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On Mount Everest, Sherpa Guides Bear The Brunt Of The Danger

Sherpa guides are 10 times more likely to die than commercial fishermen, the most dangerous, nonmilitary occupation in the U.S. But they're offered little financial protection by companies who charge Western climbers thousands of dollars for a trip up the mountain.


Other segments from the episode on August 14, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 14, 2013: Interview with Rose George; Interview with Grayson Schaffer.


August 14, 2013

Guests: Rose George - Grayson Schaffer

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross with a frog in my throat. So try to fathom this: a ship carrying goods in so many huge containers that if those containers were lined up, they'd stretch around 11,000 miles, or nearly halfway around the planet.

My guest, Rose George, spent several weeks onboard such a container ship as research for her new book "Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car and Food on Your Plate." She writes that there are more than 100,000 ships at sea carrying all the solids, liquids and gases that we need to live, yet because we're on land, this industry is largely out of our sight.

And even people who make a point of ethical eating and shopping are usually unaware of the often poor working conditions for seafarers on these ships. George's previous book was about another subject largely out of sight, human waste. Where does it go after you've flushed the toilet and what happens in regions that don't even have plumbing?

Rose George, welcome to FRESH AIR. Give us a sense of the magnitude of the containers and what's contained within them.

ROSE GEORGE: Well, 90 percent of everything we wear, we eat, we consume, is carried by ships. They're not all container ships, but container ships carry a vast amount of stuff. They could carry cat food, they could carry drugs, pharmaceuticals, batteries, air bags, anything. And at every port across the world, they are taking on thousands of tons of cargo and discharging thousands of tons of cargo, and they do that every month.

So for example the ship that I was on, which was a mid-sized container ship, so it was about three football fields long, it carried 6,000 what's known as TEUs, so that's a 20-foot-equivalent unit, which is not a catchy name, but - so let's call them containers or boxes. But that's the unit, the standard unit within the container shipping industry is the TEU.

And that was actually, it's a very mundane name, but it actually revolutionized certainly shipping and probably fueled globalization, if not underpins it.

GROSS: Why did it revolutionize shipping and help start the globalization of goods?

GEORGE: Well before the container, which began early 1960s, it began late 1970s with - it began to flourish as the standard unit of transport, you had to pay a lot to actually transport anything. So it wasn't really worth your while financially to transport something when most of your costs were eaten up just getting it to a port.

So then in the late 1960s, an American shipper called Malcom McLean had this idea that he could create a lockable unit that could be stacked on top of each other. So it had these things called twist locks, and it could be stacked, and it could be what was called multi-modal. So it could be transported from a ship to a truck to a train.

And his idea was this would create extreme efficiency, and he was right. And since then, there was a heck of a battle from dockers who thought that it would reduce their workload, which is true, a lot of them lost jobs, from ports who had to dig new harbors. For example before the box, a lot of New York's trade went into the ports into Manhattan, and after that they had to build this huge port, Port Elizabeth, and they had to create new harbors and new docks.

But it was absolutely revolutionary, and now it's so efficient as a method of transport that it actually makes more sense - for example Scottish fish production people, to send their fish to China to get filleted and then bring it back and refreeze it and sell it. It's actually cheaper to do that than actually do the filleting in Scotland.

GROSS: That's crazy.

GEORGE: It is crazy. It's efficiency. It's a very efficient industry. It's got very tight margins. It's quite volatile, but it is - what it is is efficient.

GROSS: So just to make sure I understand correctly, so with these containers instead of unloading all the bananas from a ship and then loading all the bananas on a truck or a train, you're just loading large crates of bananas, not the bananas themselves. So it just is much more quick and efficient, moving the, for instance, bananas from the ship to the next kind of transportation.

GEORGE: Yeah, you just, you take the box off the ship, you pop it onto a truck, the moves out of the port, there you go, Bob's your uncle. Then the ironic thing is that the truck is then, well, environmentally causing a lot more pollution than the ship that brought all those boxes in together.

But - and if you for example consider the ship that I was on, if you'd unloaded that ship, which again was not considered to be a huge container ship, it would have created a 60-mile-long queue of trucks, each with a container on it.

GROSS: So I want to say thank you for, you know, letting me know about the importance of shipping containers and all those ships at sea carrying them and their importance in globalization and all that stuff, but I feel like I wouldn't want to go on one of those ships.

GEORGE: Oh, you'd be wrong. It's wonderful.

GROSS: But you did, you did. Why did you want to actually take a voyage on one of those huge ships with carrying God knows how many shipping containers?

GEORGE: Well, it was - I'd actually, I'd had a magazine job, a desk job, in about 1999, and at the end of that, even though it was a great job, I just wanted to move. And somebody said, well, why don't you go on a ship. I said OK. And they said, well, why don't you go on a container ship. So I did. I managed to get a passage on a container ship in mid-winter, it was January, going across...

