Everest's Sherpas by the Numbers

The Mount Everest avalanche that killed 13 mountain guides Friday may have an upside for the Sherpas who make their living guiding foreign trekkers up the world's tallest peak: A better safety net. Following the tragedy, the Sherpas are threatening a total boycott -- unless the government provides better insurance compensation and more emergency aid for guides.

Friday's avalanche hit a group of 50 climbers -- mostly Nepalese Sherpas -- as they were preparing camps along one route, in advance of the climbing season. It's the worst accident on Everest since 1996, when eight climbers disappeared into a storm. According to data compiled by Himalayan Database, a group that tracks mountaneering in the region, 87 Sherpas died on Everest between 1924 and 2013. Add the 13 fatalities from over the weekend and that number jumps to 100.

The graph below tracks those deaths up to 2013, when Sherpa fatalities spiked. 

Of those, more than two thirds perished while preparing climbing routes for paying mountaineers.

The job is risky. Sherpas handle everything from repairing ropes and ladders ahead of paying climbers, to cooking meals and hauling heavy equipment during the ascent. While the job pays comparably well with other jobs in Nepal, the pay is paltry given the risks involved with each ascent. A Sherpa can take home up to $6,000 per climbing season, compared to Nepal's per capita income of $700.

This spring, more than 300 foreign climbers are scheduled to ascend Everest, virtually all of them with the help of Sherpas. But their plans may be waylaid by the unrest surrounding this latest tragedy. Shortly after the avalanche, Nepal's government offered the families of the deceased a paltry $415 of emergency aid to help cover funeral costs. And while the families can eventually expect another $10,300 in accident and compensation insurance, the Sherpas say it isn't enough. They argue that they bear most of the risk for foreign expeditions and want a minimum of $20,800 for each death on the mountain.

They have a point. Nepal's government makes upwards of $3 million a year just on royalties alone, according to CNN, while foreign climbers can spend a small fortune in a single attempt to reach Everest's Summit. A mountaineering permit alone costs $25,000, while a permit for a team of two is $70,000. Add to those figures the cost of equipment, transport, guides, and other support, and the total cost of a single expedition can run up to $100,000 a person. And while Sherpas make considerably more than the average Nepalese worker, their earnings are a drop in the bucket for an expanding industry that depends utterly on their labor.

TSHERING SHERPA/AFP/Getty Images; Ed Johnson/Foreign Policy


Russia’s Newest Fear-Mongering Tactic: Making Up Dolphin Wars

The Russian daily Izvestia would like you to believe that the first direct confrontation between American and Russian forces could come in the form of clashes between the two countries' combat dolphins swimming in the Black Sea.

According to the paper, the U.S. Navy plans to deploy 20 combat dolphins and 10 sea lions in the Black Sea, where they are to conduct exercises and test new gear. The detailed article even quotes a Navy official telling the paper that the dolphins will be testing a new form of armor developed at the University of Hawaii.

There's only one problem: Almost none of it is true.

Ed Budzyna, the deputy director of public affairs at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, called the story "completely erroneous" and fabricated. "The person quoted has been retired for 8 or 9 years," Budzyna told Foreign Policy, referring to the Navy spokesperson Tom LaPuzza to whom Izvestia had sourced the report.

The story was nonetheless picked up by the English-language news service RIA Novosti, and several outlets piled on with coverage, including Britain's the Mirror and the Atlantic's The Wire

The falsified report about the deployment of America's mammalian warriors comes after reports surfaced last month that the Russian army would be absorbing Ukraine's combat dolphin program, which was based in Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia. An employee at Sevastopol's oceanarium told RIA Novosti that the formerly Ukrainian dolphins would be receiving new equipment from their new Russian caretakers.

So with Russian dolphins gearing up with new technology, it's perhaps not surprising that Izvestia's fabricated report claimed that America's dolphins would be testing "new armors" in the waters of the Black Sea. (Could there be a weird weaponized dolphin arms race brewing? Alas.)

Navies use dolphins and their sonar capabilities to perform a variety of underwater duties -- everything from attaching buoys to sea mines to patrolling waters for enemy divers. Both the United States and the Soviet Union launched their marine mammal programs at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. The American dolphins were deployed in the Persian Gulf in the late eighties to protect U.S. flagged ships and Kuwaiti tankers, while the Soviet dolphin program remained in Ukrainian waters after the Union collapsed.

But for now, at least, we won't be finding out whether the Ukrainian combat dolphins Russia has pressed into service will remain loyal to their new motherland and battle their American opponents in the Black Sea.