It’s normal to say you’re going to break someone’s legs, Sherpa admits

Yes, that’s right, you read it correctly. Sorry about the Upworthy style headline, but before you click back to something else without reading the rest of this post, I must point out that I didn’t say it – somebody else did.

National Geographic has just published a series of articles about this year's Everest tragedy
National Geographic has just published a series of articles about this year’s Everest tragedy

National Geographic has just published a series of articles about this year’s Everest avalanche when 16 Sherpas died. The lead story Sorrow on the Mountain by Chip Brown covers the events of 18 April in detail. It’s a bit of an action movie of an article with lots of graphic narrative about the actual incident (exploding ice, people shouting into radios, etc.), so it’s worth a read if you’re into that sort of thing (I’m not a fan myself), but buried further down the story is one startling statement that leapt out of the page at me.

The second part of the article covers the politics that overwhelmed base camp in the aftermath of the tragedy, and eventually led to all expeditions being cancelled. I’ve talked about all that in great depth in previous posts, so I’m not going to bore you with any more of it here.

I don’t personally think there’s a huge amount of new insight in the National Geographic article either, but Chip did manage to prise one jaw-dropping admission out of Ang Dorjee Sherpa, chairman of the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), the organisation responsible for much of what little regulation there is on Everest, and whose responsibilities include employing the Icefall Doctors who place the fixed ropes and ladders through the Khumbu Icefall every season. I hope Chip doesn’t mind me quoting it here:

“You have to understand the culture. It’s perfectly normal for us to say you are going to break someone’s legs, as long as you don’t actually break them. Every year there are four or five fights during the Dumchi festival in Namche. It’s normal for us to exchange blows while drinking chang, and then tomorrow we’re friends again, and everything is fine.”

The article quotes at length from Sumit Joshi, a director of the Nepali expedition operator Himalayan Ascent, who was active in much of the politics that followed the tragedy, and said in his April 26 blog that:

“I never heard any rumours that threats were being made to mountain workers who wanted to climb, I never heard or saw acts of violence … I wonder if westerners who are reporting such rumours are misunderstanding the situation from miscommunication between them and their Nepali guides.”

I remember being surprised when I read this in Kathmandu after my expedition had been cancelled, because I had been at base camp, and I heard plenty of rumours that threats were being made to mountain workers who wanted to climb. Was Sumit living in a bubble, or was he just in denial?

The threat of violence that followed the issuing of a list of demands was very real (Photo: Ricardo Peña)
The threat of violence that followed the issuing of a list of demands was very real (Photo: Ricardo Peña)

In the light of what Ang Dorjee Sherpa said to Chip Brown we need to be clear about one thing. The threat of violence at base camp following the tragedy was very real. Anyone who thought it wasn’t may have changed their opinion after watching the video footage of the brawl at Camp 2 last year, which has recently been released by Outside.

And no, it’s not OK to say you are going to break someone’s legs, even if you have no intention of doing so. Neither is it OK to walk into a bank with a gun, ask the cashier to hand over the money, and walk out again without shooting him (many commercial clients on Everest felt robbed this year). I’m sure many rapists have no intention of using the knife, but they’re still raping someone at knife point.

In Chip’s article Sumit Joshi also laments that the Sherpas who wished to go on strike “shouldn’t be branded militants or Maoists or a new breed. It’s not a new breed; it’s a younger generation”.

Perhaps Ang Dorjee is right, it’s a cultural thing. In the West going on strike and holding those who are relying on your services to ransom is known as militancy, just as threatening violence, whether or not you end up carrying it out, is known as terrorism. Perhaps there has just been a misunderstanding, but if any of you reading this are thinking of climbing with Himalayan Ascent you may want to make sure the misunderstanding is resolved before parting with your $52,500.

Nepal’s tourist industry has a huge image problem now. An even bigger tragedy is unfolding as we speak. At the time of writing 32 western trekkers and Nepali trek staff are confirmed dead in a series of severe weather incidents across the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri region, and many more are still missing. My heart goes out to all of them and their families, as it did to the 16 Sherpas whose bodies I watched airlifted on long lines at base camp. While the mountains will always be dangerous, particularly for climbers, many of these deaths were preventable. In the case of the blizzards which swept across Nepal earlier this week, the severe weather was known about days in advance: warnings could have been put in place and heeded.