GROSS: Even better.


GEORGE: Going across the mid-Atlantic, following the path of the Titanic. And it was me and 22 Indians on the ship, and it was such an extraordinarily different world. It was - you're living in a confined space, but you've got this immense ocean outside. There are romantic aspects to it. I mean, we sailed the St. Lawrence River, breaking the ice all the way down to Montreal. I mean, that's pretty unforgettable.

But there was just - it was an exposure to a world that I knew nothing about. I didn't know that these massive ships could be crewed by 22 people, that's all, even though they're so big. And I didn't know who these crews were because I think it's the same in the U.S., but certainly in the U.K., it's very difficult nowadays to find a working seafarer.

I don't know any ships' captains personally because our seafaring personnel, the men and women who go to sea, has reduced so dramatically since the Second World War. So now you go to sea, and you're more likely to find Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Indians, Russians, Ukrainians than you are to find an American or a Brit.

So even though I've traveled, and I've been to some crazy places on land, like I've been to Saddam Hussein's birthday party twice, but I went on this ship, and I thought this is one of the most foreign environments I can ever hope to go to. And of course the ocean is the wildest place on the planet. And I just wanted to go back.

So I thought this is something I want to write a book about. It's something I think is absolutely fundamental to modern existence, and yet we've managed to ignore it. We see the sea as this place of leisure and this place, you know, a blue patch on the map to fly over because we all go by plane these days, mostly. And we don't really see it as a place of industry anymore.

So I wanted to have a look at this industry and who worked in it, and I managed, using the same technique as I did to get down the sewers for my last book, which is on sanitation, which is I approached the publicist, and I just kept asking nicely, and eventually I was very lucky that Maersk, which is the biggest container shipping line, said OK, you can go on our ship.

And they don't take paying passengers. Some container lines do, but they don't and particularly not through the Indian Ocean, which was, at the time, was already really in trouble from Somali pirates. But they said yes.

GROSS: So describe the ship that you were on.

GEORGE: She was sky blue, which was a Maersk blue. It's a patented color. She had 6,000 boxes. The crew were 21. There was - I was actually surprised to find out I wasn't the only woman onboard because the chef was a Filipino woman called Pinkie(ph). And my quarters were very spacious, very luxurious. I had a senior officer's quarters.

The most surprising thing was the first night, when I got into my cabin, and I couldn't understand why there were lots of pieces of paper shoved in behind picture frames and under the TV. And then the first night, I realized very quickly what they were for because the ship vibrated so amazingly because it has engines the size of a house.

And unlike cruise ships, which do take steps to soundproof cabins for passengers, cargo ships don't do that. So you quickly learn to sleep in earplugs. But I mean, I was onboard for 29 days. I went through five seas, two oceans, six ports, one canal, and I absolutely loved it, and I didn't want to get off.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rose George, and we're talking about her new book "Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car and Food on Your Plate." Rose, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rose George, and her new book "Ninety Percent of Everything" is about shipping, and as it turns out, just about everything is shipped around the world by ships. And specifically she's writing about container ships, those ships that carry those, like, huge containers, And how that's kind of revolutionized things.

But at the same time, a lot of people who do the work are very poorly treated. Rose, let's talk about the workers on the container ships that you write about. you say we boycott food produced by companies that mistreat their workers, but we know little about the sometimes atrocious conditions on the ships that carry the food.

So you've told us that there aren't that many Americans or Brits who work on these ships. Is that because the wages are so low?

GEORGE: Well, it's because of a very simple change in shipping, which had really profound effect, and that was the introduction of the flag of convenience, or the open registry, as the preferred method of flagging a ship. So before that happened after the Second World War, ships would fly the flag of their nation-state, so the nation-state that their owner belonged to.

That was not always the case. They could - they did swap flags sometimes in times of war when it was convenient, but essentially that was how ships operated. So you had a flag, and you were a little bit of your sovereign state floating on the high seas, and you had certain protections from that flag.

That's now different because now 70 percent of the world's ships fly a flag of convenience or a flag from what the shipping industry prefers to call an open registry. And what that means is that any ship owner can go to any country in the world that has a flag registry, even if it doesn't have a coastline like Bolivia, and essentially rent their flag. It's like a brand.

GROSS: Why would you want to do that?

GEORGE: You'd want to do that because there's a reason it's called a flag of convenience; it's very convenient. I think the U.S. government did an analysis of how much a ship owner, a U.S. ship owner could save by it's called flagging out, so getting - using a foreign flag, and it was at least a million dollars a year.

