Nepal's attempts to salvage the Mount Everest climbing season fell flat Thursday as major expedition companies cancelled their climbs and many Sherpas quit the mountain after an avalanche killed 16 of their fellow guides last week.
While the season has not been officially cancelled, guides and Sherpas said it appeared increasingly unlikely that any summit attempts would be made this season from the Nepal side of the mountain.
"Many of us think this year is not good for climbing and nobody should be going up the mountain at all," Tenzing, a 23-year-old Sherpa who goes by one name, said in a telephone interview from base camp. He described 2014 as a "black year" for Everest.
"It was bad beginning to the climbing season and it should not get worse," he said.
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Friday's avalanche has laid bare deep resentments over Sherpas' pay, treatment and the disproportionate risks they take to help tourists ascend Everest. Dozens of Sherpas have packed up their gear and left the mountain, saying they want to honour the dead and pressure the government to protect their rights.
Adrian Ballinger, founder and head guide of Alpenglow Expeditions, said he and most other guide operations on the mountain decided to pull out late Wednesday.
"We all made the decision that it wasn't worth going against our Sherpas' hearts," he said, adding that he cancelled out of respect for the Sherpas on his team.
A government delegation met with Sherpas at base camp Thursday in an attempt to persuade them to keep working. Although both sides said the meeting calmed tensions somewhat, there was no sign that it would salvage the season.
At least six expedition companies have cancelled their climbs for 2014.
'There will be no trouble'
After Thursday's meeting, Tourism Minister Bhim Acharya, who led the government delegation, said the Sherpas assured him that "there will be no trouble."
"The ones who want to leave will leave and those who want to continue climbing would not be stopped or threatened," he said, referring to reports that some Sherpas demanded their colleagues walk off the job or face retaliation from the community.
Still, the practical outcome of the meeting remained unclear. The Sherpas have no single leader who makes decisions.
For some Sherpas who believe the mountain has near-mystical powers, the deaths, and the fact that three of the bodies still have not been found, mean the climbs should be cancelled.
"The signs say we should not continue," said Tenji Sherpa, a 30-year-old guide, speaking from base camp.
But he remained conflicted about what he wanted — or even if he will climb this season.
"There are many of us who are still undecided," he said in a telephone interview. "To return home would mean we would not have much money to support our families for the rest of the year. But to continue would also be difficult, knowing what just happened."
Everest climb nearly impossible without Sherpas
Most attempts to reach Everest's summit are made in mid-May, when a brief window normally offers better weather. Without the help of the Sherpas, the tiny Himalayan community that has become famous for its high-altitude skills and endurance, it would be nearly impossible for climbers to scale Everest. Many climbers will have to forfeit most or all of the money they have spent to go up the mountain — $75,000 US or more.
Acharya said Thursday that expedition teams who have cancelled plans to scale the peak can try again over the next five years, without having to pay the permit fees. Teams pay an average of $100,000 for a permit.
Dave Hahn, who has scaled Everest more than a dozen times, said on Rainier Mountaineering's website that he met with other climbing team leaders and guides before deciding to halt the climb.
"Those meetings convinced us that the right course was to give up on Mount Everest for spring 2014," Hahn wrote from base camp, adding that the risks outweighed the possibility of success.
There were still ways to get up Everest, however. Chinese mountaineering officials said summit attempts were going ahead from their side of the mountain.
Nepal's government has been heavily criticized for not doing enough for the Sherpas in the wake of last week's disaster.
Immediately after the avalanche, the government said it would pay the families of each Sherpa who died 40,000 rupees, or about $415. But the Sherpas said they deserved far more — including more insurance money, more financial aid for the victims' families and new regulations to ensure climbers' rights.
Nepal's government appeared to agree Tuesday to some of the Sherpas' demands, such as setting up a relief fund for those who are killed or injured in climbing accidents, but the proposed funding fell far short of the demands.