Just when Nepal’s climbing industry was recovering from last year’s deadly avalanche on Mount Everest, another avalanche triggered by last month’s earthquake killed 19 people, ending yet another climbing season.
Sherpa guides and those in the climbing business say they are worried that the disasters will have a devastating impact on mountaineering in Nepal, a vital source of income for guides and for the impoverished nation’s economy.
Each year, thousands of foreigners to attempt to conquer the country’s soaring peaks. Sherpa guides can earn up to $7,000 after a successful summit bid, while those who work at Everest base camp can receive half that amount — huge sums in a nation where the annual per capita income is around $700.
Still, many Sherpas — an ethnic group that many also use as a last name — say they aren’t going back to Everest to work.
“You can be lucky once or maybe twice, but I am not risking a third time,” said Nima Sherpa, who was at base camp at the time of last year’s disaster, when 16 guides were killed on the treacherous Khumbu Icefall while carrying client’s gear up the mountain before the peak climbing season.
Sherpa said he would try to find work elsewhere — or head to the Persian Gulf like thousands of others Nepalis to find a job there.
Temba Tsheri, who started his own business organizing expeditions after he became the youngest person to stand atop Mount Everest at age 16, lost three foreign clients and two Nepali employees in the April 25 avalanche caused by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake.
“I have lost everything I have earned in the past five years. I am ruined,” he said. “All my tents, climbing gear are gone and the money I spent for transport is also gone.”
Tsheri, who owns Dreamers Destination Trek and Expedition in Kathmandu, said the two disasters would probably scare away foreign climbers as well as Sherpa guides. “It will take years for me and other businesses to recover,” he said. “I don’t even know if I am going to be able to bear the loss and spring back.”
Ang Tshering of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, an umbrella group, agrees.
“These disasters are certainly going to have a longtime impact on mountaineering in Nepal,” he said. “It is going to take a long time for the industry to recover.”
Both avalanches hit Everest right at the beginning of climbing season, when expeditions had gathered at the base camp and were preparing their summit assaults, which typically take place in May.
After last year’s avalanche, which hit April 18, the surviving Sherpas refused to work, resulting in the cancellation of the season.
Over the past year, the government implemented policy changes and safety pledges to bring climbers back to Everest. Officials were stationed at the base camp, Sherpa guides were given more insurance, a welfare fund was set up and rescue plans were worked out.
Business was looking up after 118 people who had climbing permits for 2014 returned to Everest this year, and the total number of climbers swelled to nearly 400.
Weather predictions were good, and expeditions planned to launch their attempts on the summit around the second week of May.
The Sherpas had already set up camps 1 and 2 above the base camp when the earthquake struck, unleashing an avalanche that tore into the tent city at the base camp, burying climbers and camp staff. Nineteen people were killed, 61 were injured and the climbing route set up by guides known as “icefall doctors” above the base camp was destroyed.
The Sherpas refused to rebuild the route, saying it was unsafe and there was not enough time to transport all the aluminum ladders there, tie ropes, dig a path and then finish climbs before the end of the season later this month.
Nepal’s government has not formally canceled the climbing season and permits are valid until the end of May, but with the Sherpas refusing to rebuild the route, there can’t be any more attempts.
There are hopeful signs. Ang Tshering of the mountaineering association said they have received hundreds of messages from people saying they will return, and that all the publicity is likely to bring curious tourists to trek to the base camp.