And the reason is that some flag registries have much laxer regulations about minimum wages, or there's no unions imposing problems on ship owners. Taxes are often very low. A lot of them advertise anonymity as an attraction. And I must stress many flag registries are perfectly good, but some aren't.

And it often baffles me that even passengers, and my book is not about cruise ships, but I have looked at that, but it baffles me that people will go to sea on these cruise ships, and they'll, you know, very carefully go through what will keep them safe at sea, like checking their safe and keeping their valuables in the safe and what have you, but they won't check the flag of the ship.

And when they set foot on that ship and when they leave territorial waters, they are essentially in a foreign country, but they don't check that. And if anything goes wrong, then they're under the regulations and enforcement of that foreign country.

GROSS: So because of flagging out, are some ships that are using these flags of convenience paying the workers very low wages because they can?

GEORGE: They can. So they can pay lower wages, and they can also unfortunately in some case, few case but frequent cases, they don't pay at all. So the International Transport Workers Federation and the International Labor Organization, who look at seafarers' working conditions, keep databases of abandoned ships.

So there are actually - there are abandoned ships, but there are also abandoned crews. So if you look into this database, you'll find ships that would - the owners often have just one or two ships, they're not big companies, but they'll just stop paying, and they'll just leave these crews there, and they'll be there for months and months and months.

Sometimes their food runs out, their fresh water runs out, and they're in really dire straits.

GROSS: So let's talk about the working conditions on the ship that you were on. And this was a Danish ship flying a British flag.

GEORGE: Yes, my ship was owned by Maersk, which is a Danish company. It's a huge company. When I say it's Danish, it's like saying, you know, Microsoft is American. It's - you know, these are global, huge companies, but we've all heard of Microsoft.

So Maersk, yes it's a Danish company, but it has British-flagged ships, a few, and so it's known to be a good company. It has good conditions. The ship I was on was very nice. There was always food. There was always - there was a gym, there was a library. But the actual realities of being, of working at sea is it's a very hard life because they have long hours.

It's difficult on a ship to get away from your job because that accommodation house, which is where seafarers live, is their workplace, it's where they live, it's where they relax, it's everything, and it's just hard to get away. And seafarers often refer to their job as being in prison with a salary. And they're not usually joking, even though some salaries are really good.

Like the guys on my ship, even the lowest rating was getting about 1,000 U.S. dollars per month, which for a Filipino is a really good wage. And the captain, I didn't ask him what he was on, but he was on a good enough salary to have built a house extension and got a Mercedes, and his salary's tax-free. But it's just a difficult life.

It's lonely, and it's an astonishing thing to me, still, that two-thirds of seafarers at sea have no Internet access while at sea. And they often very rarely have free Internet access in ports, either. And because container shipping is so efficient these days, even huge ships like the Ever(ph) Maersk can be in and out of port in 24 hours. So there's very little time for seafarers to get ashore and get away from the ship and just get some free time.

And while they're at sea, they can't contact their families. There are satellite phones, but they're expensive. So it's a difficult, quite lonely environment.

GROSS: So there's a lot of emissions that are released by these ships. Do these emissions go into the ocean or into the air or both?

GEORGE: Well, you have pollution going two ways, really. You have the emissions going into the air, so the particles going into the air, and then you have another issues, which is even more hidden, which is acoustic pollution from the noise of the engines and the propellers. And that's a huge problem for ocean creatures because they survive by communicating with sound.

And their acoustic habitat has been dramatically reduced partly by ships, also by sonar and other manmade activity in the ocean. But, for example, some humpback whales now have 10 percent of their acoustic range. So that is a problem. It's a huge problem, and it's only just starting to get some scrutiny.

GROSS: Do you mean that their ability to perceive acoustically has been damaged by being exposed to the engine noise?

GEORGE: Perceive acoustically and also transmit acoustically. So before, they could transmit over thousands of miles, and if a sound drops into a channel, it can cross an ocean. But now that's being reduced quite significantly, partly by the noise of propellers, and it's called cavitation. It's a noise that a propeller makes when it's underwater. And it's - unfortunately it's in the same frequency as many whales communicate in.

So there's a lot of interesting new research and researchers working on this, on acoustic pollution in the ocean, and it's quite depressing research that's coming out.

GROSS: How is this impacting on the lifespan of whales?

GEORGE: We don't know. I looked at the case of the North Atlantic right whale. I was really interested in that particular whale because it's known as the urban whale because it lives so close to the Eastern Seaboard in the U.S. So I went to Cape Cod, and I went out with some whale researchers who were trying to understand what's happening to the North Atlantic right whale because it's critically endangered. There are only about 400 left.

I mean, there are so few of them that they've got names, like Kleenex and Snot. But they...

GROSS: I won't ask.


