Friday, May 31, 2013

Nepal: Can Sherpas compete with North Face?

Locally manufacturered Sherpa Adventure Gear aims for elite status
As Nepal celebrates the 60-year “Diamond Jubilee” of the first successful ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 this week, Tashi Sherpa is celebrating an anniversary of his own.
Ten years ago, he was in the import-export business, when, as he was walking down the street in Manhattan, a magazine cover honoring Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Staring back at him from the cover was his uncle, Ang Gyalzen Sherpa, whom Tashi soon learned had been one of the porters on the historic expedition. Soon after, Sherpa Adventure Gear was born. 
“When I started this brand it was a tribute to all the unsung heroes of Everest, the ones who have sacrificed years and their lives making it easier for people to climb and supporting them,” Tashi said. “Essentially, we are the story.”
The word "Sherpa" has become synonymous with the word "guide" or "porter" on Mt. Everest, though it refers to an Indo-Tibetan ethnic group numbering around 150,000 in Nepal. 
Today, Sherpa Adventure Gear is Nepal's own answer to world famous mountaineering apparel brands like Patagonia and The North Face. And even in Kathmandu, the brand competes successfully against the Chinese knockoffs sold in the backpacker ghetto of Thamel – where a Gore-Tex shell with The North Face label costs less than a third of Tashi's made-in-Nepal originals.
Made in Nepal – because we make 80 percent of our production in Nepal – has been one of our big assets,” said Tashi. “People love the fact that we make our stuff in Nepal. We're very original, we're very authentic.” 
That hasn't been easy. Getting materials to landlocked, mountainous Nepal is costly. With poor roads and chronic electricity shortages, the infrastructure is not geared for manufacturers. And to make the high-tech apparel favored by international trekkers and climbers, Tashi spent two years just training a team of cutters and stitchers.
“At the drop of a hat, I could easily move all my allocations to Vietnam, Bangladesh, China, but having done that, I wouldn't be true to what I'm trying to do,” Tashi said.
“We try to be profitable, so that we can be more useful to more and more people. At any given time, there's more than 1000 people who are depending on us to be successful.”
Accolades have steadily rolled in. This year, Outside Magazine featured SAG's Imja ultralight shell among the 10 best jackets featured in its 2013 Summer Buyer's Guide, while other SAG products like the company's hand-knit Rani hat and Sonam baselayer top have gotten the nod in the past, not only from Outside but also Backpacker, UK Climbing and the like.
That makes the flagship store in Kathmandu a kind of mecca for outdoor gear freaks, even though everything from sandals to headlamps is available for a fraction of the price in Thamel. The reason? From branding to product design, SAG's small-volume products look cooler than the mass-market stuff, and the Sherpa name makes the company's apparel double as a souvenir from the Himalayas.
“We've managed to cover a fair part of the globe... at the last count maybe about 19 or 20 countries,” said Tashi. “But our own retail outlet in Nepal has turned out to be a great move for us.”
“It's allowed us to have a lot more brand exposure with all of the tourists and the trekkers that come to Nepal. They come through our doors, they see the products that we make, they buy it, they wear it, they go back to their country. That's been a great blessing for us.”
It's also been a great blessing for a handful of elite Sherpa mountaineers, whom SAG sponsors as professional athletes. Apart from providing mountaineers like Lhakpa Rita Sherpa, the first Sherpa to climb the world's “Seven Summits” with SAG swag to wear and test, the brand recognizes them for the feats they accomplish, sometimes as a routine part of their jobs as high-altitude guides.
“We're not a piece of fleece, we're not a porter, and I say that in all humility, without a trace of anger, because I can't expect the whole world to know who my people are,” said Tashi.
“It behooves us to tell the world who we are. That's essentially what Sherpa Adventure Gear is about.”

Mt. Everest: Sherpas getting a bad rap

Many blame local guides for the influx of inexperienced climbers and the increased risk of death on the world's highest mountain.

