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Footsteps on the Mountain

June 25, 2014 4:00 pm, by Mark Horrell<< Return to blog home

The cod science of Everest hate

One of the things every Everest climber has to get used to sooner or later is hate written about them in the media. I first discovered this when I came back from Everest in 2012, and found it so extreme that I ended up writing a response that is still one of the most popular posts on this blog. Of course, I could have just ignored the insults, and usually I do because life’s too short to do otherwise. The primary ingredient of hate is ignorance, and if people choose to be ignorant, generally that’s a problem for them rather than me.

Everest from the north. A beautiful mountain that provokes a lot of ugly hate.

Everest from the north. A beautiful mountain that provokes a lot of ugly hate.

Every so often, however, the hate becomes so pervasive that it starts to resemble propaganda. Propaganda thrives on ignorance, and those who use it hope that if they say something enough times without it being corrected then even if it’s not true it will eventually be treated as fact. I’m reaching the end of my series of posts about this year’s Everest season and it’s probably starting to look like I have a chip on my shoulder. If this is the case then I apologise; but I believe one or two more things need to be said in a last effort to stop ignorance becoming too deep-rooted, and then I will move onto other topics, I promise.

The theory that Sherpas are helpless serfs who are ruthlessly exploited by selfish westerners is one such popular misconception promoted in the media that is starting to look like a propaganda campaign. It is a campaign based on ignorance of Sherpa history that overlooks the fact that it has been mountaineering and the trekking industry that grew from it that has provided Sherpas with greater opportunities and enabled them to become wealthy by Nepali standards. I talked in a little more detail about this at the end of a previous post – the simple fact is, mountaineering and trekking and the work it brings has been good for the Sherpa community, and while their working conditions can certainly be improved (and regularly are being), unless this basic premise is recognised the propaganda will ultimately harm rather than help them.

One particularly corrosive piece of propaganda that has appeared frequently in the media since the 18 April avalanche is the notion that being a climbing Sherpa on Everest is 12 times more deadly than being a US soldier during the Iraq war. In the last couple of months this “fact” has appeared in publications as diverse as the Guardian, Business Insider, the Washington Post, Al Jazeera and a website called, curiously, Live Science (which appears to use the word science in its loosest sense). All of these publications quoted the same source, but not one of them questioned how that source came by this figure, or suggested in any way that it might be suspect. In the scientific community if such a statistic were to be quoted as fact, it would need to come from a reputable source, and be backed up by hard data and sound methodology which had been subject to rigorous peer review. It turns out none of these things are true.

Deaths among Sherpas on Everest looks like Jupiter in this diagram, but how reliable is the data? (Source: Outside magazine)

Deaths among Sherpas on Everest looks like Jupiter in this diagram, but how reliable is the data? (Source: Outside magazine)

So what was the source? Well it turns out this shocking statement was originally made in an article published by Outside magazine on 18 April, the very day of the avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall which killed 16 Sherpas, by some margin the most deadly event in Everest climbing history. Outside magazine had originally asserted that being an Everest climbing Sherpa was four times more dangerous than being a US soldier, but by including the fatalities from the 18 April avalanche in their data they were able to up this to 12 times more dangerous (in the same way that if they had conducted the research around the period 11 September 2001 they would have been able to conclude that being a New York office worker was at least as dangerous as being a gatekeeper in Samarkand as Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes were sweeping across Central Asia).

So much for the source, how did they arrive at their conclusion? I’m neither a scientist nor a statistician, but I do recognise shoddy research when it tattoos its penis with the words shoddy research in Times New Roman and proceeds to lap dance in front of me while singing “shoddy research is here to stay” to the tune of Happy Birthday. My critique is a little limited compared with what you would get from a proper scientist, and I would welcome thoughts from any reader who is one, but hopefully there is enough here to convince you that Outside magazine has a few questions to answer before this particular piece of propaganda is spread any further.