GEORGE: It's - scientists need to have their fun, you know, like they need to have tattoos under their lab coats. But they know that at the moment North Atlantic right whales are not having as many calves as they should do. They're looking a bit scrawny, some of them, and they don't know the cause. So they're trying to find out. And the noise pollution is definitely one aspect that they're looking at.

GROSS: My guest is Rose George. Her new book is called "Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping." Her previous book is called "The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters." And it's about toilets and sewage. What do you think about now when you flush a toilet that you didn't think about before you did the research for that book?


GEORGE: I think about do I need to flush this. You know, do I need to use six liters of drinking water on this particular occasion? Can I leave it a bit? I probably wouldn't have done that before. I think about what's going down my sink. So I won't pour oil down my sink. I won't - if I'm cleaning a pan, I'll wipe it and bin because I've seen - I've been down sewers.

In fact this week there was a huge what's called a fatberg they found in London's sewers, which blocked the sewer, and...

GROSS: A what?

GEORGE: A fatberg, and it's just a huge block of fat that has congealed in the sewer, and it costs a fortune to remove. It blocks sewers. It causes sewage to back up into people's houses and basements and streets. And it's the product of all our restaurants, our fast food establishments and us not pouring oil down the sink and not thinking that it's going to go into a sewer and cause problems.

GROSS: Is it oil, or is it more things - because oil doesn't usually congeal like that.

GEORGE: I mean cooking oil, cooking oil and fat. It's called FOG, fat, oils and grease. So any kind of greasy, fatty substance going down the sewer is not a good idea.

GROSS: So there's usually signs up in public restrooms asking you not to flush tampons down the toilet, which I always assumed was because they're created to expand when wet. So how big of a problem, globally, is tampons in toilets and in sewage systems?

GEORGE: It's a problem in sewers in the sense that they have to be filtered out, and that's just unnecessary energy, and it's inefficient.

GROSS: I imagine they're not very good for the pipes, either, you know, in the home or the office or public space.

GEORGE: No, basically it's a bad idea to put your tampon down the toilet, or your sanitary pad. I can't imagine anyone would put a sanitary pad down the toilet, but then I talked to flushers and to sewer workers, and they tell me all sorts gets put down the toilet, and that includes sanitary pads galore, it includes diapers, hospital aprons, motorbikes. I mean, you wouldn't believe...

GROSS: Motorbikes?

GEORGE: Yeah, they found motorbikes down sewers. They found a live hand grenade. What really causes problems is actually the humble Q-Tip. That they really hate.

GROSS: Seriously?

GEORGE: That gets stuck in the sieves at the waste water treatment plant, and that's very difficult to get out. You have just manually go and pull them out.

GROSS: Wow, OK, who would have thought?


GROSS: Well Rose George, thank you so much for talking with us.

GEORGE: Thank you.

GROSS: Rose George's new book about the shipping industry is called "Ninety Percent of Everything." You can read an excerpt on our website, I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Sherpa people of Nepal have become famous for guiding mountain climbers up some of the world's highest peaks, especially Mount Everest. While Sherpa guides earn relatively good pay for their work, they and their families pay a price in injury and sometimes death. In fact, our guest, journalist Grayson Schaffer, says Sherpa guides are 10 times more likely to die than commercial fishermen - the most dangerous occupation in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In the August issue of Outside magazine, Schaffer writes about the frequency of debilitating injury and death for these Sherpas, and how little financial protection they're given by the companies that hire them even though those companies charge Western climbers thousands of dollars for a trip up Everest. Schaffer has also written about the dramatic increase in the number of climbers who join expeditions up Everest every year, and its impact on the experience. He says despite better at forecasting and rescue technology, 10 people died on Everest last year.

Grayson Schaffer is a senior editor and staff writer at Outside. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Well, Grayson Schaffer, welcome to FRESH AIR. So what are the challenges that humans face trying to climb Mount Everest? It's not a natural environment.

GRAYSON SCHAFFER: Well, there's generally two different types of hazards. They're sort of the physical kind of hazards - you know, crevasses, getting hit by an avalanche, falling, that type of thing. And then there's this sort of physiological challenges. You know, at the summit of Everest, there's something like a third of the amount of oxygen that you have at sea level, and so in order to get your body to work with that level of stress, you have to acclimatize very slowly. And so what people will do is what's called rotations, where you'll go up to camp two and back down on to camp three and back down, just getting your body used to the altitude, allowing your, you know, red blood cell count to go up so you can use more of that thin air that's up there.

And then in addition, once people get usually above about 23, 24,000 feet, they'll start on using bottled oxygen, and that is basically a scuba tank that goes to a delivery mask, and this is how people will get all the way to the summit of Everest. This is how mere mortals can get to the summit of Everest. There are, you know, a handful, probably fewer than 60 - if you get rid of the liars and the people who slept with oxygen - who have actually climbed Everest without any oxygen.

