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Monday, Apr 21, 2014

World

Cancellation threat follows tragedy on Everest

Monday, Apr 21, 2014

Relatives prepare for the cremation of a Mount Everest avalanche victim in Kathmandu on April 21, 2014.

KATHMANDU - Expedition leaders and guides threatened Monday to cancel all climbing on Mount Everest after the deadliest avalanche in its history as hundreds of Nepalese sherpas paid final respects to their fellow guides.

With heads bowed and many in tears, a procession of mourners filed through the centre of Nepal's capital Kathmandu amid growing anger over compensation levels for those bereaved by Friday's tragedy.

At least 13 people were killed in the avalanche above base camp but the death toll is expected to rise further.

Accompanied by monks and pick-up trucks bearing the caskets of six of the victims, the mourners also carried a list of demands that they intend to present to the government, warning of a cancellation of all expeditions unless action is taken with a week.

The letter, seen by AFP, calls for a sherpa relief fund to be set up using 30 per cent of the fees paid by climbers and says life insurance payments, currently set at $10,000, should be doubled.

The letter also warns against "putting pressure (on the sherpas) to continue this season" which only began last week, adding that "we will not hesitate to protest" if their demands are not met.

The petition was penned after a meeting of expedition leaders, sherpa guides and climbers at base camp Sunday night to discuss how to respond to Friday's disaster, the worst single accident in Everest's history.

In a statement, the Nepal Moutaineering Association said the meeting had agreed on "a seven-day ultimatum to the government to address their demands and threaten to stop climbing if the demands are not met".

The bodies of 13 guides have been pulled from the snow and another three are thought still buried by the avalanche.

Another nine were rescued from the avalanche, which struck as the sherpas hauled gear up the mountain for international climbers waiting at Everest base camp below.

Some teams at base camp have decided to pull out of the climbing season this year, while others told AFP they are weighing up whether to go ahead.

Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International, which lost four sherpas in the accident with another still missing, has decided to cancel its expedition, according to its sirdar (sherpa captain).

"We have lost five members of our team. To respect them, we will not be going ahead with our expedition," said Lakpa Rita Sherpa, who has summited Everest 17 times.

US-based Discovery Channel also cancelled an expedition after losing its team of sherpas in the accident, it said in a statement. The channel was planning a live broadcast of the first winged jumpsuit flight off the summit.

Some sherpas said they were reluctant to climb but felt duty-bound to stay on until their clients made a decision.

"After such a tragic incident, most of us here don't want to go ahead this season," said Tashi Sherpa, whose team, Seven Summit Treks, lost one guide with two still missing.

"But there is so much investment here, we are not in a position to just refuse," Sherpa told AFP from base camp.

Huge risks

The disaster underscores the huge risks borne by sherpas who ascend the icy slopes, often before dawn and usually weighed down by tents, ropes and food for their clients, who pay tens of thousands of dollars to scale the mountain.

Some of the sherpas and their families are angry about the Nepali government's offer of 40,000 rupees (about S$830) to pay for the funeral expenses of those killed, calling it a disrespectful gesture.

Any cancellations are likely to have an impact on the impoverished Himalayan country's economy. It earns millions of dollars in annual climbing fees from Everest alone.

A senior tourism ministry official told AFP he had not seen the letter but said "the government is positive towards sherpa concerns".

The government has issued permits to 734 people, including 400 guides, for 32 expeditions this season to climb Everest.

Sherpas earn between US$3,000 (S$3757.20) to US$6,000 a season, but their insurance coverage is almost always inadequate when accidents occur.

In addition to low life insurance payouts, most sherpas receive medical coverage for rescues amounting to about US$3,000, which does not even cover the cost of a single helicopter trip out of base camp.

"We love the mountains... but a mountaineer could climb at peace if he knew that his family will be taken care of if something happens to him," said Mingma Sherpa, the first Nepali to summit all 14 of the world's peaks above 8,000 metres.

More than 300 people, most of them local guides, have died on Everest since the first ascent by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.

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