Widows of Nepal’s sherpa guides fear rising climate-fuelled risks

Climate change is making mountains like Everest more dangerous yet relatives of guides who die bemoan a lack of government support.

As climate change heats the planet, the Himalayan region will lose a third of its glacial ice mass by the end of the century "even in the (most) optimistic climate scenarios," according to the International Water Management Institute. Image: Rüdiger Wenzel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

When Pemba Sherpa last spoke with her husband, Nepali sherpa Dawa Tshering, by phone in October, the guide was preparing to lead his clients down Manaslu - the world’s eighth highest mountain - after bad weather scuppered a summit attempt.

Tshering promised to ring her when he arrived at base camp – but the call never came. On the way down the mountain, the 32-year-old was killed in a massive avalanche – the kind of threat that is becoming increasingly common in the high Himalayas due to warmer temperatures fuelled by climate change.

His widow - who lives in the capital Kathmandu - now wonders how she will survive and keep their 13-year-old son in school.

While Pemba Sherpa received 1.5 million Nepali rupees (US$11,312) in life insurance after Tshering’s death - as is mandated by law - she said the sum was inadequate given that her late husband made about 1 million rupees (US$7,540) a year as a guide.

“How (do I) survive? I don’t have any job,” she said at her family’s rented flat, tearfully looking at a photo of her husband on the wall. “My husband used to say: ‘You do not need to do any job. I do the labour.’”

Each year, thousands of visitors flock to Nepal to visit or climb its mountains, creating work for tens of thousands of people as guides, porters and other staff, as well as in tourism-related jobs.

Of these workers, the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) says at least 10,000 are sherpas, the Himalayan ethnic group renowned for leading expeditions in the Everest region.

However, as climate change accelerates melting of glaciers and ice, the work is becoming increasing perilous – and with few benefits available to bereft families, more mountain guides are pondering whether it might be time to give up the profession.

In 2022, seven people died on Manaslu, including four sherpas and three climbers, according to the tourism department. Over the last decade, at least 177 people have died on Nepal’s mountains - 68 of them sherpas - due to avalanches or accidents.

Mingma Sherpa, chairman of Nepali firm Seven Summit Treks, said he had heard of about 500 sherpa guides leaving the industry and going abroad to seek other work in the last five years - and that many more young people planned to follow suit.

The main drivers were the growing dangers and the lack of social security or welfare support - beyond the mandatory life compensation - for guides who die during expeditions, he said.

We are in discussion about (a) welfare fund, insurance. We are sensitive to this because, without the sherpa guides, we can’t promote Nepal’s mountain tourism to the world.

Suresh Adhikari, secretary, Nepal Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation

“We have been demanding (a welfare fund) for several years, but the government is not serious about the sherpas’ issues,” he said.

Separately, Dhananjay Regmi, head of Nepal’s tourism board, said life insurance payouts were “very low” and should be raised more than sixfold to at least 10 million rupees (US$75,000).

Growing avalanche risk

Although sherpas’ local knowledge makes them well-accustomed to difficult conditions climbing Nepal’s mountains, the changing climate and erratic weather are making their work riskier, according to Nima Nuru Sherpa, president of the NMA.

Like Mingma Sherpa, Nima Nuru said his association has been urging the government to set up a welfare fund that would also cover health and education costs for the families of the deceased.

2020 study by academics at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University found that while avalanches and casualties were most common in the Khumbu region - which is on the Nepalese side of Mount Everest - such incidents and deaths had also increased in other parts of Nepal

Abnormal weather conditions are on the rise in Nepal, according to Indira Kandel, senior meteorologist at the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology.
For example, the monsoon season used to finish by the end of September but now lasts until the second week of October, he said.

Mingma Sherpa of Seven Summit Treks said his company’s expeditions were being hit by ever-more-challenging weather.

“Heavy snowfall during the climbing season increases the risk of avalanches because new snow does not freeze,” he said.

As climate change heats the planet, the Himalayan region will lose a third of its glacial ice mass by the end of the century “even in the (most) optimistic climate scenarios”, according to Santosh Nepal, a researcher at the International Water Management Institute.

“In business-as-usual scenarios, two-thirds of the glaciers will be gone,” he added.

Governments pledges action

Just a week before the death of Dawa Tshering, another guide, 33-year-old Anup Rai, was killed by an avalanche on Manaslu - leaving his wife and two children without an income.

“I don’t have any income … my life is broken, I am not able to think any more,” said Rai’s widow Lalita, adding that she needed US$380 a month to afford to live in Kathmandu. Her late husband earned about 45,800 rupees (US$345) a month on average.

The plight of Lalita Rai and Pemba Sherpa highlights the lack of state support for bereaved families, said Mingma Sherpa.

Nepal’s government generates US$6-7 million in revenue each year by issuing climbing permits, according to the tourism department, and Mingma said it should allocate between 5-10 per cent of that money to a welfare fund to support bereaved families.

Suresh Adhikari, secretary of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, said there was a “problem” with financial support for sherpa guides - and that the government was going to address the issue by reviewing the Tourism Act.

“We are in discussion about (a) welfare fund, insurance,” he said. “We are sensitive to this because, without the sherpa guides, we can’t promote Nepal’s mountain tourism to the world.”

Some sherpas are not waiting to find out if change comes.

One of them, 36-year-old guide Jenjen Sherpa, said he was planning to move to Japan via a work visa and seek a job there.

“If I die during the mountain guiding, my family cannot get any help from the government … so I decided to leave the job,” said the guide, who provides for his wife, 6-year-old daughter and father.

“If my plan succeeds, I will leave the country soon, for my family.”

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/.   

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