DAVIES: And when you're making the trip with Sherpas, how much of the work are they doing, how much of the work are you doing? I mean the basic work of preparing meals and pitching tents?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. I mean Sherpas do - they do everything, and I think a lot of people are pretty quick to recognize that. Climbers often talk about risk mitigation, that they are constantly trying to mitigate the risk. And one of the sort of the dirtiest secrets of that, I think, is that the biggest thing you can do to mitigate your risk on a mountain like Everest is paying somebody to carry your tent and your stove and all of your equipment up the mountain, doing all those laps for you, because of the death rate is 1.2 percent for a climber going up Everest just making the minimum member of trips, you can imagine how high it would be if you also had to do all of the laps.

You know, once you get into base camp, the first thing that an exposition needs to do on Mount Everest from the south side is surmount the Khumbu ice fall, which is this giant hanging glacier between camp one and base camp. And in order to tame that thing, you've got to get up there and get these tiny aluminum ladders strong across crevasses, you've got to get fixed rope in, and then you've got to carry all of the gear -the stills, the tents, the oxygen bottles, everything needs to go up to camp one, camp two, camp three, camp four in this sort of pyramid style of building and depositing materiel. And so the Sherpas are really responsible for all of that, they set the route, they set the ladders.

And, you know, when you actually see climbers going up the mountain, one of the things that people will do is carry just their 8,000 meter down suit. This is the suit that kind of makes people look like the Michelin Man. And as they're going up this sort of shoulders on the mountain, they will put just that suit in their pack so it looks like they have a full pack but, in fact, it's very light. And then if you look at, you know, the Sherpa who's climbing next to him, that guy will have, you know a 50 or an 80 pound pack and you can tell that they're just straining into the straps.

DAVIES: Apart from their proximity to Everest and these other peaks, what makes them so good at what they do?

SCHAFFER: Basically, the word Sherpa means people from the east. And these are ethnic Tibetans who have fled China over the Nangpa La pass for the most part, which is a 19,000 foot pass near Cho Oyu, and ended up in this, you know, these sort of high valleys of the Khumbu region. And so these people have spent thousands of years at altitude and develop certain genetic enhancements that allow them to perform a little bit better at high altitude than the rest of us even with, you know, the acclimatization process.

DAVIES: Now, you open your piece by describing an accident in 2010. Do you want to tell us what happened?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. In 2010 an American climber named Melissa Arnot, who is out of Sun Valley and guides for a company called Rainier Mountaineering, was climbing a mountain called Baruntse, which is a 7,000 meter peak that's sort of near Mount Everest and she was climbing with a Sherpa named Chhewang Nima, who is a very well known, highly athletic Sherpa who had summited Mount Everest 19 times at that point and he was only two away from the record. And the two of them were climbing Baruntse and Chhewang and another Sherpa named Mima Gelgin(ph) had gone on ahead to set the route to the summit. At about 600 yards shy of the summit, Chhewang was pounding in a snow picket to attach a rope to for safety and the ground beneath him just sort of splits and falls away. And he's just instantly killed, swept off the mountain.

DAVIES: Now what kinds of insurance, if any, is required for Sherpas on an expedition? Because, I mean, in many cases they're injured, not killed. And there are expensive rescues. And then, of course, they're dealing with, you know, the needs of the family when a totality occurs. What kinds of insurance do they have?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. When a Sherpa dies in the mountains you have these two worlds that kind of diverge. And on the one side the Americans, you know, the Western climbers will see, you know, a fallen climber and feel sorry for him, feel, you know, devastated that they've lost a teammate. And they'll pass around a hat usually and try to come up with some money for the family. And on the other side, there's a sort of private grieving that goes on in the villages. And the family generally gets since about 2000, 2002, there is a $4,500 insurance payment that the family will get from a private insurer that's mandated through the government. And then there's this whole series of rituals that the family will go through. They'll have a what's called a protest ceremony a puja ceremony, where the body is cremated and sent to the afterlife for reincarnation. And in Buddhist culture - the Sherpa are primarily Buddhist - the more expensive the puja, the better the afterlife the deceased gets. So it's extremely important for them, one, to get the body so that they can cremate it. And so in a lot of these mountaineering accidents, that becomes problematic because a lot of these bodies end up, you know, in the bottom of a crevasse or someplace where you just can't get to them.

And then the other is the expense that goes into these puja ceremonies, so a lot of times the family will get a $4,500 insurance payment and relatives of the family will have already committed them to shows of faith that will cost much more than that. And so for a lot of the widows of fallen climbers, they've lost not only their primary breadwinner, they've also instantly accrued debt in excess of the insurance payment. And a lot of these climbers were - have been supporting not only their own immediate families but the families of many of their brothers and sisters as well. So it creates this sort of domino effect of grief and stress, this sort of collateral damage of the climbing industry, much of which goes unseen by Western climbers.