Many trekkers cancelled their holidays when they heard about the avalanche and Sherpa strike in April, and I have spoken to many Everest and Lhotse climbers who say they will not be returning because they are suspicious of what might happen next year. With the prices they are paying this is understandable. Many more trekkers will stay away from Nepal after this latest tragedy. The world is changing and cultural differences are receding; we need to stop using them as an excuse for not doing what we should be doing. If we don’t then it will harm us in the long run.

There is a Facebook page for those seeking information about friends and family still missing in the blizzards, and the Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal (TAAN) has live updates of the rescue operation on its website.

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8 thoughts on “It’s normal to say you’re going to break someone’s legs, Sherpa admits

  • October 18, 2014 at 5:03 am
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    Hi Mark

    A link to your article has been sent to me. I have a lot of thoughts on it and am a bit surprised by how much of the article I think I can provide compelling counter-arguments for. However, I just wanted to highlight one thing: when there are issues at mountains, it is often or always the best English speaking Nepalis that are called to stand in front of western leaders to speak on behalf of the local guides and porters. As a result, they are often mistaken for ringleaders, rather than translators. I remember after the Manaslu avalanche (2012) when a meeting was held, and I was a lone westerner sitting on the Nepali side of the volleyball court for a period, Sumit was also asked then to translate, as was another Nepali guide. Nepali guides who are asked to speak in such situations should not unfairly be singled out for their roles, since western leaders rarely speak Nepali, despite having been working in Nepal for many years. I climb with Himalayan Ascent always and their service levels, all-round high quality, well trained staff and commitment to safety make them an easy choice for me in the mountains. If I was to return to Mt Everest and had the money, I know I would be parting with it to a high quality company, with high quality people. Good luck on Cholatse and your article on K2 was also interesting.

  • October 18, 2014 at 5:52 am
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    Mark

    I was with you on Everest when the disaster happened ; I saw the tragedy , sorrow, sadness as well as anger, riots the lot
    I don’t want to comment on that, so much has been said already….

    However I want to comment on Himalayan Ascent

    I just successfully summited Cho Oyu with HA and have nothing but prize for the way the expedition was run: detail attention to safety, comfort of clients, good kitchen , excellent friendly Sherpa services , the whole lot !

    The expedition was run by Lakpa who is The Director of Himalayan Ascent ( Sumit is founder)

    So I feel it’s unfair to make a sweeping statement not to use the company for expedition, Lakpa is a first class climber with a lot of experience which includes many summits of 8000 m peaks, he provided excellent expedition service – as I just have experienced

    So, based on my experience I would not hesitate to recommend him ( Himalayan Ascent) for 8000 m expedition

    See you soon on Cholatse

  • October 18, 2014 at 5:56 am
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    Sorry forgot to put my full name ( Comment 2)

  • October 18, 2014 at 9:44 am
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    Hi Margaret and Chris

    I would definitely say the same of Jagged Globe, who I have climbed with many times in the past. They have provided an excellent level of service, and had a 100% success rate on Everest in previous seasons. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to anyone. Having a Sherpa so closely involved with the strike action has not been good PR for their business. It’s not easy for them and they have to strike a balance between protecting the interests of their staff and their clients.

    Sumit Joshi may well have been an innocent caught up in politics outside his control, in which case I am sorry for him, but the comments on his blog and in National Geographic may suggest otherwise to some people. I’m one of them, and my own feeling is I would be unwilling to invest large amounts in a company who appear to be more supportive of strike action than other companies. This may be unfair of me, but it’s my money and my prerogative to choose where I invest it. Others may be more inclined to disregard those comments when choosing an operator, as I’m sure you both are after the great experience you had with Himalayan Ascents on Cho Oyu (congratulations to both of you, by the way!).

