Global Ethics Corner: Who Does Everest Belong To?

May 20, 2013

A fight on Mt. Everest between Nepalese Sherpas and European climbers has again raised questions about tourism and the world's tallest mountain. Should the Sherpas, who live and work on the mountain, control access to the peak? Should the tourists have any say?

A fight between European mountaineers and Nepalese Sherpa guides at a camp on Mt. Everest made headlines around the world last month. The dispute raises questions about overcrowding on the world's highest mountain, the ethics of access to open spaces, and what National Geographic calls the "Sherpa-climber social contract."

Tensions boiled over when three climbers ignored Sherpa requests to stay off the mountain while ropes used to support commercial expeditions were repaired. Witnesses claimed that the Europeans knocked ice onto the Sherpas as the difficult and dangerous work was being performed.

An unwritten rule says that no one climbs while the maintenance work is being done. So when the Europeans returned to camp, they were confronted by an angry group of Sherpas.

One of the climbers told NPR that the dispute was essentially about access to Everest and that commercial expeditions behave as if the mountain belongs only to those who pay to climb it.

To the Westerners who flock to Everest every year, gaining the summit is both a sporting challenge and a mark of personal achievement. To the Buddhist Sherpas who assist these foreigners, however, the Himalayan peaks are sacred.

Yet it is also true that mountaineering is many Sherpas' livelihoods. According to Time magazine, Sherpas are paid $3,500 to help wealthy Westerners spend a few minutes at the top of the world. The average annual income in Nepal is just $540.

This volatile mixture of sport, commerce, and spirituality has many asking if Mt. Everest will suffer the tragedy of the commons—in other words, the destruction of a resource that belongs to everyone, because nobody takes responsibility when everyone is responsible.

Who does Everest belong to? The Sherpas who live and work there? The tourists who pay for the Sherpa's services? Who should have the final say over access?

For more information see:

Brouhgton Coburn, "Mount Everest Fight Raises Questions About Sherpas," National Geographic, May 1, 2013

"Everest brawl exposes mountaineering's deep rifts," Bangkok Post, May 5, 2013

Audie Cornish and Melissa Block, "Everest Fight Reveals Cultural Chasm Between Climbers, Sherpas," NPR - All Things Considered, April 30, 2013

Katherine Tarbox, "The Economics of Everest," Time, January 23, 2012

Photo credits in order of appearance:
GORE-TEX® Products
Grant Eaton
Stefan Perneborg [also for picture 19]
Didrik Johnck [also for pictures 5, 6, 8, & 20]
Olof Sundstrom & Martin Letzter [also for pictures 11, 12, 15, & 17]
Cotaro Tahara
Huai-Chun Hsu
Chris Marquardt
Wen-Yan King
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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