The article starts by showing a nice neat table recording the number of deaths in given periods for a number of different professions. Let’s have a look at it.

Annual Fatality Rates by Profession

Deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalents
Miners (2000-2010) 25
Commercial Fisherman (2000-2010) 124
Alaskan Bush Pilots (1990-2009) 287
U.S. military in Iraq (2003-2007) 335
Everest Sherpas (2000-2010) 1,332
Everest Sherpas (2004-2014) 4,053
Everest from the south. There have been 255 deaths on the mountain since expeditions began in 1921. Of these deaths 97 have been Sherpas.

Everest from the south. There have been 255 deaths on the mountain since expeditions began in 1921. Of these deaths 97 have been Sherpas.

This looks very clear, and if it’s not they even produced a pretty diagram with big yellow circles to illustrate it visually. Sure enough there seems to have been a shocking number of deaths among climbing Sherpas, a staggering 4,053 between 2004 and 2014, which on the diagram looks a bit like Jupiter on a comparison of the planets. But hang on a minute, there have only been 255 deaths on Everest ever, since the very first expedition in 1921, and of those only 97 of them were Sherpas, so how come this table says there were 4,053 in just the 10 year period from 2004 to 2014? If you delve in a little more deeply, Outside tell us that 4,053 is a projected figure based on “United States Bureau of Labor Statistics’ formula for fatality rates per 100,000 full-time equivalents”. They don’t explain how this calculation is made, but after a bit of digging around I found it in a PDF file on the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website. Here it is.

(N÷EH) × 200,000,000, where
N = number of fatal injuries,
EH = total hours worked by all employees during the calendar year, and
200,000,000 = base for 100,000 equivalent full-time workers (working 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year)

As you can see things are starting to get a little more complicated – in order to do the calculation it’s necessary to know the total hours worked by all employees during the calendar year. And this is where the second sore thumb sticks out and pokes me in the eye. As I’ve mentioned I’m no scientist, but once upon a time many years ago I did complete a degree in mathematics, and although I didn’t exactly graduate with flying colours I did learn enough to know that if you’re going to extrapolate a large figure from a much smaller one (in this case deriving 4,053 projected Sherpa deaths in the period 2004 to 2014 from 30 actual ones, a 135-fold increase) you had better make sure the data you are using to perform the calculation is accurate, otherwise a very small error is going to become a very large error indeed. We can see an example of this on the yellow diagram. If you examine the size of the circles carefully you will see Outside’s researcher appears to have compared diameters rather than areas, an error which means the area of the next biggest circle is inflated significantly (it’s being multiplied by πr2 each time) and the differences are exaggerated out of all proportion. The last circle therefore looks like Jupiter and leaves a misleading impression.

Let’s have a look at Outside magazine’s data then. I’ve extracted the relevant section from the article. Here it is:

“Figuring out how many hours Sherpas work each season took some legwork—Sherpas don’t punch in and out like miners do, and employers aren’t paying them by the hour. But we consulted with guides, outfitters, and climbers to arrive at numbers we felt gave a fair picture of just how dangerous the job was (the results: far more dangerous than being a soldier in Iraq from 2003 to 2007). There was only one hitch: to be consistent with the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ numbers, we only calculated the number for fatalities from 2000 to 2010. And fatalities have been rising since then. If we calculate the fatality rate for the past decade, the numbers become much more distressing.”

And that’s it, folks. Yep, that’s the data. Well, actually it’s not the data. It’s just Outside magazine saying we have the data, we know it was gathered in a flawed fashion, but we believe it’s accurate and we’d like you to take our word for it. There’s only one hitch, they say – are they serious? I’m afraid there are a few more hitches than that.

The Khumbu Icefall is the most dangerous part of the route for Sherpas and western climbers alike, but is it really like passing through a war zone?

The Khumbu Icefall is the most dangerous part of the route for Sherpas and western climbers alike, but is it really like passing through a war zone?