KHUMJUN, Nepal — In the shadow of a sparkling white stupa, Sherpas dressed as yaks prance and spin. Wind-battered men in charcoal-colored robes and white Stetsons, the formal dress of the Sherpa clan, gather round. They have plenty to celebrate.
This week marks Mount Everest's “Diamond Jubilee,” the 60th anniversary of when New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Indian Tenzing Norgay first set foot on the world's tallest mountain in 1953.
Since that time, the mountaineering industry has matured. The notoriety of the mountain draws hundreds of thousands of trekkers and tourists each year, led often by local Sherpas as well as Western guides.
This spring, Everest climbing permits alone earned Nepal nearly $3 million. Last year, tourist dollars accounted for 3 percent of the small Himalayan country's gross domestic product.
But despite these causes for celebration, a crisis looms.
Because of an explosion of highly commercialized mountaineering, more and more inexperienced climbers flock to the mountain. Elite climbers bristle at the crowds, and some blame cut-rate, Nepalese-run expeditions for upping the risks of death.
“Tourists want to buy their way onto the summit no matter what. I have witnessed people on the mountain with hardly any experience at all,” said Frits Vrijlandt, president of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation.
“Mount Everest is not a place for people who have never used crampons, harnesses and ice axes before, people who only know ice from the ice cubes in their drink."
Money on the mountain
The Diamond Jubilee season marked a bumper year for the mountain. Nepal issued 315 permits to foreigners, and a total of 520 summited. Seven of them died.
These days, as many as 200 climbers can attempt the summit on a single day. But the large numbers cause dangerous delays at bottlenecks like the Hillary Step — a 40-foot rock wall at nearly 29,000 feet that climbers must traverse one by one.
When 10 people died on the mountain in spring 2012, elite mountaineers blamed overcrowding and low-budget, Sherpa-guided expeditions for one of the highest death tolls since the notorious “Into Thin Air” season of 1996, when there were 12 deaths.
This spring, a brawl broke out between expert mountaineers forging their own route and local guides responsible for fixing the ropes that commercial expeditions use.
“People say commercialization of the mountain is bad,” said 29-year-old Dawa Steven Sherpa, who heads Asian Trekking.
“They say, 'These purist climbers who just take their support at base camp and they climb on their own, without Sherpas, without oxygen, these are the real mountaineers.' On the other hand, when an accident happens ... suddenly Nepali operators are bad because they didn't provide the support to these guys. We're damned if we do, damned if we don't.”
In Khumjun, Nepal, Sherpa mountaineers celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first successful summit of Mount Everest. (Jason Overdorf/GlobalPost)
A tall, lean man with a rust-colored beard and ruddy, wind-burned cheeks, Dawa has a unique perspective on the problem. The son of a Sherpa father and a Belgian mother, he's equally at home with high-altitude porters and elite Western climbers.
He's faced criticism for failing to weed out clients who are so weak or unskilled as to pose a danger to themselves — such as Jesse Easterling, who nearly died on the mountain in 2009 as the result of an overdose of the “climber's little helper,” the steroid dexamethasone.
“I have rejected numerous people because they don't have the experience or the training,” said Dawa, who maintains that Easterling lied when he was asked if he was taking any medication.
This year, Dawa and other expedition operators avoided a potentially deadly “traffic jam” by planning ahead.
The Sherpa team, called the “Icefall Doctors,” responsible for setting ropes through the Khumbu Icefall on the route between Base Camp and Camp One, started a month earlier than usual to ensure that the climbers would have the longest possible weather window to try for the summit.
On the Hillary Step, Sherpas fixed two ropes, so that climbers going up would not have to wait for climbers coming down. And before the weather window opened, expedition leaders walked from camp to camp to find out when the various teams were planning to attempt the summit, and then radioed around to hammer out a feasible schedule.
But their success only deepened the controversy at the Diamond Jubilee. Purists greeted with derision calls to make things even safer, and easier, by installing a ladder down the back of the Hillary Step.
Others suggested revising the permit system to force climbers to scale one of Nepal's many other, smaller mountains before they can attempt Everest. And still others lobbied for stiffer regulations for expedition operators.
“That [requiring mountaineers to climb a smaller mountain before Everest] is a very good idea,” said Sushil Ghimire, secretary of Nepal's Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation.
“We do not want any climbers, any members in our team, in bad condition. We need very competent and devoted and skilled mountaineers. They can [first] try small mountains so that they can get skill and knowledge and we will have very few casualties and few incidents in the high mountains.”
Beyond the brawl
The word "Sherpa" has become synonymous with the word "guide" or "porter" on the mountain, though it refers to an Indo-Tibetan ethnic group numbering around 150,000 in Nepal.
And despite the fact that Sherpas have led countless climbers to the summit of Everest, everybody in the business still makes a distinction between expeditions captained by Western and Sherpa guides. Some persist in referring to Sherpa-led climbs as “unguided.”
After last year's deadly season, critics blamed the Sherpas' reluctance to disagree with Westerners — not their clients' weakness or incompetence — for the deaths on the mountain.
Sherpa women await a helicopter bound for Namche Bazaar, the launch point for treks to Everest Base Camp. (Jason Overdorf/GlobalPost)
“I wouldn't confuse a Sherpa-guided trip with a low-budget trip,” said Will Cross, a 46-year-old diabetic who has trekked to the South Pole and climbed the "Seven Summits," the highest mountains on seven continents.
“They can be the same. But they are generally different. The Sherpas on Everest have worked years to get to that position. And there's a hierarchy. They [the Sherpa expedition leaders] will generally speak the language of their client, be that English or Japanese. They'll be strong as hell," Cross said.
"Where I think everyone gets into trouble is when you try to climb a huge mountain and spend very little money. If you come spending cheap, you're gonna get cheap, and you're gonna die,” he added.
In some respects, the mountaineering status of the Sherpas reflects their economic reality.
A permit for a Western climber runs $10,000-$25,000 and the total cost of an expedition to the client can top $70,000. But while elite Western guides can make $20,000 for taking a group to the top, the high-altitude Sherpas who perform some of the most dangerous work take home only a third of that amount.
And while Westerners are eligible for international insurance that covers them for costly evacuations and other emergencies, Sherpas are only eligible for local policies that pay a one-time death benefit of $7,000.
In other words, as mountaineers they're invaluable. But as workers their lives are equated to a fraction of what their Western clients' lives are considered.
“Without Sherpas, it's difficult for foreigners to climb Mount Everest. All the hard work, like carrying equipment and food and fixing the ropes and ladders, is done by the Sherpas,” said 53-year-old Apa Sherpa, who has summited Everest a record 21 times.
In Khumjun, though, it's clear that things are changing. On one extreme, Kanchha Sherpa, the sole surviving porter from the 1953 expedition, is finally reaping some rewards after a long career in the mountains. On the other, Apa Sherpa is here from Salt Lake City with a team of documentary filmmakers shooting the story of his life.
And in between, 40-odd Sherpas have qualified with the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations — a certification that allows them to work year-round on mountains from Pakistan to Norway, dramatically boosting their incomes and status among mountaineers.
“I got eight rupees a day [in 1953],” said Kanchha, a grandfatherly figure in wire-framed spectacles and a floppy-brimmed fedora. “It was a silver coin.”

