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And I'm David Greene. A week has now passed since a massive avalanche on Mount Everest, the worst disaster ever on that mountain. And now Nepal's lucrative climbing season is facing unprecedented turmoil. Some sherpas - these are local guides - have vowed to quit for the season. A major expedition operator has canceled its climbs, and more may follow suit. All of this is a blow to one of the poorest countries on the planet. NPR's Julie McCarthy is in Kathmandu.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: In the ICU of Kathmandu's Norvic International hospital, monitors flash the vital signs of Kaji Sherpa. Miraculously, the 39-year-old survived the wall of deadly ice and snow that crushed 16 of his colleagues, in the largest loss of life in a single day on the mountain Sherpas call Mother Goddess of Earth. The team had been preparing the path for their clients, fixing ropes on the treacherous Popcorn ice field, so-called for its bulging chunks of ice.
You're here. You're alive, Kaji. How did you survive this?
KAJI SHERPA: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: There was a small hill that was a buffer from the snow and because of that hill, I was saved, Kaji says. The rest of my friends were below me, and died. I was partly covered by the snow, says the veteran climber, but I was able to come out of it and when I did, I knew I was all right.
Kaji leans forward, pointing to his side: Remarkably, he sustained just two broken ribs and a small contusion on his lungs. But his desire to ever stand on Everest again is destroyed.
SHERPA: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: The father of four will return to a less dangerous vocation - farming potatoes, maize and wheat, he says. Sherpas typically make $5,000 for the short season climbing on Everest, which is eight times Nepal's per capita income. The decision by some sherpa to quit this season has stoked tension at base camp and disarray in the government, with the tourism minister choppering to the site today in a bid to defuse anger. But the recovering Kaji Sherpa supports the shutdown. I think it's better not to climb again because so many people are dying, he says.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MCCARTHY: Monday, funeral services were held for six of the Sherpas who died in last Friday's disaster, an incident that opened a floodgate of grievances about how the Sherpa community is compensated, insured and medically treated. The government has promised the sum of $400 as a death benefit for the families of the victims. The Sherpas demand closer to $10,000, plus a welfare fund from the millions of dollars in fees the government collects from each expedition. Kathmandu has agreed in principle to the fund, but nothing has been finalized.
On Tuesday, another ceremony unfolded, this one for 26-year-old Mingma Tenzing Sherpa. He died three weeks prior from what family members say were complications from altitude sickness at base camp on Mount Everest, 17,000 feet above sea level. His mother, Da Chiki, says she's now drinking to get over the sorrow, and says the untimely death of her only son and 16 Sherpas last week is a signpost.
DA CHIKI: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: It's good if they cancel the expedition, she says. My son also wanted to climb because he wanted to make fast money. My son would say: After climbing two to three times, I will build a house. But where is the house? she asks. Everything has been shattered, she says.
Grayson Schaffer is the senior editor of Outside magazine who's written extensively on sherpas. He says sherpas face altitude sickness, falls and avalanches. But he says there are benefits in climbing for paying clients, especially in an impoverished country. While the economic disparity between the local guides and their foreign clients is glaring, Schaffer says the Sherpas have carved out a livelihood that is difficult to walk away from.
GRAYSON SCHAFFER: You know, if Everest were just about the exploitation of poor men, this wouldn't be a decision. You know, the industry would have been shut down long ago. The reason it's difficult is because this industry has taken a lot of poor men and turned them into relatively rich men.
MCCARTHY: The events that have unfolded in Nepal the past week, including the volatility at base camp as sides debated whether to stay or go, have centered on remuneration of men who do the most dangerous work on Mount Everest. But Yankila Sherpa, a member of the advisory board of Nepal's Mountaineering Association and former tourism minister, says it's difficult to quantify the sherpas' contribution to the country and climbing community.
YANLIKA SHERPA: It's these people who have been the ambassadors of this country. The Sherpas have introduced Nepal to the rest of the world.
MCCARTHY: At a condolence ceremony this week, families of the 16 men killed or missing in the disaster were handed checks from various private institutions, including Nepal's Mountaineering Association. Susmita Mahsgay consoles the daughter of a fallen Sherpa who Mahsgay knew well. An expert climber herself, Mahsgay says the burden on Sherpas is increasing as climbers with little experience find their way to Everest.
SUSMITA MAHSGAY: I've seen a lot of climbers coming from abroad who, without training - they train, like, day-to-day training, but they don't have formal mountaineer training - who completely rely on the Sherpa guides, you know; putting their lives on danger, and putting the Sherpas' lives on danger.
MCCARTHY: Meanwhile, the debate at Base Camp roils on. Todd Burleson, president of Alpine Ascents International, says he is pulling his expeditions off of Everest for the season. We reached him at Base Camp, where he talked about his decision.
TODD BURLESON: You know, we lost a lot of Sherpa, and it was very devastating to my crew 'cause, you know, these people are like our family. We've been here 22 years. So when you lose something like that, it is out of respect but it is also out of tremendous grief that everyone's experienced.
MCCARTHY: Burleson expects that more major expeditions will also call it quits in what many are calling a historic moment for Everest.
Julie McCarthy NPR News Kathmandu