Let’s suppose for a minute Outside magazine’s journalist is an aspiring research scientist who has a hypothesis (that being a climbing Sherpa is more dangerous than fighting in a war) and has carried out some research they believe backs up this startling theory. Now they would like to have it published in a respectable journal and be taken seriously by the academic community, here are some of the things the journal’s reviewers are likely to ask.

  • Who were the guides, outfitters and climbers you talked to? Did you talk to any Sherpas as well?
  • How did you calculate the number of hours a climbing Sherpa works in a calendar year? Does it include time the Sherpa spends at base camp, trekking in and using transport to get to and from the mountain? Does it include any time they may spend in Kathmandu preparing for the expedition such as buying and packing equipment, unpacking and drying tents afterwards? Does it include expeditions to other mountains or treks the Sherpa might do in a calendar year as part of their employment, or are you only including time they spend on the most dangerous one, Everest, in your calculations?
  • In your calculation of how many hours a US soldier works in a calendar year are you including time they spend back in the barracks, carrying out drills, training, paperwork, packing and maintaining equipment, travelling between locations, etc. (and anything else a soldier may do outside actual fighting), or are you only including time they spend on the front line in a battle situation, the most dangerous part of their job, in your calculations?
  • How do you define Everest Sherpas? Do you mean just those who climb above base camp and have climbing permits for the summit, or do you include other mountaineering workers such as cooks and kitchen staff, porters and admin staff back in Kathmandu?
  • How do you define US military in Iraq? Do you mean just those who fight on the front line in a battle situation, or do you include officers with desk jobs, support staff such as engineers, doctors and other medical staff, or those working in IT, construction, logistics, firefighting, catering, etc.?
  • Are your figures accurate, or are they only an estimate (bear in mind small errors will be magnified significantly by your formula)?
  • Do your figures include all Sherpas who have worked on Everest in the period 2004 to 2014, or are you using just a sample group from a smaller number of expedition teams? If it’s just a sample how confident are you the sample is representative? How did you determine the sample size required for the results to be significant? How many Sherpa deaths occurred within the sample group (presumably it wasn’t all 30 that occurred among Everest Sherpas within that period)?
A son of the great Tenzing Norgay has recently been roped in to help with the propaganda (Photo: Reuters)

A son of the great Tenzing Norgay has recently been roped in to help with the propaganda (Photo: Reuters)

As you can see, it’s fairly clear Outside magazine have many questions to answer (and likely a lot of work to do) before their research can be considered trustworthy and be taken seriously by the scientific community. There are many assumptions and estimates that would wildly alter the figure for total hours worked by all employees during the calendar year. Many a bad scientist has been guilty of fudging their data to produce the outcome they desire, and it looks to me very much like Outside magazine has been guilty of precisely this. “Just take my word for it, sir” never cut any ice with my physics teacher when I was at school, and nor should it here.

The trouble is plenty of so-called respectable publications seem to be perfectly happy to take Outside magazine’s word for it and help them spread their agenda, and unfortunately it does appear to be an agenda. Last month Norbu Tenzing, the son of Tenzing Norgay, the first man to climb Everest even wrote for them on the topic. He had this to say about Everest mountaineering operators:

“Standing in the shadows are expedition operators who profit handsomely. They marginalize and at times intimidate climbing Sherpas, most of whom have little education and no one who speaks for them … The Sherpas often are pawns in this deadly game that operators have no interest in changing. The climbing Sherpas know that if they raise any issue about pay, life insurance, and the heavy loads they carry or the great risks they bear for expedition clients, they and other family members might be blackballed when jobs are assigned for the next climbing season.”

And of the climbers (which, of course, includes me), he said this:

“At the core of what I call Everest Inc. is the climber, the ultimate enabler of this exploitation. The numbers of casual, recreational adventurers on Everest have soared in recent decades. Anyone hoping to join their ranks now should be willing to ask hard questions both of themselves and the expedition companies they might choose. Would they be able to look into the eyes of a climbing Sherpa’s newborn child, then assure his family their conscience is clear about how this father, husband, uncle or brother will be compensated and protected? Do those agreed terms sufficiently recognize the great dangers the guides must face? Do the climbers understand the ethics of their choices?”

These are strong words and loaded questions (the inference being that Norbu does not believe families will be adequately compensated or protected, or that climbers understand the ethics). Of course, not all operators and climbers are equal, and some may be guilty of these things, but most are not. I will go further and say for many operators and climbers these are little more than groundless insults, and Norbu’s approach exposes an ignorance of those he criticises. It’s also only one small part of the story, and unfortunately he does not address any of the other parts. This is a shameless oversight given that he has never been an Everest climbing Sherpa himself, and has lived in the US most of his life. He was one of the first of an increasing number of Sherpas who have been able to get a good education and emigrate as a result of his father’s mountaineering achievements. The salaries paid to climbing Sherpas enable them to send their children to good schools and support not just themselves but extended families. This is a decent standard of living by any measure. And as more Sherpas find opportunities outside of mountaineering other ethnic groups, such as Tamangs and Gurungs, are starting to fill the vacancies. This is progress, and it benefits everyone. Tenzing Norgay did so much in his lifetime to promote Himalayan mountaineering and provide the Sherpa community with more choices in life, IMHO Norbu does his father great discredit by presenting all of us who help to provide those opportunities in such a negative way without highlighting any of the positives that have enabled the lifestyle he himself enjoys.

There is another possibility: that Norbu did highlight some of the positives but Outside edited them out. Whatever the reason an agenda has been promoted that is not balanced. By far the most widely cited article that supports this agenda is one called The Disposable Man (a title that insults Sherpas and westerners in equal measure). One of its most frequently cited quotes is this one:

“There’s no other service industry in the world that so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients.”

Every Everest expedition begins with a puja ceremony to appease the mountain gods, but it has been reported that puja burial ceremonies can cost grieving families as much as $5,000

Every Everest expedition begins with a puja ceremony to appease the mountain gods, but it has been reported that puja burial ceremonies can cost grieving families as much as $5,000

This alarming claim is not backed up by data in the article, but it is now apparent it’s the same data used in their 18 April article that I have raised questions about above. In other words, data that is highly suspect. The danger with using unashamedly tendentious and misleading claims like this is they defeat the purpose of making them in the first place, which is to improve lives for the Sherpa community. Moderate people suspect the article of bias and ignore it, while haters use it to hate even more. Truth is not served by either of these things. This is a shame because the article does make some valid points buried deep within it. For instance, it’s true that I’ve never examined the details of insurance policies put in place for workers on mountaineering expeditions, and perhaps I should (it doesn’t however follow that I don’t care about their welfare). The $4,600 death insurance (which I understand was increased to $10,000 for the 2014 season) isn’t enough. I didn’t know puja burial services for the dead can cost $5,000. Is this really true? That’s seven times the gross national income per capita – why are they so expensive, and how come nobody has accused monks of profiteering? These are all good points, but unfortunately they are drowned out by the bold (flawed) claim that workers are frequently killed and maimed for the benefit of paying clients.

Then of course there is the danger, now very real, that tourists will stop visiting Nepal. High altitude mountaineers are the hardcore. They return to the country again and again, love its mountains, people and the bustle of Kathmandu. They have a lot of experience, and understand the risks and working conditions of Sherpas much better than the casual reader. They share many of the same risks and are not swayed by Everest hate. But the trekking industry that has developed from mountaineering is different; many of these people are first time visitors to Nepal who understandably don’t want to travel there if workers are going to be killed and maimed for their benefit, sent to war or shelled like soldiers on the front line.

