With Sherpas On Strike, Everest Climbing Season Is Up In The Air

Mount Everest expedition leader Todd Burleson is preparing to move his team down the mountain after Sherpa guides decided to call off the season. He discusses the decision, which follows a devastating avalanche that claimed 16 lives.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

The death toll from last week's avalanche on Mount Everest is staggering. The bodies of 13 Sherpa have been recovered. Three more are still missing and presumed dead, buried under tons of ice. The Nepalese guides were on the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, ferrying equipment for clients when a huge shelf of ice gave way. Today, Sherpa on the mountain met and decided to call off this year's climbing season altogether. They say they're united in their decision to leave Mount Everest to honor their dead. It's unclear whether financial concessions they've demanded from the Nepalese government might change their minds.

Earlier today, I spoke with expedition leader Todd Burleson of Alpine Ascents International. He joined us from Everest Base Camp at 17,300 feet. Five Sherpa working with his teams were killed in the avalanche. And today, Burleson took part in a ceremony called a puja to memorialize those who died.

TODD BURLESON: It was somber and it was also very embracing. Sherpas and foreigners and kitchen boys, and we were all together. And it was a tent with, you know, traditional Nepali or Sherpa, a prayer ceremony that probably lasted two to three hours of chanting and prayers. And it was a very powerful experience.

BLOCK: You've decided to call off both of your expeditions. You're on Everest and you've decided you will not be trying to reach the summit, right?

BURLESON: Yes, it was a cooperative decision. You know, we were actually the largest hit. We lost five members. And as a group, neither the Sherpa nor our members felt it was right to continue. And that right means that there was so much pain and grief that it's not a good way to climb a mountain.

BLOCK: Todd, there are hundreds of foreign climbers, dozens of expedition teams on Mount Everest right now, you know, people who have paid tens of thousands of dollars for this opportunity. Are there a lot of tensions right now on the mountain about whether to go forward, tensions between the climbers who may want to keep on going and the Sherpa who say no, we're going down?

BURLESON: I have not met one Westerner who felt like these Sherpas should turn around and climbing up this hill. But it's been a difficult time. I wouldn't say it's the pressure from their climbers or clients, but they have paid a lot of money. They've taken time off from work. You know, they've trained. They have ambition to climb with them. I think there is a feeling of very, very big loss and they've been all been very compassionate towards the Sherpa. And that they also feel a great loss on another level, which is this loss of climbing to the top of Everest.

BLOCK: I wonder what you think about this, Todd. The Sherpa make many, many trips through this Khumbu Icefall, maybe dozens of times every season ferrying gear for climbers, putting themselves at risk over and over and over in a way that the climbers themselves, the foreign climbers don't. It does seem that there is a deep and really dangerous imbalance of risk. And I wonder how troubling that is for you, especially now.

BURLESON: You know, you're correct. We may go through the icefall with our climbers three times up and three times down. Sherpas carry a load, sometimes three days working and a day's the rest. So they're exposed to much as 10 times the hazards. And this is not a choice that we've made. Frankly, only the Sherpa have this type of endurance and Sherpa are looking for employment, and this is the reality.

BLOCK: There would be people who would say there are simply too many people now trying to climb Everest, and that increases the risk many, many times.

BURLESON: Well, it does increase the risk. We have an avalanche and no one is there, there's no injuries. We're very early in our season so everybody wants to get a lot of gear up, and so there were a lot of climbers in the icefall. You can say it was inevitable. I mean you may be able to say many things, but we have not seen a tragedy like this in many, many years here in (unintelligible).

BLOCK: Todd, does this avalanche and these 16 Sherpa who were killed, does it change you feel about Everest and about the future of climbing?

BURLESON: I'm still processing it. I guess what's scary about it is you just don't know what tomorrow brings. And, you know, I'll tell you that's one of the reasons we're not continuing on this trip. We need time to process this and figure out what we do think and go forward.

BLOCK: Well, Todd Burleson, I appreciate you're taking time to talk with us. Thank you.

BURLESON: And you're welcome.

BLOCK: Speaking us from base camp on Mount Everest, Todd Burleson, president OF Alpine Ascents International. He and his crew have decided to end both of their expeditions on Everest this season.

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