Saturday, April 26, 2014

Every Dream Needs A Sherpa

On Friday, April 18th, while I was beginning my long weekend at WonderCon in Anaheim, California, a high altitude avalanche occurred in what’s known as the Khumbu Ice Fall, considered to be one of the most dangerous and difficult of the Everest climb.  
A team of sherpas, the native guides that are hired by every team that tries to climb Everest, was up early, preparing the way for the climbers that had hired them.  Twelve of them were killed and three injured during the avalanche.  The death toll would eventually reach sixteen, making this climbing season, with this one accident, the deadliest on record.  The previously most deadly year was 1996, when eight people died in one accident and seven more were killed throughout the rest of the season for a total of 15 deaths.
And April is considered the start of the climbing season.  
I didn’t hear about this story until later in the week.  When it happened, I was attending WonderCon and in the midst of a typical information blackout one experiences when at the convention.  The only thing I kept track of in the outside world was the box scores of the games the Dodgers were playing.  
In my last blog entry, I wrote about why it was I attended WonderCon.  For years I’ve only gone to two events during convention season (basically from April to September, about twice as long as the Everest climbing season, which is from April to June): ComicCon in San Diego and WorldCon, in whatever city in the world it might be that year.  My routine is so fixed that even people at work, who have no interest in comic books, science fiction and the like, know when these conventions take place, and where in terms of WorldCon, due to my scheduled vacations.  Last week, I was thinking that I was looking for a feeling of accomplishment.  Achieving something.  Celebrating my past successes in getting my stories published, or laying the groundwork for getting something published in the future.  Sort of like what the sherpas were doing the day the avalanche started to roll, only a lot less physically dangerous.
Did you know that the sherpas were the lowest level of the old caste system?  I found this out from someone born in Nepal that works for the same company as I do.  I asked her about sherpas after listening to news stories about them.  “They weren’t untouchable, though!” she insisted after describing where their caste stood.  She then told me a story about how untouchables once came to her family home when she was a girl.  Her mother, her family was chhetri or warrior caste, the second highest level, would not allow them on to her porch, and she had the toilets (which were outside) cleaned after they left.  
Sherpas get paid about five thousand dollars a climbing season.  This is eight times the average annual income in Nepal.  So they can get wealthy, relatively speaking, carrying other people’s stuff up the side of the mountain, the same activity that put them so low in the ancient system.  That’s capitalism for you, huh?  
Getting back to WonderCon, though...  I’m rethinking what I wrote last week.  I think I went to the convention to increase my immersion in the geeky things I’ve always enjoyed.  “Real Life,” as represented by my job, financial concerns, retirement on an ever closer horizon, has increased its pull upon my consciousness and in my behavior as a result.  I spend longer hours at work, which leaves me less time for writing, or even basic concerns like going to the gym.  Subconsciously, I think I was feeling that two conventions a year wasn’t going to be enough for me.  I needed more time away from real concerns to recharge my batteries.  
I don’t think WonderCon did that completely.  It definitely staunched the bleeding, so to speak.  But I still feel the need for an influx of energy.  
Sherpas use energy very efficiently.  Scientists believe its a result of being descended from people who have lived for centuries at such high altitudes.  A sherpa, while climbing a mountain, will only use about 3,600 kilocalories a day.  A bicyclist riding in the Tour de France will burn about 7,000 to 8,000 kilocalories a day.  They get a lot of work out of the energy they spend, sherpas do.  
The news story is fascinating to me in a number of ways.  It is enlightened me about a people I’ve heard about for years, but never appreciated.  Their history, and the little bit about their culture that I’ve learned about is like something from a fantasy novel, or from a very alien world.  
What I’m seeing right now, though, is that it is emblematic to the life of everyone that has a dream.  
To able to climb to the top of the mountain, to stand on the highest peak on the planet, is a laudable dream.  I understand and appreciate it, and in my wildest fantasies, where I don’t have to go through the years of training and conditioning to achieve it, I can image myself doing it, looking out across the surface of the globe and seeing everything that exists below you.  
But real life makes its demands.  Especially if you are trying to climb above and reach some goal or dream.  The sherpas are the blood, bone and sinew of the dreams of many a climber.  They are the element that make the fantasy of standing on top of the world real.  
There is something in there, I think.  I’m sensing a connection that I can’t fully elaborate on just yet.  It’s a feeling that I have to find my personal sherpas and make sure they’re doing all right before an avalanche of a different sort sweeps them away.  
The sherpas are threatening to go on strike.  It threatens the entire climbing season for 2014.  They’re asking for more pay and benefits.  The one item that has stayed with me is an increase of the death benefits paid to the families of sherpas that die in accidents like this.  It is currently $400.  The sherpas want it increased to $10,000.  The Nepalese government charges an individual climber $25,000 to climb Everest.  About a thousand people a year make the attempt, with a little over half reaching the summit.
I think the sherpas should get paid more.  It’s a small price to pay to achieve the dream of standing on top of the world.  I’m going to treat the sherpas of my dream better.  Once I find out who or what they are.  


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