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ASKfm cryptocurrency: How much is a Sherpa’s life worth?

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A cryptocurrency marketing stunt has left one person dead, raising questions with no right answer.


ASKfm is a social media platform with a difference. Firstly, its chief gimmick is a dedication to a Q&A style format. Secondly, it has decided to launch a cryptocurrency token sale. Thirdly, it has a body count. The first victims came in 2013 when a spate of cyberbullying on the platform is believed to have led to a handful of suicides. And more recently, it's in the headlines again with news that an ill-advised publicity stunt – to bury $50,000 worth of its token on Mount Everest – has left a Sherpa named Lam Babu dead.

Everest death forecasts are anticipating 7 or 8 new deaths on the mountain this year, and the ASKfm cryptocurrency stunt is believed to be the fifth or so death of the season, so the mountain seems to be on track to meeting forecasts.

Cryptocurrency connections have a good way of spicing up related variables, such as failing company share prices or the different facets of addiction, and now it has hit on the chance of death in attempting an Everest summit.

It's a more appropriate connection than it might initially seem. A large part of digital currency is its potential to help bring economic involvement to traditionally underbanked populations. And a large part of Mount Everest is its use of cheap local labour to cater to rich tourists like the ASKfm climbers.

Can you put a price on a life?

The Sherpa death toll is inordinately high on Everest, despite their obviously superior climbing experience and acclimatisation. This is because their job is essentially to guide, and to carry the bulk of the risk. In the most literal way, this risk-carrying means schlepping more gear to prevent the tourists from getting too exhausted too quickly. In a less literal way, this means spending a lot more time on the mountain and hauling things back and forth so the paying climbers don't have to.

Their efforts net Sherpas an annual income of around $5,000 to $10,000, depending on how good they are. This is about the same amount as their now-mandatory life insurance policies payout, and a depressingly low price tag to put on a human life.

However, the risk varies widely depending on the exact role. Just like most other well-trodden tourist attractions around the world, local workers set up the hiking trails at the start of each season.

The "Icefall doctors", for example, are responsible for hooking up and maintaining ropes and ladders for tourists in the Khumbu Icefall region, the glacier so named for its tendency to dispense building-sized blocks of ice. They're not employed by any specific travel agency or client, but are instead employed directly by the Nepalese government to prep the country's top tourist attraction ahead of peak season.

Despite the prep work, it's still one of the most dangerous parts of the mountain. Tourists might pass it twice in a single trip, while a Sherpa might spend their days just ferrying different people's gear across the region, getting paid per trip.

The death toll here has kept increasing as the number of tourists hitting Everest grows, with the single biggest hit being the 2014 avalanche that took 16 lives in one go. Despite everything, it wasn't until 2016 that someone finally just used a helicopter instead. It took six helicopter trips to do the equivalent of 87 Sherpa loads through the Icefall.

Using helicopters "is more expensive than sending Sherpas," said the owner of a mountaineering firm to an interviewer, "but I think it’s the right thing to do."

Each helicopter trip costs about $2,000. Yet it wasn't until 2016 that the negative PR of too many Icefall fatalities finally spurred on the safer alternative.

As a bonus, it also helped alleviate the crowds. In 2016 in particular, Icefall doctors needed to spend more time on the mountain because the sheer number of permits that year called for a two lane path up the mountain rather than the customary single lane.

Just another job

A lot of Sherpas were pretty happy about the increasing use of helicopters across the Icefalls.

This is because the region sits between the first and second Everest base camps, and work between those two spots doesn't pay too well anyway.

"The Sherpas are happy about this decision," said Lakpa Rita, Sherpa of Alpine Ascents International and 17-time Everest summiter. "They are not losing [much] money because work between Base Camp and Camp I and II doesn’t pay much."

The use of helicopters to skip to the good part, as it were, was more widely opposed by the tourists who felt like it was "betrayal of the true spirit of alpinism". Indeed, the official stance is that Sherpas are just doing a hospitality industry job, and that all that eat, pray, love style Everest romanticism is a marketing gimmick for the tourists.

According to the BBC, the general sentiment among many Sherpas after the carnage of 2014 was that they wouldn't be coming back the next year. But with few other job prospects, most of them ended up coming back in 2015 or the next year. Meanwhile, some international tour companies briefly tried to boycott Everest on moral grounds, but similarly found themselves drawn back by overwhelming client demand.

This swings both ways. On the one hand, more visitors, especially inexperienced climbers, means a greater death toll. On the other hand, it makes Sherpas more valuable.

"Earlier, we had to knock on the companies' doors for jobs. Now the tables have turned, the companies have to please the Sherpas to work with them. Why? Because there is a shortage," said Kami Rita before taking off on his 22nd summit of the season.

The growing popularity of Everest as a tourist attraction is driving up the annual income of experienced Sherpas, pushing it to the $10,000 range for experienced guides, or about ten times the region's usual annual income, and slightly less than just the cost of a permit for climbing Everest. The problem here, and the reason so many Sherpas like Lam Babu are forced into such a dangerous occupation for so little, is clearly much bigger than some crypto marketing gimmick.

ASKfm might have signs of a garbage coin, but blaming a PR stunt for what happened makes about as much sense as blaming the spirit of outdoorsiness. But "global income equality claims another victim" isn't much of a headline.

At least cryptocurrency in general is closer to being part of the solution than part of the problem. Probably not this one though.

Disclosure: At the time of writing the author holds ETH, IOTA, ICX, VET, XLM, BTC, NANO

Disclaimer: This information should not be interpreted as an endorsement of cryptocurrency or any specific provider, service or offering. It is not a recommendation to trade. Cryptocurrencies are speculative, complex and involve significant risks – they are highly volatile and sensitive to secondary activity. Performance is unpredictable and past performance is no guarantee of future performance. Consider your own circumstances, and obtain your own advice, before relying on this information. You should also verify the nature of any product or service (including its legal status and relevant regulatory requirements) and consult the relevant Regulators' websites before making any decision. Finder, or the author, may have holdings in the cryptocurrencies discussed.

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