Mountaineering guru David Lim on the complex dynamics of relying on sherpas when you climb
Singapore — Singaporean mountaineer David Lim led Singapore’s first historic ascent of Mount Everest in 1998, although he personally missed out on getting to the summit because of an injury along the way. But not only has he conquered the world’s peaks, he has also beat a rare nerve disorder called Guillain-Barre Syndrome to continue scaling heights, despite being partially handicapped.
According to Lim, the experience on the world’s highest mountain might have been better in those days.
“In 1998 when we were there for the first time, a ‘crowded’ summit day might involve up to 40 climbers all on the same route on the same day. These days, it is common to see up to 150 climbers,” he explained.
He added that many of these climbers rely heavily on sherpas, those Nepalese high-altitude porters and guides who are, incidentally, the subject of a special documentary on Discovery, called Sherpa, that highlights the risks and injustice they face.
“I think the documentary should make viewers aware of the complex economics and morality involved in climbing the world’s big peaks using sherpa assistance; and how this dynamic needs to be made sustainable and fairer,” said Lim.
“Sherpas bear much more of the risks when deployed in all the major peaks. It’s time they got more credit and more of the rewards due to them.”
Q: You’ve worked with two generations of sherpas. How has the role of sherpas changed?
A: The term “sherpa” now usually refers to high-altitude porters and guides who work in the Himalayas. Most of the lucrative work in this field involves portering loads, guiding — to varying degrees, with foreign guides or trip leaders — and managing field operations for expeditions on big mountains, typically Everest and other 8,000m peaks. During the key Spring and Autumn trekking and climbing seasons in Nepal, on a typical day, a sherpa could be carrying loads to establish successive high camps on the big peaks. On summit days, they might be short-roped to less confident clients, or forge ahead to fix safety ropes.
The older generation of sherpas embodied the sherpa culture of humility, great work ethic and perhaps a little too much subservience to requests from their hirers. The current generation of sherpas are not only running their own expeditions, speak and write good English. They are also better educated, with some gaining degrees in developed countries and work experiences there. They are more willing to stand firm on their professional opinions both on and off the mountains. This has, of course, changed the whole sherpa-climber dynamic.
Q: The documentary shows the disparity and inequality present in mountain-climbing on Everest. What should responsible mountaineers and climbing groups do to diminish such injustice?
A: There are no easy answers. Some climbers prefer not to climb with sherpas, developing their own skills, strength and competencies so as to climb without such external aid. This way, they do not expose the local staff to climbing risks.
In the past 14 years, I have climbed without having to hire sherpas or guides for almost all of my serious expeditions. However, if you do choose to hire sherpas — which I have done on numerous occasions in the past — we owe it to them and their families to pay a fair wage, insure them adequately and treat them as expedition equals — or in most cases, as expedition experts. We should understand that many of the sherpas may not match a well-trained, technically experienced foreign mountaineer in skills, ranging from first aid to setting a three-way equalised ice anchor, for example. However, very few climbers can match the sheer physical strength and fitness of sherpas.
Q: Is climbing Mount Everest a vanity project that unnecessarily puts sherpas in danger?
A: Consider how work related to climbing Everest has enormously enriched the extended families of climbing sherpas. A typical sherpa who works on Everest may take home US$2,000 (S$2,700) to US$6,000 in a typical three-month climbing season, as compared to the average USD$700 per annum income of a Nepalese. So the issues are complex and not easily explained or resolved by superficial moralising. What is reprehensible is when foreign climbers endanger sherpa lives through reckless decisions on the mountains. That includes attempting the peak with scant experience; making sherpas work in dangerous weather or ground conditions; or refusing to abort a climb when it is plainly clear that to continue would endanger themselves and others.
Q: How do you manage to continue climbing? How do you assess the suitability of a mountain and what sort of preparation do you do?
A: I choose routes that will push me significantly, but not have attributes (such as vertiginous rock faces) that my disabilities no longer allow me to tackle without feeling like a passenger through receiving excessive help from my team mates. Preparation can begin months before a trip and involve a combination of building a solid cardio base, tempered with high-intensity circuit training and strength workouts.
Q: For budding climbing enthusiasts, where do you suggest they start in the region?
A: Unless they have the luxury of skilled buddies who can teach them the ropes, they can start right here in Singapore. They should develop a solid skills base in rope work and technical rock climbing before venturing to taking courses in alpinism in places such as New Zealand, the United States or the Alps. Serene Lim
Sherpa premieres on April 24 at 9pm on Discovery Channel (Singtel Ch 202/Starhub Ch 422).