnography, Life and Death on Everest, "[M]ost of the major expeditions of the fifties and sixties had serious strikes" by workers. Perhaps most famously, three top European climbers exchanged blows in 2013 with a group of sherpas after the trio overtook the Nepali rope-rigging crew, allegedly kicked down some ice upon them, and then shouted local slurs.

In the days since this most recent tragedy, the sinewy politics of rich clients climbing a risky mountain in a poor country have festered, as a community mourns and wonders what's next. Some sherpas left the mountain swiftly to conduct funeral rites for their fallen friends, while others stayed at base camp to negotiate the season's next move. Following a meeting of 500 expedition workers at base camp, more than a dozen groups packed up, declared this season a "black year," and vowed to not continue their climbs out of respect for the deceased.

Some Western climbers took a different view. Joby Ogwyn, a Hollywood stuntman who was slated to jump from the summit in a wingsuit live on the Discovery Channel, tweeted soon after the avalanche: "Today is a brighter day. We are staying on the mountain to honor our friends and complete our project." David Roberts, a climber and writer, told the New York Times over the weekend, "[R]ight now at base camp they are saying, ‘This is a tragedy, but we have paid all this money to get here.' ... There is even this macho sense of getting back on their horse."

But then protest marches were held in Kathmandu and sherpa leaders handed a list of 13 demands to the government: increase compensation from the roughly $400 offered to families of the avalanche victims, bolster insurance plans, and filter some of the massive profits the government makes from Everest permits back to the communities from which laborers come -- an ask they have been making for years.

By early this week, even Ogwyn had packed up his wingsuit and left the mountain.

On Tuesday, the government announced that an agreement had been struck with sherpa representatives and industry conglomerate Nepal Mountaineering Association so that expeditions could proceed. Burlakoti explained, "We have met all of the sherpas' demands as they wished," and headlines in Kathmandu lauded the resolution. But despite these orders from the capital, and reports that Western clients are going tent-to-tent at base camp to find support for continuing their summit attempts, some sherpas insist they will not oblige. The climbing season, for now, has sunk into a tense calm that Outside Magazine has described as "in limbo."

Whether expeditions start up soon or not, the government's promises to increase support to sherpas and their families come across as little more than big words in a country where, even with a budgetary surplus in recent years, roads sit in disrepair, electricity is scarce, and a quarter of the population lives on less than $2 per day. Repeated calls on the government to demand protections for the millions of Nepali citizens working in slave-like conditions abroad -- in the Middle East, for instance -- who send back one quarter of the country's GDP in remittances have provoked only tepid responses, such as an age limit for migrant women. What's more, in a signal of just how little attention or respect is given to Everest workers and the ethnic group from which their name comes, last year the government celebrated Sherpa New Year on the wrong day.

Indeed, some see the attitude that these men are little more than disposable labor as one that runs even deeper than the climbing industry. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, a lecturer in anthropology at Penn State University, says they have been excluded from decision-making in a variety of areas. "At a workshop in Kathmandu a few years ago, I listened to plans to help make Khumbu" -- the region where most ethnic Sherpas live -- "more resilient to climate change," she said. "I raised my hand and asked how the development agency planned to include Sherpas in the process of understanding the issues and deciding the solutions. They said, ‘We will hire Sherpas to carry irrigation pipes up into the mountains.'"

Professor Sherpa is not confident that the latest demands for better standards for sherpa workers and communities will stick -- especially given how much income Everest expeditions rake in. "There's too much money lined up in it," she said. "The clients feel like they can get away with anything, demanding to have a right to ascend because they paid for it. And the government has its eyes on the money, not the men who make the industry possible."

***

In Into Thin Air, Krakauer wrote, "Everest has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics, and others with a shaky hold on reality." Last year's commercial client records included the first Saudi woman (while the country debated whether women should be allowed to drive), the first person with no hands, and the first openly gay person -- rainbow flag in hand -- to reach the summit. This year's hopefuls include the first Kenyan, the first blind European, and the first black African woman.

These are the people bringing in the money and making triumphant headlines. Eventually, movie stars just might commemorate their conquests.

It remains to be seen what will happen in the wake of the avalanche tragedy. Krakauer has predicted, "It will come as no great surprise if most of the sherpas now grieving intensely for their absent companions resume their dangerous work." In the meantime, however, there aren't casting agents rushing out to find actors to play Mingma Nuru Sherpa, Dorji Sherpa, Ang Tshiri Sherpa, Nima Sherpa, Phurba Ongyal Sherpa, Lakpa Tenjing Sherpa, Chhiring Ongchu Sherpa, Dorjee Khatri, Then Dorjee Sherpa, Phur Temba Sherpa, Pasang Karma Sherpa, Asman Tamang,  Tenzing Chottar Sherpa, Ankaji Sherpa, Pem Tenji Sherpa, and Ash Bahadur Gurung. 

STR/AFP/GettyImages

Argument

Making Qatar an Offer It Can't Refuse

Saudi Arabia is setting new terms in the Gulf’s relationship with its wayward neighbor. But will Doha bridle at the deal?

