By Leah Davies
The Kulung have been summiting the world’s highest peak since base camp expeditions first took place in 1921. Not for a challenge, or an adventure. Not to remedy a midlife crisis or to fulfill a lifelong dream. The Kulung have put their life on the line, braving the notoriously treacherous conditions of Everest for more than 90 years, twice a year, purely to earn an income to support their families.
They make the life-threatening trip up to 40 times per season out of survival.
On the Everest trail, you will see approximately 8,000 Kulung working as porters, carrying loads of fuel, food, ropes, oxygen tanks, and tents for their climber clients. You will also see them working as cooks, store hands and housekeepers, making the ascent as comfortable and convenient for the 30,000 tourists, which make the visit each year.
Placed at 145 out of 187 countries in the world on the UN’s 2014 human development report, the Nepalese government is reputably corrupt and the nation, living well below poverty levels.
The Nepalese people are very poor and for the Kulung, Everest represents opportunity – but at a severe cost.
Responsible for about 80% of the labour that supports the Everest trekking industry, the Kulung earn approximately $12 a day. After paying for their own meals and lodging on the trail, porters might only take $74 home to their families after a 13-day trek.
A look at the per capita income in Nepal will show you that on average, a Nepalese person earns less than $800 a year, while a porter will make on average $5,000 for two to three months of work (Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, 2014).
The numbers speak for themselves.
Outside western guide groups however – who lead and manage increasingly more expeditions – earn about ten times the income of the Kulung, making up to $50,000 to $100,000 for guiding on Everest.
Exploited for their cheap labour, the Kulung know the odds are stacked against them and have accepted this reality for a long time now.
The Kulung know the land. They have a unique affinity with the sacred earth they have called home for generations upon generations, yet the government still does not recognise their indigenous ancestry and connection to the Mahakulung region, and poor policies and procedures allow for external mountaineer companies to occupy and dominate their industry.
The tragic death of 16 porters in 2014 on the Nepali side of Everest highlighted this and led to a referendum of risks by those who work on the mountain.
The injustice of the risk balanced with the very little reward was finally put under a global microscope.
Following the avalanche and the grief of their loss, porters in Nepal refused to climb for the rest of the season until the government listened to their demands. Among their demands were medical and life insurance, guaranteed pay during poor weather conditions and adequate compensation to the families who lost a loved one in the icefall. The government declared the mountain officially closed and 300 climbers returned home last year.
National Geographic also revealed that every climber pays a $10,000 peak fee to Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism but almost all of this money disappears either into the hands of the Nepali bureaucracy or into the pockets of government bureaucrats.
Conrad Anker, a three-time Everest summiteer and leader of the 2012 National Geographic/the North Face Everest expedition said: “I’d bet less than one percent of the three million dollars in permit fees collected each year goes back to the mountain.”
After receiving $3.2 million in mountaineering fees from Everest climbers in 2014, the government increased life insurance premiums from 400,000 rupees ($4,000) to one million rupees ($10,000), offered an additional small compensation of $400 per family, and instituted minor changes on the mountain, including slightly increasing the presence of officials at Base Camp. Long-term support including funds to educate children of the deceased porters and the cost of living stipends for the widows came from coordinated efforts of a number of non-profit organisations instead (Norbu Tenzing Norgay, Outside Online, 2015).
For the first time in August last year, 40 porters of differing expertise and experience came together to discuss the issues faced by workers of Everest. Historically, porters have not been consulted on their opinion in an industry that is progressively governed by international climbers and expedition companies. At this meeting, the porters made seven recommendations including greater access to professional training opportunities, the need to reform overly-competitive business practices that encourage cuts in price and safety, and the necessity to introduce better employment practices.
While this is the reality for the Kulung people of Nepal, and the fight continues, there are countless tales telling of conquest over the world’s tallest mountain.
Stories of courage, passion and of noble people striving for a better life and future.
We have the ability to change the story.
To change it from one of deprivation and exploitation, to one rich with opportunity, ancient knowledge and the power of the heart.
Will you help change the story?