DAVIES: Besides accidents on the mountain, there are, what, strokes and embolisms, blood clots that occur?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. In addition to the things call the object of hazards, things like avalanches and crevasse falls and that sort of thing that are, you know, things that the mountain can do to you, there's a whole physiological range of ailments that become much more common once you go above base camp. These are things like strokes, cerebral and pulmonary edema are big ones, and there's also just something called sudden-death, where people just have a heart attack. And very often you'll hear these stories of people saying I think my heart just stopped or pointing to their chest and then, you know, a few seconds later falling over and dying. A lot of this stuff happens because of the blood thickening affects of altitude. As you climb above base camp, your blood gets thicker, judgment gets impaired and, of course, you get, you know, weaker, slower, sluggish, thick. You know, above 26,000 feet they call that area the death zone and above that altitude, your body just can't acclimatize. You have, you know, a set amount of time that you can spend above that altitude and then you have to descend.

DAVIES: Right. So sometimes you have Sherpas that are killed on the mountains - and of course climbers as well. But in other cases, they suffer incapacitating injuries. And you write in the piece about some families that you visited who had, you know, Sherpas who were severely handicapped because of things that had happened on the mountain. What kind of, you know, circumstances did they face?

SCHAFFER: That's right. In many cases, you know, because rescues are becoming more common, more people are able to survive some of these injuries and ailments that they wouldn't have in the past. And so in each of the towns in the Khumbu region and in certain neighborhoods in Katmandu, you'll find some of the people who have survived high altitudes, strokes or falls or that sort of thing. And essentially, these people become sort of hidden casualties of the climbing industry where not only are they no longer their family's breadwinners, their family generally now has to take care of them as well. And so it's this kind of double burden.

So I met with the family of a man named Ang Temba, who was in Katmandu, and he had had a stroke around 2006 on the north side of Everest working for a Japanese team. And they had gotten him off the mountain and gotten him back down to Katmandu to the hospital and he had gotten some acupuncture treatment. And the doctor who saw him there said whatever you do, don't go back to mountaineering, you know, you've recovered from this, you're very lucky. And then, of course, the very next season he gets a job offer to go back and work for another company called Asian Trekking.

And the way his wife put it to me was pretty simple. I mean she said what other option do we have? I mean this is the most lucrative job that this guy can possibly do. And given that or some other job in a country whose average per capita income is about $540, he can go up on Everest and make $5,000 or $6,000 in two months, he's going to say yes. And so he did. And he goes back and he works on the mountain and then he comes back and he's extremely weak. And a few weeks later she finds him passed out on the couch and he's had another stroke. And at this point he has lost all function on his right side and can barely speak. And so now she's trying to make ends meet by renting rooms in their house. And she had tried to collect some of the insurance money for a death benefit and over the course of several years she was actually able to do that because she was able to convince the insurer that his debilitation was complete and work-related.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Grayson Schaffer. He is a senior editor and staff writer at Outside magazine. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and our guest is Grayson Schaffer. He is a senior editor and staff writer at Outside magazine. He has a piece in the August issue of the magazine about the dangers that Sherpas face in expeditions up Mount Everest and other peaks. It's called "Disposable Man."

So when Western climbers go to expeditions up Everest and other mountains, do they know, you know, what the arrangements are for the Sherpas and their needs?

SCHAFFER: You know, I think that there's a real misperception about that. There's an assumption that because it's 2013, that all of the sort of labor issues that might have been in the past, that those kind of things have been resolved and that these people are basically well cared for. At this point, we've recognized that climbing Mount Everest is no longer sort of the pinnacle of mountaineering achievement. There's no climb that you can do on the south face of Everest that is going to make Alpinist magazine write a profile of you. It's essentially the pinnacle of adventure tourism. And the thing to understand about the Sherpa workforce is that there is no other tourism industry in the world that so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients. And that's just something that people have not yet I think connected the dots on, that a one percent mortality rate for somebody who is choosing to climb a mountain is acceptable. But a one percent mortality rate for the people they rely on to get their stuff up the mountains is, as a workplace, safety statistic is just outrageous.

DAVIES: Because they go again and again.

SCHAFFER: That's right. That's right. If you're a Western climber, you're paying, you're climbing the mountain once and you're done. If you're a Sherpa, you're doing lap after lap after lap through this roulette wheel of hazards that we know has a death rate, long term, of 1.2 percent, and that number makes climbing Everest as a Sherpa more dangerous than, you know, working on a crab boat in Alaska. It makes it more dangerous than being an infantryman in the first four years of the Iraq War. The thing that hides that number is that the season is relatively short, you know, this is we're talking about mostly through the end of May and then a small season again in the fall and a relatively small workforce. But when you actually run the numbers of fatalities through any workplace safety statistic calculator you come up with is just sort of outrageous number for how dangerous this line of work is.

