A porter carrying supplies uphill in the Everest region in Nepal.
Photo: © Athar Parvaiz

Everest porters – the backbone of trekking, burdened by unfair wages and risks

Despite being crucial for Nepal's booming adventure tourism, porters carrying backbreaking loads face harsh conditions, low pay and health risks. This raises concerns about the human cost behind Everest expeditions.

Dilip Rai, a 33-year-old porter in eastern Nepal who was hardly visible under the large burden on his back laden with supplies for trekkers, had taken a little break and was resting on a parapet made of boulders before continuing his ascent again. The burden was more than twice the size of his body and could be weighing around 100 kilograms. “This is what we do for our livelihoods. I can’t complain about the immensity of my work because this is what feeds me and my family,” says Rai.

Porters are essential to the trekking and mountaineering industry in the Everest region. They transport supplies, equipment and personal belongings for climbers and trekkers, often lugging loads of up to 100 kilograms. Such a burden by far exceeds the permissible limits of weight porters should carry, especially in rugged terrains.   

According to the guidelines of the International Porter Protection Group (IPPG), no porter should be asked to carry a load that is too heavy for their physical abilities (maximum: 20 kg on Kilimanjaro, 25 kg in Peru and Pakistan, 30 kg in Nepal). “Weight limits may need to be adjusted for altitude, trail and weather conditions; experience is needed to make this decision,” the IPPG guidelines say.

However, these guidelines don’t seem to be followed by tourism operators, and most of the porters end up carrying two or three times the standard or permissible weight they are supposed to carry. They say they have hardly any choice but to do this extremely hard work. Livelihood opportunities for people within Nepal are few and far between, and migration is one of the major livelihood strategies for the country’s youth.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that as many as 400,000 young people enter the labour force every year in Nepal, out of whom more than half leave for foreign employment, mainly due to lack of employment opportunities within the country. Migration entails both exploitation and rights violations, including not being able to return to Nepal for years in some cases.

That is why some porters say that despite being extremely tough, working as porters closer to their families and around the mountains which they are devoted to is still better than migrating for work to far-off countries such as Gulf states and Malaysia. "Our life is hard, but at least we stay closer to our families. For me, it is better than working in a far-off country and not living together with the family members for months,” Rai said.   

“And then, working here also means I live and work within these mountains. Our connection to the mountains is deep. Mountains are not only sacred for us, but are also a source of our livelihoods,” Rai notes, adding that the deep connection of the mountain people with the mountains “keeps us going”.

According to Rai mountain expeditions in the Everest region wouldn't be possible without porters, who are the backbone of the trekking and climbing industry in Nepal as they ensure that all necessary supplies reach high altitudes.    

“Look at these people trekking past us. Their trekking is possible only because we carry the things they need as they move to the higher elevations,” Rai says with a smile on his face.     

In fact, the increasing adventure tourism in Nepal is largely possible because of the porters’ services. For example, the number of tourists to Sagarmatha National Park and Buffer Zone (SNPBZ) in the Everest region, who are principally international tourists from countries including UK, USA, Japan, Germany, and Australia, has increased more than tenfold in recent years, covering age groups varying from 20- to 60-year-olds.

“They travel primarily in organised groups. Due to the limited transportation facility, porters and livestock usually carry group tourists’ luggage. Almost all tourists stay in lodges. They visit SNPBZ primarily for trekking, enjoying the scenery and viewing Mount Everest,” Rai explains.

Unnoticed and underpaid

But despite playing the vital role for the success of Nepal’s adventure tourism industry, the porters from Nepal’s rural community largely receive little attention and remain underpaid as well. While navigating treacherous terrains with loads exceeding their body weight, these porters endure harsh weather conditions, low wages and significant health risks. Their plight sheds light on the human cost behind the grandeur of trekking to the Mount Everest Base Camp and the Everest expeditions. 

For example, the wages paid to the porters for their highly challenging and daunting work are not commensurate with the hard work they put in and the health risks they take. The porters are paid an average 15 to 20 US dollars a day up to the Mount Everest Base Camp (EBC) while the ones who go beyond the EBC with the Everest climbers get around 100 US dollars a day.

“This is not even peanuts, considering their hard labour under the harshest conditions,” notes Phu Chhettar, a trekking guide. “The porters as well as trekking guides have no financial and life security at all, despite the fact that the entire adventure tourism industry rests on our shoulders.”       

Most of the porters come from impoverished backgrounds, with limited education and employment opportunities, making this labour-intensive job one of the few available means to support their families. Given that more and more people in the Everest region now look for the locally available opportunities for work, this economic pressure forces them to accept even low wages and work under challenging conditions.

Unlike trekkers and climbers, who often have access to comprehensive medical support, porters typically lack basic medical care. In many cases, they do not have adequate clothing or gear to protect them from the harsh mountain environment, further exacerbating their vulnerability to health issues. Porters work long hours with minimal rest, leading to fatigue and increased risk of accidents. Inadequate sleep and rest periods further contribute to health issues.

The porters’ struggles highlight the need for ensuring fair treatment and better living conditions for them. And, as the allure of Everest continues to draw adventurers from around the world, it is crucial that their strength and resilience gets the recognition it deserves.

Athar Parvaiz is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar/ Kashmir, India. Contact: atharparvaiz.ami(at)gmail.com

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