Sonoma Sherpas plan benefit

A group of Sonoma Sherpas, some with guiding experience on Mt. Everest and at least 10 successful summits, are planning a fundraising effort to benefit the families of 16 Sherpa climbers killed in the April 18 avalanche that thundered over the famed Khumbu Icefall.

“There are 80 to 90 Sherpa in Sonoma Valley,” said Ngima Sherpa, “and about 450 in the Bay Area.” Ngima, who manages the Mertiage Restaurant and Oyster Bar on West Napa Street, and has climbed on Everest, said he and members of the local Sherpa community are hoping to organize a fundraising dinner, recruiting a number of Valley chefs with roots in Nepal to prepare the food, while local wineries are invited to pour.

“We’d like to get 300 or 400 people,” he said, depending on the available venue. Inquiries have already been directed to 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin to see if the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building can be used.

Many Sonoma Valley Sherpas, Ngima added, know some of the climbers lost in the avalanche.

Victims of the worst climbing accident in Everest history, 13 Sherpa bodies were retrieved and three are still missing. Most of the lost Sherpas were the sole support of their families, some with small children.

Compensation for climbing victims has been a long-festering issue in the Himalayan climbing community, and last Friday’s tragedy brought it to a head. Normal government compensation for Sherpa fatalities is 4,000 Nepalese rupees, or about $400, which is about the average annual wage in impoverished Nepal.

“Four hundred dollars is nothing to the expense of living in Nepal now,” said Ang Tsering Sherpa, during a meeting in Sonoma Wednesday to plan relief efforts.

“There’s no way the Everest industry could happen without Sherpas,” said Passang Nuru Sherpa, “Sherpas are at the riskiest place, but when it comes to them needing help, that help is minimal. The government is raising so much money out of our community, they should be putting money into our community.”

Climbing permits issued by the government of Nepal cost about $10,000 a person for parties of seven or more, while individual climbers will pay $25,000 just for the permit.

Far more money than that is spread throughout the Khumbu region surrounding Everest as some top-level climbing companies charge clients $65,000 or more to join an expedition.

In a typical spring climbing season, between 300 and 400 permitted climbers will be occupying Everest base camp at any one time. Summit attempts are usually focused in mid-May when the weather is most benign. By June, the annual monsoon season begins and the weather deteriorates.

Climbing Sherpas, who venture through the treacherous icefall numerous times during a summit attempt, are typically paid $3,000 to $5,000 for a season of work, which typically lasts two months or so.

The level of risk involved in that work has been recently calculated as being higher than combat duty in Iraq.

The Sonoma Sherpas meeting this week did not complain about those payments; their criticism was aimed at a government with a long history of corruption and fraud.

“I don’t really blame the trekking companies,” said Ang Tsering Sherpa. “Nobody is forcing us to climb mountains. Survival is part of the job. And I don’t blame the tourism office. It’s the government.”

Ang Tsering told of the recent example when the son of the leader of Nepal’s ruling Maoist party was going to spend 250 million rupees ($250,000) on his personal Everest expedition until the public outcry forced him to decline the money.

At the time, a leader of the opposition Nepali Congress accused the Maoists of “nepotism” and charged, “This is the worst kind of immoral decision taken by this government.”

Valley Sherpas hope that a relief fund can be established with enough money to provide significant benefits to the families of Everest victims. “From now on, there should be a bigger royalty going into a fund for survivors,” said Pasang Nuru Sherpa. “This is not going to be the last disaster.”

Details on plans for a benefit dinner event will be announced as soon as they are finalized.