Tragedy curtails Everest climbing season

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KATMANDU, Nepal -- Climbers who had hoped to reach the summit of Mount Everest have begun the long journey home instead, such as: a teenager with epilepsy who wanted to inspire others like himself; a banker who quit his job, sold his apartment and used up most of his savings to pay for the trip; a builder from California who was carrying the ashes of his younger brother.

They had arrived at the mountain's base camp nervous and elated. But that was before last Friday's avalanche, which killed 16 Nepali Sherpa guides on a perilous ice field.

In the week since, climbers said in interviews, the base camp became a cauldron of emotion, as Sherpa leaders took a hard-line position in favor of canceling the season, against the wishes of their government and segments of the multimillion-dollar industry.

Several climbers described an atmosphere that had become menacing, after a handful of Sherpa organizers threatened colleagues who planned to continue. Climbers have expressed passionate solidarity with their Sherpa guides, agreeing that they receive too small a share of the proceeds from mountaineering. But in interviews, several said they had begun to feel unsafe as the standoff mounted.

"When you go through the icefall, you need such focus and such determination, and the last thing you need to think about is, 'Is someone going to yank the wires behind me when I go?' " Jon Reiter, 49, a climber from Kenwood, Calif., said in a phone interview.

Unnerved by the angry speeches of several Sherpa leaders at a prayer service this week, he said: "A couple of us crawled into our tents that night with an ice ax. That made you feel, 'Do I have the spirit to climb Everest right now?' "

Nepal's government made a last-ditch effort Thursday to salvage the climbing season, sending a delegation of officials to the base camp by helicopter. But an exodus of Sherpas had begun days before, and major international touring companies began to announce cancellations of planned ascents, mostly for safety reasons.

"I am heading back. Most of the Sherpa guides, they want to turn back," Tulsi Gurung, who has been climbing Everest for nearly a decade as a guide, said from base camp.

His brother, Ash Gurung, was swept away in the avalanche near the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, where he was part of a team of Sherpas carrying supplies up the mountain in preparation for clients, many of them wealthy foreigners. The body was never found. For Tulsi Gurung, traversing that path this year would be like walking on an open grave.

"He is still there; even his backpack is somewhere in there," Mr. Gurung said. "It is a huge danger. I cannot cross Khumbu Icefall. Mentally, there is pressure every moment."

For all their mountain-climbing prowess, many Sherpas regard Everest as a mystical creature, and believe the avalanche was a message not to climb this year. More scientifically, veteran climbers say conditions on the mountain's Nepalese side, the most popular route to the 29,000-foot summit, are visibly more perilous than in previous years.

By Thursday, the population of the base camp had fallen to roughly 100 from 600, said Alan Arnette, who operates a popular website for climbers. Having to leave before reaching the summit was galling to Western climbers, most of whom had paid as much as $100,000 to tour organizers.

"It is a bitter, bitter disappointment," said British investment banker James Brooman, 34. "I'm probably worse off than most in some ways, since I quit my job and my apartment to do this, so to leave here with a shattered dream -- no job, a lot less money and no real home -- it's tough."

On social media, some climbers described alarming tensions. Younger Sherpas, aware of what Western companies charge, are resentful over their share. Sherpa guides typically earn $2,000 to $5,000 a season, supplemented by bonuses if they reach the summit. When the Nepali government offered the families of the dead Sherpas a compensation payment of about $408, they were furious.

Los Angeles Times contributed.



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