Mount Everest as your first mountain climb?

Apparently this is a thing people do. They want to climb a mountain, so they buy the gear and fly to Kathmandu or somewhere thereabouts, and hire a company to take them up Mount Everest. Whether or not they have skills to climb it is not necessarily something they worry about. And some climbing companies also don’t concern themselves overmuch with the experience of those handing them tens of thousands of dollars. Sherpas carry the climbers’ packs. The food. The oxygen tanks. Sherpas run lines up the mountain for climbers to clip into and follow. Up. To the top. Over 29,000 feet up. Covered in snow and ice and at risk of avalanche. Sherpas lead the way and assist the climbers in every way they might need. (That’s not to say that there aren’t experienced mountaineers climbing Everest.) Check out this traffic jam at the summit.

Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air recounts the 1996 tragedy that claimed a dozen lives. Ten people died in 2012. Most recently, an avalanche killed sixteen climbers in April 2014 – all of them Sherpa guides. I attended a discussion at National Geographic this past week on Mount Everest, climbing, and Sherpa culture. I learned that when tragedy strikes on Mount Everest, the Sherpa guides are the ones who most often pay the price. The Nepali government offers $400 to the families of those who die on Everest, which doesn’t even cover the cost of a funeral. According to Lakpa Rita, the Sherpa speaking at National Geographic, the families of those killed in April still have not received that money.

Obviously, climbing Everest is a risky job. So why do it? To feed their families, educate their children, and hope that their kids won’t have to climb the mountain one day to do the same. It’s not a fun job to them. It’s livelihood. It’s a necessary risk to give their children a chance at better. Other work is scarce and not nearly as lucrative. Lakpa Rita confirmed this at the National Geographic Live! event. Yet The Atlantic reports, “Being a Sherpa on Everest these days isĀ far more dangerous than, say, being a soldier in Iraq from 2003 to 2007.”

Think about that.

It kind of puts my hard week at the office in perspective.

National Geographic sent photographer Aaron Huey to Everest as part of its story on Sherpas. He spoke at the National Geographic Live! event and you can see some of his fantastic photos on his website.