Mount Everest's climbing season is hanging in the balance as Sherpa guides struggle to recoup after an avalanche killed 16 of their comrades last week.
The avalanche was the deadliest ever recorded on Everest, killing 16 of the guides and exposing long-simmering resentment by Sherpas who say they face disproportionate risks while ushering foreign tourists up the highest mountain in the world, according to The Associated Press.
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While the work on Everest is dangerous, it has also become the most sought-after source of income for many in Nepal's ethnic Sherpa community. A top high-altitude guide can earn $6,000 in a three-month climbing season — nearly 10 times Nepal's $700 average annual salary.
"I have children and a family to take care of. I got some money and don't know if I will get the rest or not," said Ang Sherpa, who was trekking back to his village Friday. "Mountain climbing was the main chunk of our income, but we have a small tea store on the side of the trail near Namche village, where we serve snacks for the trekkers."
Many of those who left the mountain said the risks and respect for those killed in the April 18 avalanche outweighed the money they would make.
"I got about half the pay for what I would have earned this season, but that's enough for now," said Dawa, who is among those who declared 2014 a "black year" on Everest and will be returning home.
"There is always going to be another season. The mountain is always there. There will always be mountaineering and mountaineers," said Dawa, who uses one name.
Most attempts to reach Everest's summit are made in mid-May, when a brief window normally offers better weather. Many Sherpas have other, less lucrative jobs during the off-season, including farming and running hotels and restaurants.
While the climbing season has not been officially canceled, guides and Sherpas said it appeared increasingly unlikely that any summit attempts would be made from the Nepal side of the mountain. Several expedition companies have canceled their climbs for the season, although Nepal's Tourism Ministry has announced that those teams 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.
While the major expedition companies can survive a canceled season, smaller groups say they will struggle. Temba Tsheri, 28, who runs the Dreamers Destination Treks and Expedition company in Katmandu, said he had 20 Chinese climbers at Everest's base camp still deciding whether to call off their climb.
"Some of the big companies have already said they are returning and are packing up their camp. But smaller companies like mine are still undecided," he said. "We have spent money on food, equipment, oxygen, paying porters to get all that to base camp. ... How are we going to bear all these losses?"
The Sherpas who stand to lose the most from walking off the job are the ones who take foreign clients up to the summit and carry their gear, although hundreds more who cook and clean at base camp would also be hurt.
Trekking officials were more optimistic.
Ang Tshering of the Nepal Mountaineering Association acknowledged that it would be tough for many Sherpas and their families this year, but he noted that most Sherpas had already received at least some money for the season.
"There are many more Sherpas, like the porters who carry the loads to the base camp and bring it back to the airport, who will be paid in full," he said.
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