    I haven’t made a sweeping statement not to use the company, as you say Margaret. I have simply advised people to ask a few questions. We all take risks when we pay these huge sums for expensive mountaineering holidays, and it’s only fair people know what those risks are. Again I stress this is just my opinion, but I do feel there is a risk of further strike action on Everest next year and these questions need to be asked of any operator. This season was tragic in so many ways; there will be further fall out, and another strike will hurt not just the pockets of western clients, but also those who rely on the income.

    National Geographic has a much wider circulation than my blog and people will reach their own conclusions after reading it. It’s likely Himalayan Ascents will get some negative PR, and will need to take steps to reassure clients.

    Regards,
    Mark.

  • October 18, 2014 at 3:07 pm
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    Thanks for your reply, Mark.

    Well, it would not be the first time a messenger got shot. Maybe in the future if all such meetings are held in Nepali language we can see how the western companies handle the communication issues.

    NG’s article appears more as a sensitive narrative and I appreciated the emphasis on the personal stories, appreciating the depth of the tragedy. I think people will form their own view on the whole incident having regard to all of the facts and fictions and not narrow their focus to a single person or company simply because they spoke for many who could not.

    Himalayan Ascent’s sound reputation and their high number of return clients since the company’s inception speaks for itself. Perhaps that irks some western operators – new kid on the block doing well, so to speak. (I haven’t seen adverse comments about HA except on your website that was referred to me for comment so I think HA’s good reputation remains intact – but I see nothing in the NG article that is negative for HA, unless NG have an issue with freedom of speech, which I doubt).

    With any operator, western or Nepali, prospective clients know they need to ask questions before going on a trip. Speaking from experience, I used some other (western) operators before HA, didn’t ask the right questions of a few of them back then, and am glad I found HA.

    Regards, Chris

  • October 18, 2014 at 3:39 pm
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    Hi Chris

    I have nothing against Himalayan Ascents. Nor did I have anything against Jagged Globe – on the contrary I have had many happy experiences of their expeditions – but I still blogged about their sirdar because at the end of the day we pay a lot of money to these companies and they need to be held accountable. I am now happy to recommend Jagged Globe to anyone considering climbing Everest.

    You say Sumit Joshi is an innocent who has been unfairly caught up in the politics. That’s fine, you know him better than I do. If this is the case then he needs to be careful about what he says publicly, because people may misinterpret his statements as suggesting that he supports strike action (as I have). He can also be forgiven if he takes a step back from his role of translator, to enable him to divorce himself from the politics.

    A clear statement from Himalayan Ascents that they do not support strike action, along with assurances about the steps they will take to ensure their staff do not get involved should strike action be threatened next year, will help to reassure clients.

    Regards,
    Mark.

  • October 19, 2014 at 1:56 am
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    Hi Mark

    I don’t think anyone is expecting HA or any other operator at EBC to say or do anything, and not along the lines you are asking for. Families suffered losses, and they continue to suffer. Having met many of them very recently, their suffering is poignant and real.

    If people like Sumit, with their high english skills and knowledge of Nepali culture, step back from helping others who cannot express themselves in English to English speaking western leaders at camps then I think communication will only get worse. I am sure you do not wish to create a playing field more uneven than it is already?

    Sometimes, I support strike action in western situations in the right context. Its a democratic right that I would not support anyone giving up. Oh, but now the lawyer in me in coming out and the mountaineer has gone to sleep. I’ll leave the discussion there and maybe pick it up if I meet you on the trail 🙂

    Regards, Chris

  • October 19, 2014 at 10:12 am
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    Hi Chris,

    We’ll have to agree to differ on whether strike action is justified in this (or any instance), but any operator who believes it is justified to take $50,000 of their clients’ money and use it for purposes other than what the client paid for without their consent deserves to go out of business. I hope Sumit does not agree with you, and if he does it’s unlikely to win him many clients.

    Most westerners at base camp were supportive of the need to improve safety and welfare of expedition staff and their families, and sympathised with their loss and their frustrations with government. We have all suffered loss at some time in our lives and could not fail to be affected by what we saw on 18 April. Alienating supporters in this way was not a good idea; it will affect future work prospects and increase suffering for those who have lost.

    Good luck with your next venture. You can’t be far off climbing all 14 of the big ones now. 🙂

    Regards,
    Mark.

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