So please, journalists, lovers of Nepal, whoever you are, let’s have an end to this damaging nonsense. Everest is not a war zone. It can be dangerous, but it can also provide opportunities and fulfil dreams. Sherpas and clients alike who climb it do so of their own free will, with some understanding of the risks they take. Look in the mirror and ask yourselves whether you are saying these things because you genuinely want to help Sherpas or simply to denigrate commercial Everest climbers and operators. If it’s the former, and you really want to improve the lives of those in Nepal who work in the adventure travel industry, then please moderate the tone, stop producing and parroting cod science that incites hate and deliberately misleads, and start a dialogue with those of us who provide employment to Sherpas, have enjoyed many expeditions with them, and would like to improve their lives as much as you do. And please let’s not forget that mountaineering can be dangerous and 16 people did lose their lives. We owe it to their families to be dignified about their deaths and learn from the tragedy in constructive ways.

In next week’s post, my last in this series covering the fallout from this year’s Everest season, I will look at some of the things that can be done to make Everest safer.

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Comments (5)

  1. Matt Smith said:

    I had a couple of friends back in the 80s who were commercial divers, working on North Sea oil rigs. Both suffered minor compression injuries as a result (early osteoporosis, impaired hearing etc) and both shared many stories of colleagues who had died or were permanently disabled in diving accidents. It was clearly very hazardous work, but these guys made huge money – up to a grand a week – back in the days when you could buy a very nice house for 50 grand. Consequently they were prepared to take the risks.

    However you look at the statistics, there is no denying that climbing Everest is a hazardous occupation. You could argue that if no one ever went to climb Everest, then these guys would not risk their lives on the mountain. They could enjoy a happy (yet poor) existence from subsistence farming, as they have done so for generations. And similarly, if no one wanted oil then those divers wouldn’t be risking their lives either. It’s all about supply and demand. I don’t see the motor car – or Mount Everest – disappearing any time soon. Maybe the real question here (and by ‘real’, I mean moral) is; are the Sherpas paid enough for the work they do and is their insurance adequate when things go wrong?

  2. Mark Horrell said:

    What statistics are you referring to, Matt? I hope you don’t mean ones that have been calculated by inputting a figure that has been largely made up into a formula that was designed for data that is far more precise. ;-)

    There is general agreement that insurance is inadequate, and I expect most operators to increase it after this year and pass costs on to their clients. Outside did a good service by highlighting this. Unfortunately they chose to bury it in the language of hate, sensational tabloid style soundbites, dodgy stats and exaggerated claims, so that moderate readers aren’t sure what to believe.

    As for pay, as long as climbing Sherpas are not paid a poverty wage and have other choices available to them (both of which are true) they are no different to the rest of us, surely. As you say, it’s supply and demand.

    You make a good point by highlighting other jobs that are paid ‘danger money’. I wonder if your friends felt they were being exploited or whether they believed they were exercising a choice.

  3. Matt Smith said:

    Don’t let the facts stand in the way of a good news story, eh Mark?! ;-) Personally I think there’s a great deal of ambivalence around climbing Mount Everest. There are a people who would like to do it, but they don’t have the time, money and or ability and even if they did, they lack the commitment. I would definitely put myself into that category! Personally I admire the achievements of those who have the perseverance to do it, but the flip-side is those who are resentful. It’s just ‘sour grapes’ really. I can appreciate that for the guys who went to climb Everest and Lhotse this year, it’s probably like rubbing salt into the wounds to read some of the ‘propaganda’ as you describe it, but such a major tragedy was sure to raise controversy. It’ll be interesting to see how this affects future expeditions. I can imagine Everest clients being a lot more cagey about parting with their hard-earned cash in future.

  4. Mark Horrell said:

    Thanks for the kind words, Matt. It certainly feels like that at times.

  5. TedA tkins said:

    Hi Mark,
    Because I work in the industry I tend to avoid commenting on most issues but I did think your comments were reasoned and well balanced. The point you make about visitors to Nepal could be very pertinent for the future. I recall a story about a goose who laid a golden egg….

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