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Whelan foresaw Sherpa tragedy

"It was with great sadness that I read about the tragedy on Everest that took the lives of 16 Sherpas last week," says filmmaker Dianne Whelan. "But it was not a surprise."

April 30th, 2014

Dianne Whelan's photo of two climbers on the Khumbu glacier.

In 2010, Dianne Whelan went to Base Camp on Mount Everest where she interviewed climbers, doctors and Sherpas, who had all lived there for weeks, sometimes months, awaiting a window in the weather to summit the world’s highest mountain.

Some knew there was a good chance they wouldn’t survive the journey and that the mountain is infamously littered with hundreds of bodies of those who failed to complete the grueling and dangerous climb. Whelan also witnessed the human impact on Everest and the unsettling effects of climate change. The melting glacier, which loses more than four inches a day, reveals evidence of man’s hubris with each new body uncovered by the receding ice.

Her documentary film about the Base Camp trip had its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Now Whelan’s personal expose of the time spent at Everest’s base is recounted in her book Base Camp: 40 Days on Everest (Caitlin $24.95). In it, she combines what she learned on the mountain with stories from climbers, Sherpas, doctors, Buddhist nuns, Maoist rebels, and others. This book could not not have appeared at a more appropriate time. It coincides with the tragic deaths of sixteen Sherpas in April of 2014.

Asked to commment, Dianne Whelan told B.C. BookWorld:

“It was with great sadness that I read about the tragedy on Everest that took the lives of 16 Sherpas last week. But it was not a surprise. Everest is melting and avalanches are a daily occurrence. The mountain is a tomb of many frozen dreams. During the climbing season hundreds of Sherpas go up and down the mountain every day to prepare the route and camps en route to the summit.  Every time they climb up, it is a bit like Russian roulette, and even preparing for one climber takes several trips up and down the mountain. One of the most treacherous parts, the Khumbu glacier, is where this most recent tragedy unfolded. It was the worst disaster in the history of climbing at Everest. Yet there are over 250 dead bodies on that mountain, so the dangers are not new; seven porters from Darjeeling, India, died when Mallory tried to summit in 1922.

Everest graveyard

Everest graveyard

“What is new is the dangerous impact of climate change on a rotting glacier, and the high number of inexperienced climbers who come to the world’s highest mountain thinking they can buy a safe trip to the top. It’s a lethal combination.

“For those who don’t already know, the literal translation of Sherpa is not “porter,” but “man from the east.” Sherpas are Tibetan Buddhists who left Tibet 500 years ago and settled on the other side of the mountain in Nepal. Today they comprise less than 1 per cent of Nepal’s population.

“As I write this, Sherpas are boycotting this year’s climbing season on Everest because it is too dangerous to climb. Their local spiritual guides, the lamas, have said not to climb this year or there will be many more fatalities. As a result, Base Camp has shrunk from a population of hundreds to only dozens. Without the Sherpas there is no climbing route roped up and prepped for the expedition companies, nor are there supplies at Camp One, Camp Two, Camp Three and Camp Four. Imagine a fairground full of rides but with nobody to operate them.

Avalanche on the mountain

Avalanche on the mountain

“What the Sherpas want are higher wages and insurance for their families. The average income of a Sherpa is $6 US per day, so $3000 to $8000 USD for three months’ work of getting supplies and people up and down the mountain is extremely good money, but still only a small portion of the money charged by expedition companies, which ranges from sixty to a hundred thousand per client. I expect the Sherpas will unionize, and that the costs of these expeditions will go up. I do not think it is the end of climbing Everest–as long as people want to pay, somebody will provide the services. But I believe the Sherpas, who are taking the highest risks, deserve better wages, benefits and compensation, and support for their boycott of Everest this year.”

Dianne Whelan lives in Vancouver.

Base Camp: 40 Days on Everest (Caitlin 2014) $24.95 978-1-927575-43-7

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