Nepali climbers who earn a living supporting international mountaineering expeditions to summit Everest have been pushed into destitution by the cancellation of this year’s climbing season, and some are struggling to feed their families.
Fundraising drives have been launched by climbers to support the community of porters and cooks and lower-paid guides left without any income since the Nepali government cancelled all climbing permits and stopped international flights, just as the peak spring trekking and climbing season was getting under way.
Nirmal Purja, the record-breaking Nepali mountaineer who is currently in lockdown in Winchester, is among a number of climbers attempting to raise funds for colleagues. He was concerned for the climbing community based in Nepal. “The community there is suffering. Some people don’t even have food to put on the table. It’s the saddest thing,” he said.
Some of the large international mountaineering companies have continued to pay their staff but others have not, and there has been little support for the network of support staff that provide backup services to the international expeditions. The more experienced guides tend to be well paid and have savings that allow them to manage the interruption in their income, Purja said, but the lower-paid cooks and porters have found the disappearance of a year’s salary very difficult.
Although climbing seasons have been interrupted previously, due to natural disasters such as the 2015 earthquake, this is the first time that a season has been cancelled in its entirety. “There are so many porters whose livelihood relies on a daily basis on what they carry,” Purja said. “This is the time they make money that has to sustain them throughout the rest of the year. No-one should be starving.”
Lhakpa Rangdu Sherpa spent last year’s climbing season on Everest, looking out over the stunning panorama of the world’s tallest peaks. This year the only thing the 11-time Everest summiteer is viewing is the television news, as he sits for hours worrying about the progression of the pandemic.
If it continues, this could go on until next season and that will severely hit everyone,” he said. “Some elite climbers might manage but others will suffer badly.”
Top Nepali guides can earn between £4,000 to £12,000 a season on Everest – over 50% of their annual income – but as they edge up the mountain each year, far below them, thousands of porters, cooks and helpers get by on a more precarious living.
The pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to men like Suman Rai, a porter based in Lukla, a small town known as the gateway to Everest. “There aren’t any tourists now. The streets are totally deserted. It’s becoming very hard to survive,” said Rai who has found temporary work laying sewage pipes in the town. “It’s difficult physical work, and the wages are low compared to being a porter for tourists, but I have to do something to survive. I need money to keep my family alive.”
Over half a million people working in tourism have been directly impacted by the lockdown, according to Dandu Raj Ghimire, the director general of the department of tourism, but the government is still discussing how to support them.
“We have proposed some programmes to provide employment to all those who have been made jobless by the lockdown, including guides and porters. These include identifying new trekking routes, and expanding and cleaning the existing routes,” said Ghimire.