The Arab states of the Gulf have launched a new plan to resolve their most serious diplomatic crisis in four decades. Last week, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar agreed on a framework meant to patch up the other Gulf states' disagreements with Qatar on a range of regional political issues. The deal was designed to reverse the collapse in relations early last month, when Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama recalled their ambassadors from Doha in protest of Qatari policies that they deemed threatening to regional security. The public move was a sign of how serious the crisis had become in the Gulf states, where differences are customarily resolved behind closed doors.

Qatar agreed to a list of demands made by its three neighbors that, if Doha fully complies, will deal a heavy blow to the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. But Gulf capitals are skeptical whether Doha will make good on its promises: After all, if Doha fulfills the terms of the agreement, it will mean the reversal of a decade's worth of strenuous and expensive efforts to create a web of influence across the Middle East and North Africa.

The public statement that accompanied the agreement only referred vaguely to an understanding that no member state's foreign policy should undermine the other members' "interests, security and stability." Leaks about the agreement suggested that Doha had agreed to expel Muslim Brotherhood members from the country and stop Al Jazeera from referring to the removal of former President Mohamed Morsi from power in July as a coup. But according to the document itself, the deal's terms are far more wide-ranging and complex than what has been revealed so far.

One of the three countries' demands is for Qatar to rein in media outlets that criticize and attack the Gulf states. This applies to media outlets "inside and outside Doha" and which are supported by Qatar "directly or indirectly." The document makes no mention of stopping Al Jazeera from referring to the Morsi ouster as a "coup" -- which the station does regularly -- although it might have been discussed during officials' meetings. Qatar is said to have funded a plethora of media outlets run by Islamists throughout the region, including Rabaa TV, a channel run from Turkey by Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members.

The document also stipulates that Qatar will expel Brotherhood members currently living in Doha. The document does not specify Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood -- rather, the focus has been on the expulsion of 15 members from the Arabian Peninsula -- five Emiratis, two Saudis, six Bahrainis, and two Yemenis. A previous version of the draft stated that Doha would "abstain" or "no longer support" the Muslim Brotherhood or the Houthis in Yemen, but Doha insisted that the wording implied that it had supported these two groups in the past. The wording was then changed to "Doha will not support" the Muslim Brotherhood or the Houthis, a formulation to which Doha agreed.

The three countries accused Doha of supporting the Houthis, a Shiite insurgent group that is reportedly supported by Iran, to sabotage the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered deal for a political transition in Yemen, according to one Gulf official. Qatar pulled out of the negotiations to reach the deal, which eventually resulted in longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh relinquishing power in February 2012. The Houthis have long proven to be a thorn in the Saudis' side: They have endured several military campaigns by Riyadh, including a major Saudi offensive in 2009 led by former Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Sultan.

Another key part of the deal would bring about an end to Doha's naturalization of Gulf citizens, mostly opposition and Islamist figures. Gulf officials believe that Qatar actively supports these figures both financially and politically -- several UAE and Saudi Islamists are allegedly using Qatari passports to travel in Europe and in the region, according to a source. In 2012, Ahmed Mohammed al-Ahmari, a well-known Saudi Islamist, created a firestorm in Saudi Arabia after he announced that he was retracting his Saudi citizenship for a Qatari one. In an interview, he said that he was approached by the Qataris to grant him citizenship because of his status as an intellectual.

Ahmari is also a staunch critic of the Saudi political and religious establishment. He accused Saudi Salafism of "bringing idolatry to Islam" due to its ideological doctrine counseling obedience to the legitimate ruler. On Twitter last year, he posted a picture of donkeys contentedly drinking water with a quote attributed to the founder of Saudi Arabia reading: "I will make you a great nation that lives in prosperity far greater than that enjoyed by your ancestors."

Qatar has benefited from Islamists such as Ahmari because they have formed a political network across the region that can be called on when needed. For example, according to a source close to Syrian Islamists, Doha has asked an influential Libyan cleric based in Qatar to help form a large rebel coalition in Syria. Instead of being directly involved, Doha often designates such figures to bring together individuals or groups to form alliances in the region.

Coinciding with the push against Qatar to halt support for Islamists, Saudi Arabia is moving actively against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. According to a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in northern Syria, FSA groups backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States are being asked to assimilate more factions into their ranks -- but to steer clear of those close to the Brotherhood. According to another Syrian source, a Gulf-backed plan also aims to boot the Muslim Brotherhood from the opposition's political and military councils.

While some articles have reported that the Gulf states are demanding Qatar shutter Al Jazeera and local branches of international research centers in Doha, the reconciliation document makes no mention of these demands -- nor would Qatar likely agree to them.

The demands to which Doha has agreed were the same demands it had rejected before the Gulf ambassadors' withdrawal last month. Amid Qatar's refusal to sign the document, the three countries threatened to escalate, reportedly considering trade sanctions and closing their airspace and land borders with the emirate. Influential Gulf writers even suggested that military action was not off the table. After Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiya signed the deal on Thursday, the Gulf countries will now give Doha a two-month "probation period" for compliance before sending back their envoys.

For Saudi Arabia, many of these sticking points in its relationship with Qatar are not new. But this time, Riyadh is adamant that it will continue to escalate the conflict with its much smaller neighbor if Doha does not come around to its point of view. For Qatar, however, any major compromise will be costly for its regional standing. It remains to be seen how these divergent interests will be reconciled.

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images