Climbing Mount Everest has been getting safer, but only if you’re an international visitor armed with extra oxygen and medicine, following ropes laid out by a guide. For the Sherpas walking in front, the climb is about 12 times more dangerous than being a soldier in Iraq during the first four years of the war. The avalanche that killed 16 guides on April 18 was the deadliest day in the mountain’s history.
After the tragedy, a group of 10 photographers each donated photos of Everest to help raise money for the community—over $400,000 so far. National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey, who spent the last year working on a story about the Sherpa culture and knew two of the victims personally, pulled together the Sherpa Fund site in three all-nighters.
"For me this is a natural extension of telling the stories of communities," Huey says. "When I tell stories that go this deep, I connect with the community in a way that makes it impossible to be a removed observer. In the wake of the tragedy on Everest I was devastated, and so were many of my colleagues in the photo world who had worked in the region with the Sherpas."
Half of the donations will go directly to the victims' families, and half will go to long-term community assistance. "We raised an incredible amount of money, but that's not a cure-all. To dump all that money on 16 families would create incredible imbalance in the valley. That's why we were clear that the fund would be used to create a more comprehensive safety net for these high-altitude workers and their families," Huey says.
"This money will help complete a school, provide education, and pay the debts of families who lost their primary income earner," he explains. "I didn't just take pictures away from the Khumbu, I made friends. And this is what friends do."
The accident reinforced Huey's views on the climbing industry at Everest. "The mountain is not a technical climb, its a 'walk up,' where clients pay $35,000-$100,000 to be led to the summit, pulling their way up on mechanical ascenders, on ropes put there by Sherpas, that reach all the way to the summit," he says. "Rich teenagers with dad's credit card and wealthy executives crowd tents with big screen TVs running on generators. The whole thing is a ridiculous scene."
All of it is built—literally—on the backs of Sherpas. Still, Huey doesn't argue that climbers should stop coming, since the community relies on tourists to make a basic living. "The best we can do is support them through better pay, better insurance, and better education," he says. "I think that is the responsibility of the community that uses the labor of the Sherpas to accomplish their dreams."
Visit the Sherpa Fund to support the project.