Marco Werman: They're also blaming the government in Nepal where at least 13 Sherpas died last Friday after an avalanche on Mount Everest. It was the worst reported disaster in Everest history. Today, people lined the streets of Kathmandu to pay their last respects for some of the victims. No international climbers or foreign guides perished in that avalanche. Just Sherpas, all locals, who were fixing ropes and carrying supplies up the mountain. Many team leaders and climbers at Everest base camp have since called off their expeditions. Others are still deciding whether to climb or not. And the Sherpas? They're considering a strike to demand insurance, benefits for families, and better regulations. A strike could suspend the entire climbing season. Freddie Wilkinson is a writer, a guide and a climber. He's based in New Hampshire. I gather you've been in touch with fellow climbers and guides at Everest base camp. What are you hearing? Are they all planning on suspending their expeditions?
Freddie Wilkinson: No. Things seem to be still very much up in the air and what happened in the wake of this massive tragedy is that virtually the entire Sherpa workforce took a leave of absence to go home to their local villages to just kind of leave base camp to privately grieve. The bulk of those guys are not due back in base camp until Tuesday night or Wednesday. So I think any judgement on what's going to happen is a little premature, pending their return.
Werman: One Sherpa family member said, I read this somewhere, "Right now, I can't even think of going back to the mountain. It's a loss for the whole mountaineering community." If the Sherpas decide to boycott the rest of the season, won't that hurt their families and their livelihoods?
Wilkinson: Potentially. There's been a tremendous amount of grief and sympathy from the western climbers and the guide service organizers as well, so one would hope maybe they would still give them their full wages for the season, even if they don't continue.
Werman: Can you just lay out the dilemma both sides are facing right now, falling this avalanche and these deaths?
Wilkinson: It's basically a supply and demand problem in a completely unregulated market. The Nepalese government in Kathmandu is very far removed from the practical problems the Sherpas face and it's unlikely to see meaningful regulation coming from them. On the other hand, the Sherpas very much want to work. They, in their culture, respect the quiet and putting in an honest day's labor and so I think they also are feeling strong feelings to want to continue and they want to honor their professional commitments to westerners who they have strong and real bonds with.
Werman: I guess it's unfair to paint all the climbers as rich foreigners insensitive to the needs of the Sherpas, intent on getting to the top of Everest. What has been the reaction, you're finding, in the climbing community? Is this a moment of soul searching, do you think?
Wilkinson: Absolutely. I think the vast majority of Western clients and guides on the mountain are sincerely devastated by this and it's been just as emotional and tragic an experience for them. I think there's this additional step where all that sympathy and grief needs to be translated into a sense of responsibility that really is lasting and moving forward can be focused to help with real change.
Werman: Everest is the world's tallest mountain. I guess that's superlative enough to understand why so many people want to climb it, but what does the mountain mean for the Nepalese? Doesn't Everest have a nearly religious connotation?
Wilkinson: It does. Over the years, as the main economic engine in the community, it's also a sacred thing for more practical reasons as well. Their livelihoods are tied to it and the image of it and the Sherpas place a lot of stock in omens. I wouldn't be surprised if many in the Sherpa community are looking at this incident as some kind of an act of revenge for people not paying the mountain more respect.
Werman: Writer, guide and climber Freddie Wilkinson speaking with us from New Hampshire. Thank you, Freddie.
Wilkinson: Thank you, Marco.