Peter Zuckerman is the co-author of BURIED IN THE SKY: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2's Deadliest Day(WW Norton, $26.95)
The recent dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in Nepal will likely spark a human rights crisis that will have disastrous consequences for everyone in the country. But especially tragic will be its unseen impact on the high-altitude workers usually called Sherpas.
Sherpas, Bhotes and the other ethnic groups who make up Nepal's high-altitude workforce hold a nearly-mythical status among serious adventurers. They seem to have superhuman endurance when climbing up the world's highest peaks. But history suggests that the ensuing anarchy in Nepal will do more than scare away tourist dollars these indigenous climbers and villagers depend on.
If the past repeats, many will be tortured, massacred or compelled to flee their villages. Those moving to Nepal's main city, Kathmandu, will be forced to take climbing and portering jobs they are ill-prepared for, putting their lives at risk, along with the lives of western climbers who depend on them.
This is what happened the last time Nepal's government collapsed. The violence started with a Tarantino-style blood bath in 2001, when Crown Prince Dipendra invited his family to the billiards room at Kathmandu's Naranyanhity Royal Palace. The prince grabbed his weapons-- a 9mm Glock, an MP-5K submachine gun and a 12-guage shotgun--and proceeded to murder almost all the members of the royal family, including the king and queen. Then he killed himself.
The ensuing power vacuum was like the one developing now. Communists and other political factions invaded remote villages unprotected by the royal army. In areas such as Hungung, where many high-altitude workers live, they burst into classrooms, shot teachers and abducted the pupils, forcing them to join their ranks as child-soldiers. Troops tortured their opponents and displayed their mutilated bodies. They blockaded Kathmandu and gained control of the provinces.
In response, a new and unpopular king, Gyanendra, suspended the elected government and instituted martial law. As protesters hit the streets, his army fired on them with machine guns. Gyanendra censored criticism of his government, imprisoned journalists and executed suspected terrorists. The United Nations General Assembly called it a "grave human rights crisis," and Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recorded gruesome cases of electrocutions and sexual humiliations. More than 12,800 people were killed, and about 150,000 fled their homes, usually to Kathmandu.
Refugees took risky climbing and portering jobs that required little formal training. As unemployment soared, some took jobs rejected by more experienced climbers. Reckless expeditions failed to screen their high-altitude workers and ordered them to do work no sane mountaineer would agree to do. This contributed to the 2008 K2 disaster that left 11 people dead, and undoubtedly contributed to many other alpine tragedies as well.
When Nepal's Civil War officially ended in 2006, the country became a federal republic. Elections placed the Communists in power, and a Constituent Assembly soon began an effort to write a constitution. That effort failed on May 27 when the Constituent Assembly dissolved.
Conflicts among the various governmental factions have been erupting, and Bandhs--roving street gangs overseen by political parties--are putting parts of Kathmandu into lockdown. Civil war is a real possibility. Nepal's best climbers, such as Chhiring Dorje Sherpa, a 12-time Everest summiter, have already left for safer countries, trying to extend their stay outside Nepal so they can skirt the danger, and Nepal's political parties are splitting as radicals are threatening to use more violence to achieve their poliical goals.
Sherpas, Bhotes and other ethnic groups living in remote villages are among the most vulnerable if fighting erupts: they have little ability to defend themselves and limited access to those who might raise the alarm by reporting their stories. Desperate and untrained climbers, working for a pittance, are undoubtedly starting to backfill the job openings left by more experienced climbers like Chhiring.
Sherpas have earned their place in our history books for the crucial role they have had in some of the greatest adventures and mountaineering triumphs of this century. Often working anonymously in the background, they have underpinned countless expeditions. They have expanded the apparent boundaries of human potential, and they have sacrificed their lives so more-celebrated western explorers could keep theirs and reach their summits.
With a record mountaineering season underway, we should consider how our actions impact these men and women who have done so much to fire our imaginations and make adventure in the Himalaya a reality. Climbing will inevitably become more dangerous. Mountaineers need to more carefully pick their high-altitude workers, learn more about their backgrounds and pay closer attention when these workers appear reluctant: high-altitude workers, especially when desperate for money, will rarely refuse a job, even when they should. In addition, climbers need to speak up when they see summit-crazed expeditions treating their workers irresponsibly, putting everyone else in danger, too.
More broadly, climbers, adventurers, explorers, trekkers and everyone else who has been touched by Nepal's world-famous high-altitude workers should raise awareness for the people who have so frequently come to our aid. Human rights groups and the UN should be prepared to step in if more violence erupts.
Nepal's high-altitude workers need and deserve our help.