DAVIES: It sets up quite a, you know, a set of personal relationships when you have, you know, the Western clients who have paid tens of thousands of dollars for this once-in-a-lifetime experience and the Western outfitters who've taken this money and have made all these arrangements and paid, you know, the local trekking agent to hire the Sherpas. And then they get on the mountain and there's this, you know, intense, close personal relationship because you're engaged in this enormous undertaking.

And then when something goes wrong it gets really tricky. Do the Western clients and the Western outfitters end up often, you know, just making cash outlays to Sherpas sometimes on an ongoing basis?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. I mean, it's incredibly difficult. And, you know, oftentimes the first thing they'll do is pass a hat around and just - you know, or put up a website creating a fund for a Sherpa's who's recently died. And a lot of times people, you know, Western climbers will leave feeling terrible and feeling, you know, making promises about the help that they're going to come through with.

And one of the people who I spoke with for this story was Norbu Tenzing Norgay, who is the eldest living son of Everest pioneer Tenzing Norgay and, you know, his point was that this sort of thing is going - been going on for years and years, since the very beginning. In fact, since the very first two Sherpas were hired in 1895 who both died on the mountain.

When you have these casualties Westerners are very quick to make promises and certainly not all of those promises are kept. And his point was that it's not enough to make promises. You've got to come through with action on this kind of thing. And if we're just leaving it up to the chance generosity of the teams that were climbing with the Sherpas, what you end up with is this situation where the Sherpas who are working for the most reputable outfitters are more or less taken care of or are taken care of somewhat well.

And then you have the Sherpas who die working for these budget outfitters and their families can literally go from being comfortable to being destitute overnight.

DAVIES: You know, in the accident that you open the piece with, Melissa Arnot, this veteran climber, is agonized by the death of the Sherpa that she's with, Chhewang Nima, and she shells out, what was, I don't know, $15,000 or so to get a helicopter to attempt to retrieve his body. It's ultimately unsuccessful but you describe that she makes an annual visit to his widow. You want to describe that?

SCHAFFER: I think that this is something that she's really torn by. She has committed, at least sort of to herself, to pay Chhewang's widow, Lhamu Chhiki, about what Chhewang would have made every year that she is still guiding. So she has sort of placed herself in that role of breadwinner for that family where she is trying to make up for what she feels like she owes them.

You know, I think she feels a real mixture of guilt and sadness, and, you know, she explained that when we went to meet with Lhamu Chhiki and she delivered this envelope last fall, that this was the toughest that that she does every year. And it certainly was an emotional experience there being there with her and with Chhewang's widow.

DAVIES: It's an envelope of hundred dollar bills.

SCHAFFER: Yeah. There's lots of different ways that you can look at it and, you know, you could think about it sort of crassly or that she's, you know, that she's sort of one of the few who is courageous enough to do the right thing, or, you know, what the hell was she doing hiring this guy to climb Baruntse in the first place. I mean, it's a really fraught situation and I don't think there's an easy answer.

I mean, I think that the one thing that nobody is suggesting out of any of this is that work permits in the Himalayas for Sherpas should be cancelled. I don't think there's anybody, least of all the Sherpa workforce, who want Westerners to be climbing only on their own without their help. Because this is still - has been such a profitable industry for them, even if it is a dangerous one.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Grayson Schaffer. He's a senior editor and staff writer at Outside Magazine. And we'll talk some more after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and our guest is Grayson Schaffer. He's a senior editor and staff writer at Outside Magazine. He has a piece in the August issue about the dangers that Sherpas face in expeditions up Mount Everest. It's called "Disposable Man." You've written another piece about the sheer volume of humanity that is going up Everest and is, you know, is summiting the peak has become more common.

And you describe going to the base camp which is, I guess, 17,600 feet altitude. You want to describe just what you saw when you got there?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. I mean, the base camp is this sort of - it's the most amazing thing. I had placed base camp on maps, you know, for years and years working at Outside and had always sort of thought of it as being right at this sort of crook in the elbow where the Khumbu icefall comes down and sweeps left into the Khumbu Glacier.

And in fact, that's where the base camp starts, but it wraps for almost a mile down around that entire bend. And really, it takes over that entire glacier. I mean, this is at least a thousand tents with your Western climbers, your Sherpa workforce, journalists, helicopters. There's an emergency room that's set up there to give medical support to the climbers and to the Sherpas.

A couple of expeditions have had full bars set up. There was a whiskey tasting room last year. It's this - I mean, it's just this sort of amazing sprawl of humanity at 17,600 feet.

