The thrill of trekking up Everest comes at a high and often unseen human cost.
I was working hard to stay in my seat as our red Mahindra Jeep found its way up the bumpy road. The car seemed to be insisting on throwing me out the window. Peeking down the side of the vehicle meant following a cliff 500 feet down to the bottom of the valley, where my eyes finally met the river. I looked back up, and locked gazes with my friend PJ, who was behind the wheel. Knowing exactly what I just saw a few inches from the car tires, we both silently agreed not to speak about it. A nervous smirk crossed my face.
We were on our way to Manang, Nepal, to rock climb. The long climbing road to get there was full of trekkers hiking the Annapurna circuit trek–Nepal’s most famous and scenic. I quickly noticed a common theme in the scenes playing out before us: more often than not, trekkers were accompanied by a local guide or porter who carried packs double or triple the size of theirs. The size of some of the bags baffled me as the Annapurna circuit trek is neither a technical trail nor inaccessible.
On most trails in Nepal, this one included, trekkers sleep in teahouses and are served warm meals and clean water. There is no need for tents, sleeping pads, gas stoves, or heavy food bags. Trekking in Nepal is, in this way, different from elsewhere in the world. Where other mountain ranges seem to attract those seeking self-supported adventures, the Himalayas instead attract trekkers and climbers expecting a certain level of service.
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We were not in Manang only to climb. I was doing research for my master’s and for my work with the Porter Voice Collective about the working conditions of local workers. I’ve spent six months interviewing guides and porters in Kathmandu and Lower Mustang, but this was my first time seeing the industry in action. As we passed porter after porter with bags far above the 77-pound weight recommendation, I realized it was even worse than I had anticipated.
It started to snow, and the road got too dangerous even for PJ’s steady hands. We took refuge in a teahouse alongside two porters.
“Where is your porter?” they asked. “Are you trekking alone?”
We laughed about the fact that we had traveled all this way to the beautiful upper region of Annapurna to hang off a cliff by a rope and stare into a mountain wall. I laughed along but silently, I was happy not to hike amongst porters with backbreaking bags and tourists leisurely walking without.
The day after, as we were packing up to leave, Pranil, one of the porters, was strapping together his impossibly big backpack of 165 pounds. I asked him how it felt to carry a bag that heavy for over a week, but before he could answer, we were interrupted by his Polish client heading out after breakfast. She quickly eyed the bag and asked: “Did you pack all my things?” When he nodded, she headed out to enjoy the day with 11 pounds on her back. Pranil turned to me and answered, “What to do?”
Adventure Served on a Silver Platter
The adventure tourism industry has had a steep rise in Nepal. The country was closed to foreigners until 1955, but climbing and trekking boomed once the world’s highest peaks opened for business. From the get-go, service from the local communities has been integral to expeditions. And still, today, Nepal offers almost unprecedented service for those who want to “conquer nature.” Nowhere else would you be served a Coca-Cola at 23,000 feet.
Today, trekking is widespread throughout the country, and many summits are commercially climbed. But the highest one, Chomolungma, more commonly known as Mt. Everest, is on a level of her own. The mountain has become the pinnacle of adventure storytelling, and agencies and media are selling this peak as the ultimate conquest of nature. However, Chomolungma has long lost its remoteness and is today instead scaled by hundreds of people every year–people who can eat three-course dinners made by someone else, who sleep in tents pitched by someone else, on a sleeping mat inflated by someone else and pull on ropes fixed by someone else up to the summit.
The Nepali government is issuing permits to just about anyone who can pay the fee of $11,000, regardless of experience. Therefore, beginner climbers without sufficient experience outsource risk to local workers who must guide them step by step to the summits. Karan, a student and guide, said, “Workers are babysitting climbers to the summit.”
To the rest of the world, mountaineering and trekking in Nepal looks glorious and awe-inspiring. The industry it has created is often described as the ultimate win-win situation where many jobs are created. But behind summit photos and adventure autobiographies, there is a darker reality–a reality that becomes apparent when local workers are asked directly.
Pranil made only $11 per day, carrying 165 pounds around a mountain range. Although shocking, this salary is average for trekking porters in Nepal and is just $6 lower than the average for trekking guides. With more technical climbs comes higher risks and higher salaries, but the average for climbing guides is still only $30-100 per day for doing one of the world’s most dangerous jobs. Although the salary is higher than in other service sectors, few agree they are compensated fairly.
“The salary is not enough,” says Soneeya, a trekking guide. “Most workers use all their money to support their families; nothing is left for study or training, and most people are stuck in this job.”
Deepesh, a climbing guide, adds: “Salaries are too low. Guides have big responsibilities. You carry 50 people’s lives in your hands. The salary does not cover all your hard work or costs.”
Although the salary may offer survival, more is needed, and the dire economic situation of most workers lends itself well to exploitation. Pritam, a mountain guide and owner of a trekking agency, explained that about 70% of workers do this job because they have no other option. Instead, workers are stuck carrying heavy bags around or up mountains while risking their own lives for other’s dreams.
I asked Deepesh how he thinks the economic situation of workers affects choice and safety. “A tourist comes here willingly, but a guide or porter is working for his family and his life,” he explains. “Whatever the tourists want, they must do. He can’t stop in the middle; he can only stop if he nearly dies. If a guide or porter gets sick and needs rest, the clients might get mad and leave a bad review. They have paid and expect the service. In that way, they buy his whole life.”