Thursday, May 16, 2013

India: Watershed unlikely from Pakistan election

Analysis: Pakistan's democratic transition may not be so historic for India-Pakistan relations.

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - May 16, 2013)

NEW DELHI, India — His first act as Pakistan's prime minister was to wave an olive branch in India's general direction, but Nawaz Sharif's victory doesn't necessarily position him to take major steps to improve cross-border relations.
Here's why:
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) won close to an outright majority in the weekend polls. With 123 out of 272 directly elected assembly seats, he can form the government without the aid of a significant ally.
India hopes that means Sharif will not have to deal with political adversaries as he seeks to re-establish civilian control over state policy.
But despite his near majority, Sharif relies on Islamic fundamentalist parties for support. His rivals contend that one reason his campaign was successful was that the Pakistani Taliban did not target him for attack.
To many, that suggests a tacit agreement that he will not try to stop the country from sinking deeper into the mire.
“It's useful, obviously, to have a majority,” said Rajiv Sikri, a career Indian diplomat and author of “Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India's Foreign Policy.”
“But as we know the civilian government is not the only center of power in Pakistan. There is the army, there is the judiciary, there are the religious parties, and he is quite dependent on them, and of course there is the ever-present factor of the United States.”
Sharif's early remarks condemning terrorism, in which he said Pakistan would “never again” allow its soil to be used as the launchpad for terrorist attacks on India, are the most exciting sign that he intends to initiate a major shift in policy.
But many question his ability to pull it off — especially when a single ill-timed strike from the Lashkar-e-Taiba or a similar terrorist group can put paid to thousands of hours of peace talks.
“He would probably be wiser if he were to go a little slowly rather than rush anything,” Sikri said. “He doesn't want to frighten the army into any rash step.”
Sharif's history could work in India's favor.
Pakistan's prime minister from 1990 to 1993 and again from 1997 to 1999, Sharif was deposed by a military coup and exiled to Saudi Arabia in a fruitless and probably insincere effort to crack down on corruption.
So, he knows all too well the problems with an elected government that serves at the pleasure of the army chief. And he has a personal as well as a political stake in righting the balance of power.
That will require normalizing India-Pakistan relations, for a start.
The source of the Pakistani military's power is the fear of a conflict with India. And improved trade relations could jumpstart the economy in ways that would simultaneously loosen the grip of the army and (possibly) rob the Islamists of some of their recruits.
But Brahma Chellaney of the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research said it's too early to tell whether Sharif will be able to facilitate a better relationship between the two prickly neighbors.
“It is too early to conclude that the recent election marks the advent of a mature, stable Pakistani democracy,” Chellaney wrote by email.
“Sharif faces a major challenge to make the army and the [Inter-services Intelligence agency] (ISI) more accountable. Unless he achieves some tangible progress on that front, he will find it difficult to achieve structural economic or foreign-policy reforms."
And it takes two to tango.
Despite Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's apparent willingness to sacrifice whatever tiny amount of political capital he commands to establish a lasting peace with Pakistan, India itself is due to go to the polls in 2014.
Even if Singh's United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government opts, bravely or foolishly, to seek some kind of historic agreement with Islamabad in a last-ditch bid to win votes, Sharif will have to evaluate the wisdom of striking a deal with a lame duck with two broken wings.
For that reason, more than any other, Sharif's engagement with India will probably be limited to fine sounding words and perhaps a spontaneous jaunt across the border to watch a cricket match or visit a shrine. At least until 2014.

