A file picture of the Everest Base Camp. (AFP)
Kathmandu, April 25: Climbers who had hoped to reach the summit of Mount Everest have instead begun the long journey home: 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 Sherpas 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 hardline position in favour of cancelling the season, against the wishes of the Nepali government and segments of the multimillion-dollar industry.
Several climbers described an atmosphere that had become menacing, after a handful of Sherpa organisers threatened colleagues who planned to continue. Climbers have expressed passionate solidarity with Sherpas, agreeing that they receive too small a share of the proceeds from mountaineering. But in interviews, several said that 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 telephone 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 axe. That made you feel, ‘Do I have the spirit to climb Everest right now?’”
Nepal’s government made a last-ditch effort yesterday 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. By yesterday, 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 organisers.
“It is a bitter, bitter disappointment,” said James Brooman, 34, a British investment banker. “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.
Amid talk of a work stoppage, international teams who proposed pushing forward met forceful resistance, Tim Mosedale, a British expedition leader, wrote in a blog post yesterday.
“There was a veiled threat (or rumour of one) that if we go in the icefall, we might not be safe,” he wrote, adding: “Sherpas are being told that if they go on the hill, well, ‘We know where you live.’ Sherpas are turning against Sherpas, and in this country where these threats are sometimes carried out, they are taken very, very seriously.”
In interviews, some Sherpas acknowledged that there were tensions in their ranks, though not violent ones. Pasang Dawa Sherpa, 28, said 90 per cent of the Sherpas had agreed not to scale the mountain this season.
Climbers, meanwhile, were venting their frustration and disappointment. “I can’t help but feel that I have let everyone down,” wrote Kent Stewart, an American climber, in a blog post.
“If I don’t ever make it to the top of Everest, I’m afraid there will always be a hole in my life, and frankly, that worries me.”