Expedition leaders and guides have threatened to cancel all climbing on Mount Everest after the deadliest avalanche in its history as hundreds of Nepalese Sherpas paid final respects to their fellow guides on Monday.
With heads bowed and many in tears, a procession of mourners filed through the centre of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu amid growing anger over compensation levels for those bereaved by Friday’s tragedy.
So far the government has offered US$400 to the families of victims to pay for funeral costs, in a country where the average annual income is just over US$700.
At least 13 guides were killed, three are still missing and at least three others with serious injuries are in intensive care in Kathmandu hospitals after a falling block of ice triggered an avalanche that swept the Khumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous parts of the climb to Everest’s summit.
Nine more Sherpas were rescued after the avalanche, which struck as the Sherpas hauled gear up the mountain for international climbers waiting at Everest base camp below.
The men were trying to fix ropes and carve out a route in the ice and snow for foreign climbers when they were caught in the avalanche.
Accompanied by monks and pick-up trucks bearing the caskets of six of the victims, the mourners also carried a list of demands, which they intend to present to the government – warning of a cancellation of all expeditions unless action is taken within a week.
“If the demands are not met, we will be forced to launch strong protests for the sake of daily bread of the entire Sherpa community,” the Sherpas said in a statement.
The letter calls for a Sherpa relief fund to be set up using 30 per cent of the fees paid by climbers and says life insurance payments, currently set at US$10,000, must be doubled to US$20,000.
The letter also warns against “putting pressure [on the Sherpas] to continue this season”, which began only last week, adding that “we will not hesitate to protest” if their demands are not met.
Some Sherpas have already decided not to climb this season. Survivors of the avalanche recalled scenes of panic and chaos, describing how they dug through snow with their hands and ice axes in the hopes of finding their friends alive.
Nepal’s tight-knit climbing community is struggling to make sense of the disaster – an accident the climbers say could have happened to any one of them.
“After losing so many of our brothers and friends it is just not possible for many of them to continue,” said Pasang Sherpa, who was not among those caught in the avalanche. “So many of us are scared, our family members are scared and asking us to return [home].”
Although the government is making an immediate payment of about US$400 to cover funeral costs, there is currently no provision for compensation for Sherpas, who are hired by international expeditions to carry gear; in the past these groups have provided financial assistance on their own in the case of accidents.
Ang Tshering Sherpa of the Nepal Mountaineering Association said the guides had given the government seven days to fulfil their demands.
“There is a situation of conflict up in the mountain. It is serious and could have far reaching consequences for climbing in Nepal,” he said. “So the government must act on their demands immediately.”
Guiding foreign climbers is the main livelihood for Sherpas, helping them make up to US$5,000 a year - far more than the national average.
However, their insurance coverage is almost always inadequate when accidents occur.
In addition to low life insurance payouts, most Sherpas receive medical coverage for rescues amounting to about US$3,000, which does not even cover the cost of a single helicopter trip out of base camp.
“We love the mountains ... but a mountaineer could climb at peace if he knew that his family will be taken care of if something happens to him,” said Mingma Sherpa, the first Nepali to climb to the summit of all 14 of the world’s peaks above 8,000 metres.
The petition was prepared after a meeting of expedition leaders, Sherpa guides and climbers at base camp of the 8,850 metre-high mountain on Sunday to discuss how to respond to Friday’s disaster – the worst single accident in Everest’s history.
Some teams at base camp have decided to pull out of the climbing season this year, while others are considering whether to go ahead.
Alpine Ascents International, in Seattle in the United States – which lost four Sherpas in the accident, with another still missing – has decided to cancel its expedition, its Sherpa captain said.
“We have lost five members of our team; to respect them, we will not be going ahead with our expedition,” said Lakpa Rita Sherpa, who has climbed to the summit of Everest 17 times.
The American based Discovery Channel has also cancelled an expedition after losing its team of Sherpas in the accident, it said. The channel was planning a live broadcast of the first winged jumpsuit flight off the summit of the mountain.
Some Sherpas said they were reluctant to climb, but felt duty-bound to stay on until their clients made a decision.
“After such a tragic incident, most of us here don’t want to go ahead this season,” said Tashi Sherpa, whose team, Seven Summit Treks, lost one guide with two still missing.
“But there is so much investment here, we are not in a position to just refuse,” he said.
The disaster underscores the huge risks borne by Sherpas, who ascend the icy slopes, often before dawn – usually weighed down by tents, ropes and food – for their clients, who pay tens of thousands of dollars to scale the mountain.
Some of the Sherpas and their families are angry about the Nepali government’s offer of US$400 to pay for the funeral expenses of those killed, calling it a disrespectful gesture.
Deputy Prime Minister Prakash Man Singh said the government was working to help the Sherpas.
“It is not true the government does not care,” he said. “We have been working with rescue from the very beginning. We will do what we can, keeping with the standard practice to provide compensation.”
Any cancellations to expeditions are likely to have an impact on the impoverished Himalayan country’s economy. It earns millions of dollars in annual climbing fees from Everest alone.
A senior tourism ministry official said “the government is positive towards sherpa concerns”.
The government has issued permits to 734 people, including 400 guides, for 32 expeditions to climb Everest this season.
More than 4,000 climbers have reached the top of Everest since 1953, when the mountain was first conquered by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.
However, hundreds of people, both foreigners and Sherpas, have died trying to reach the world’s highest peak. About a quarter of them have been killed in avalanches, climbing officials say.
Before Friday’s avalanche, the worst recorded disaster on Everest had been a fierce blizzard on May 11, 1996, which caused the deaths of eight climbers, including renowned mountaineer Rob Hall. It was later documented in the book, Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer.