A week or so ago was the deadliest day ever on Mt. Everest, with 19 Sherpas losing their lives after an avalanche buried them alive. Thirteen bodies were recovered, while three remain entombed on the mountain.
The following week saw more ice crashing into the climbing zone from fresh avalanches before the authorities ended the current Everest climbing season in Nepal. I was relieved that authorities called a halt to all climbing.
Relieved that the shifting ice wouldn’t have a chance to take more lives this season. Relieved that the Sherpas were not forced to work on a mountain that they considered a bad omen. Relieved that the Sherpas may finally be receiving long-overdue benefits (adequate pay and insurance benefits) to even marginally offset the dangers of their profession.
I think the story particularly hit home because of my own experience climbing in the Himalayas. While the experience was—without a doubt—one of the best of my life, several images on the mountains continue to haunt me to this day.
About 10 days into my 12-day climb, I recall passing a Sherpa who lost his legs during a climbing accident. He was situated at a base of a wooden bridge a short distance from his village, with a cup to collect donations to help support him and his family.
The Sherpa was sitting on a large rock, his amputated legs clearly visible and crutches propped up behind him. He also had a cardboard sign that told the story of his misfortune.
When we saw the man, it was late afternoon and we had been climbing for more than six hours and we were tired. We were also staring up at another mountain in front of us, with the trail at the other end of the bridge snaking its way up the cliff for another 1,000 meters at least.
Each of us five climbers acknowledged the disfigured Sherpa with a small nod of the head and kept right on walking. (That’s right – walking up the same mountain our Sherpa would have to climb later that day on his crutches.)
Later that day, back at our tea house I was chatting with another climber. This woman, a French climber, had stopped to give a donation and talk to the Sherpa, who was bewildered and upset that none of the other hikers had helped him.
Apparently her guide had given her a heads up that they would encounter the injured man and explained to her his horrible story of how he was a former Sherpa who lost his legs in a climbing accident and now he couldn’t work.
She asked why our group of affluent western trekkers hadn’t stopped to give a donation. I remarked that we were taken by surprise (we didn’t have any forewarning that he would be there) and didn’t fully comprehend the man’s misfortune.
She asked why we didn’t stop to read his sign that explained his family’s plight. But none of us did. Instead our eyes were fixated on the looming mountain and gathering strength to tackling the next ascent.
I was immediately remorseful and ashamed of pursing my own selfish goals without regard for this man’s sacrifice.
To this day, now years later, I still remember the Sherpa’s face—at first smiling and waving to us as we came down the far mountainside, followed by an incredulity that we weren’t slowing our pace, and finally a forlorn look when it became clear to him that none in our hiking party were going to stop.
We did not to give him a donation. We did not to give him a kind word. We did not share a bit of our food. Most dreadfully, we didn’t even stop to her his story.
The episode continues to haunt me as I think about how we five casually and callously sauntered past without a bit of compassion for his horrific situation. He had lost his legs, and with them, his livelihood with no means of supporting his family.
Oh how I wish I would’ve stopped and offered a bit of kindness and a handful of Nepalese rupees. It would have cost me so little and meant so much to him. And while he would have been thankful for the money, I think he would have also appreciated that others cared about his circumstances and about his personal story.
My inaction in the face of this man’s misfortune is a regret that weighs heavily on me. I will remember his waning smile and stricken look. And this is what I deserve: to remember his face and to remember never again to just walk past.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 30th, 2014 and is filed under Asia Pacific.