Friday, May 03, 2013

India: Facebook sold my baby!

The buying and selling of children is shockingly commonplace in India.

By Jason Overdorf 
(GlobalPost - May 3, 2013)
NEW DELHI, India — When police in the north Indian state of Punjab announced the arrest of a grandfather for allegedly selling his infant grandson on Facebook, the news immediately went viral.
But the real story is hidden behind the headline: The buying and selling of children is shockingly commonplace in India.
“The numbers are shocking now,” said Bhuwan Ribhu, a lawyer who works with the Save the Childhood Movement, a New Delhi-based nonprofit that fights child trafficking and other forms of exploitation.
According to official government estimates, around 90,000 children went missing in India in 2011 alone. And while police contend that many are runaways whose return home is never reported, nearly 35,000 remain untraced, and only 15,000 of the total cases were ever investigated.
Indeed, the Facebook baby was lucky — even if the anonymity offered by the internet may present an ominous threat in the hands of more savvy criminals. Police acted swiftly to recover the infant boy after his mother, Noori, complained that her father-in-law, Feroz Khan, had allegedly told her the baby had died and spirited him away with the aid of hospital staff.
“After investigations, we found the grandfather of the child had struck a deal with a man in Delhi and had roped-in the nursing staff to smuggle the baby out of the nursing home,” Ishwar Singh, commissioner of police in Ludhiana, told the Telegraph. “We have arrested four people including the grandfather. We have also booked the buyer from Delhi."
That is hardly the experience of most parents. Since 2007, when the exposure of a serial killer in Nithari, on the outskirts of New Delhi, revealed that local police had ignored parents' pleas that their children had disappeared, evidence has piled up showing that officials continue to disregard complaints of missing children.
More from GlobalPost: No babies for gay couples in India
When GlobalPost visited the homes of parents with missing children for an earlier report, it was painfully clear that the economic status of the families plays a disturbing role in the treatment of their cases.
The desperate circumstances of the slums encourage the authorities to believe that children have simply run away. And sometimes, the plight of the family prompts suspicion that a family member — like the grandfather of the Facebook baby — may be involved in the disappearance.
According to child protection experts, however, cases in which parents or other family members knowingly sell their children are rare. More often, the family is duped into surrendering their child with the promise that he or she will be given a job and a better life in the city — sending home money every month. Some cash changes hands, but it is described as an advance, and most likely intended to sow seeds of guilt among family members that later help stymie any official investigation.
“In the majority of the cases we deal with the child is being taken away with the promise of a better job or a better life and then disappears,” said Ribhu, who the night before had participated in the rescue of a trafficked girl from a house in New Delhi where she was being held.
Earlier this year, India enacted a strong new law prohibiting all forms of human trafficking — whether for labor, slavery, sex or adoption — proscribing a prison term of seven years to life. But the new law has yet to make a difference, as it has not yet been backed by widespread institutional changes, says Ribhu.
Just days before the alleged sale of the Facebook baby, India's capital erupted in wide-scale protests when citizens learned that police had allegedly offered the father of a 5-year-old rape victim a bribe to try to prevent him from revealing that they initially refused to investigate her disappearance.
The delay in the investigation took on new meaning when the brutalized child was found, 40 hours later, in another apartment of the building where her family lives. (She remains in the hospital where she has been treated for severe internal injuries.)
It appears this young girl represents the norm. An investigation by India's Mail Today newspaper, covering six New Delhi police stations, found that despite the new directives, police are still reluctant to file cases when parents come to report missing children. In some cases, they allegedly pressured parents to withdraw their complaints, while in others they demanded money before they would take action, according to the report.
Child protection experts are not the least bit surprised.
“Out of the 10 children who are going missing every hour, only one case is being investigated,” said Ribhu. “These children are all being put into various kinds of exploitation. And a child who is being sold on Facebook is not even a part of this figure.”