Power dynamics tied to economic situations and years of exploitation are difficult for workers to navigate. For most, the ability to say no to a client or to negotiate salary and load weight is a rare luxury. Deepesh’s words rang in my mind as I watched Pranil’s slow nod to his client. I wondered what his response would have been if he was not dependent on the $11 he got paid, and I wondered at what age Pranil would be starting to feel back pain from the heavy loads he was unable to refuse.
Dying On the Clock
Badal, a high-altitude mountain guide, told me a story about an expedition to Manaslu that demonstrates the dangers of the uneven power dynamics in the industry, especially at high altitudes. While delivering equipment to Camp One, Badal and his team of seven workers got caught in an avalanche; one lost their life, and two more were injured. “The sherpas were carrying oxygen for the clients, and even though two were injured and one dead, they wanted to continue. I and the sherpas wanted to give up, stay safe, and grieve, but the clients did not. They said: ‘We have paid money.'”
The clients got their will, and the team continued, but soon, another avalanche hit and took the life of another worker. Finally, the clients accepted defeat and ended the expedition. Badal concluded: “Two sherpas had to die for them to give up their vacation.” He laughed, but there was only frustration in his eyes.
Nepali workers are overrepresented in death tolls on the Nepali mountains. On Chomolungma alone, 126 Nepali workers have lost their lives. The runner-up nationality is India, with 26. Although death is a familiar concept for any mountaineer, and the risk of death is something they freely accept when starting a trip, this logic cannot be extended to the workforce. Too many social and economic constraints might have forced them to take the job. Local workers also take on much more risk than clients. For example, Chandra, a high-altitude support guide, must pass through the most dangerous part of Chomolungma, the Kombu icefall, up to 16 times during an expedition to deliver equipment. All while his clients using the equipment go through only two to four times. It seems to have become the norm to sacrifice workers on behalf of paying customers, and locals’ deaths are too often shrugged off as an unfortunate yet inevitable consequence of standing on top of the world. So much for teamwork.
The Value of a Life
When asked if he felt like his life was valued the same as a client’s, Deepesh had a quick answer: “No. If I fell from lack of oxygen, clients would not help me.” Santosh, a high-altitude trekking guide, concurs: “A guide is expected to risk their life for a tourist, but a tourist would never do the same for a guide. Our lives are not valued the same.”
It is common for tourists to justify the bad working conditions and cling to the comforting lie of a win-win situation by comparing the salary to the average wage in Nepal. As Robert, a trekking tourist, said, “$10 might not sound like much for us, but for these guys, it is.”
But although the salary might be higher than the national average, more is needed to compensate for the high-risk and backbreaking labor. No restaurant worker is asked to die for clients, yet that is the reality of mountain workers. This argument is full of colonial logic and white-savior ideas. It cements the local worker as the poor Other who, although underpaid, is saved through the simple existence of Western tourism. Robert’s words need a spoonful of denial to be digested.
The story I had been told about tourism creating good jobs with great salaries, about the forever smiling Nepalese worker beaming with gratitude over Western tourism, was starting to crumble around me. Or, in truth–it was freefalling. Instead, I discovered that the industry’s current structure, which systemically overworks and underpays workers, is only possible because their lives are valued less and sacrificed for tourists’ dreams.
Pranil and his colleagues carry the deadly burden of balancing their clients’ lives and their families’ livelihoods in just one heavy backpack. But this is different from the version of the Nepali mountains the global public is fed. Instead of Pranil´s heavy backpack and Badal’s grief, they see well-staged photos of people holding foreign flags high in victory on snow-covered summits and trails. Those behind the camera and the scenes are often overlooked, overworked, and even sacrificed.
Nishu, a female trekking guide, said: “Western mountain guides are treated like superheroes. We are treated more like slaves or an animal. There is a lot of racism behind that, and it affects our salaries and lives.”
Aanand, a high-altitude trekking guide, expressed his frustration: “Why don’t they want to pay the same to us as they would a guide in their own country? We are not even asking half the price, and they still come here and bargain with us, f— them.”
How Do We Change?
But a higher salary alone is not enough. Structural changes are needed. I asked Pritam the golden question: How do we change this?
He answered, “The government must create regulations that must be followed. We only have weight recommendations, not real laws. And today, agencies compete to offer the lowest price, and all tourists want to bargain.” He continues, “Instead, all prices need to be set. No bargaining. Workers should be paid well with summit bonuses and tips included in the salary. If the staff depends on tips and summit bonuses, they might take on more risk to please the clients.”
Aanand, a high-altitude guide, had a more radical approach: “For mountaineering, the only solution I see is to stop guiding. It’s too dangerous to be a job. I’m not saying we should stop people from climbing. But if they want to climb, they should go with a team of experienced climbers who choose to be there. No more buying safety from locals.”
Stories from the local workforce make it clear that adventure tourism in Nepal has a long way to go before it can offer equity, fair wages, and safety for the job to be good. Perhaps it is time to question commercial adventure tourism altogether and ask whether someone’s desire to fulfill a dream can ever be worth risking someone else’s life.
Mellissa Arnot, a U.S. mountaineer, shared in an interview with Outside Magazine after her Nepali guide died: “My passion created an industry that fosters people dying. It supports humans as disposable, as usable, and that is the hardest thing to come to terms with.”
Maybe this is not something we should “come to terms with” at all, and instead work to instill change.