DAVIES: So it's like a miner's boomtown, almost.

SCHAFFER: It's very much like that. I think, you know, there's a lot of commerce going on there. You know, when the porter comes up who's carrying nothing but beer on his back, they call that guy the beer truck. And then you've got the sort of refuse and human waste needs to go in and out every day. So there'll be, you know, yak trains and trains of porters coming in carrying new supplies in.

And carrying the blue barrels of waste out. And, yeah, it's this sort of fully functioning city that pops up every spring.

DAVIES: Now, this happens of course because so many people - more people want to climb Everest. And the season is very short, right? What's the window at which you can actually try and summit?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. In general, people try to get the icefall open in early April and the summit windows generally happen between May one and about May 25th. And if you're lucky, there will be three or four different summit windows that people can sort of filter into and, you know, claim their summit and get down.

Last year was different in that it was unusually dry and a lot - the route melted out so there was a lot of rock fall, which is very dangerous, and that slowed the speed at which they could get the ropes up the mountain. And then you had the situation where there was really only two weather windows.

And the first of those didn't come until May 18th. And so because that window was so late, almost everybody who was on the mountain tried to pack into that same weather window. And so this is where we had this very iconic photo of what we call like the conga line or ants marching. Where you had 150 or 200 people all in a line on the Lhotse face like they were, you know, waiting to try to, you know, get tickets at a sold out concert or something.

But you have to remember that they're at 23,000 feet doing this sort of elephant walk, you know, in a very dangerous place. It was just a recipe for disaster.

DAVIES: Right. And of course, you can't breathe comfortably at that altitude without additional oxygen and you don't want to stay at that altitude any longer than you have to. And I assume that many people up there at the same time slows things down.

SCHAFFER: Yeah. The most dangerous thing that you can do, you know, when you're at the Hillary step, which is sort of the last steep rock obstacle before the summit, is wait around. And in this case, you know, you have these photos of people sort of clinging to every rock, outcropping, you know, waiting up to two hours to get through this bottleneck.

And in 1996 during the "Into Thin Air" disaster, I mean, they sort of credited the death toll to this freak storm that rolled in. Here the weather was beautiful for most of the summit window. People died because they were waiting around, because they got tired, because they, you know, did - it took them 36 hours to climb the mountain.

I mean, basically you just had people walking until they died. And that was sort of the more, I think, the scarier thing about it was the banality of it where there really wasn't anything that you can point to in the environment that killed people. It was just hubris.

DAVIES: And different kinds of people are trying to make the trip, right? I mean, it used to be that you had to have some experience and a level of fitness.

SCHAFFER: That's right. It used to be that Everest was sort of like a capstone experience, you know, to finish off an already great climbing career. I mean, this was until the late '80s only sort of the top echelon of national teams would be doing this sort of for God and country, that sort of thing. You know, becoming the first Israeli or the first Egyptian to climb Everest, that sort of thing.

You still see a bit of that but more now this is, you know, doctors and lawyers and people of means who just decide that they want to climb Mount Everest. That either - that it's a dream for them or that that's something that they want to do, regardless of whether they have a lot of experience climbing. And in 2012, we saw a couple of people who had never even strapped on crampons who, you know, who paid the money, showed up, and gave it a try.

DAVIES: When people die that high up the mountain what happens to their bodies?

SCHAFFER: Well, it used to be that the body would be left on the mountain. You know, on Everest there are still a number of bodies, including Scott Fischer's who died during that Everest '96 tragedy, where these bodies are right where they, you know, right where the people stopped moving.

Now, because of the helicopter flights that can come in to 22,000 - 23,000 feet, a number of families are willing to pay exorbitant fees to send teams, often of Sherpas, up the mountain with a Sked, which is sort of like a mountain stretcher, to try to get the bodies off the mountain.

DAVIES: When this train of 150 were, you know, going up last May, would they pass bodies as they climbed?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. I mean, you know, bodies are on Everest, both on the north and south side. Bodies are often cited as landmarks. So they'll say, you know, on the north side they'll say, oh, you know, where were you? Oh, we were, you know, right in the area of Green Boots. And so that's - Green Boots is the name of an Indian climber who died, I believe, in 2006 who's sort of become a landmark on the north side.

On the south side they talk about, you know, the body of Scott Fischer as being sort of a landmark to let people know sort of where you are on the triangle face.

DAVIES: Well, Grayson Schaffer, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

SCHAFFER: No problem. Thanks for having me, Dave.

GROSS: Grayson Schaffer spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. His article, "Disposable Man," is published in the August edition of Outside Magazine. On our website you'll find a slideshow of Schaffer's photographs of Sherpas as well as his video about the accident he discussed and a link to his article. That's at And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. Our blog is on Tumblr at

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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