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UPDATE: Everest Climbing Season Still In Doubt

Family members of the Mount Everest avalanche victims were lighting oil lamps Sunday at a Sherpa Monastery in Katmandu, Nepal.
Prakash Mathema
AFP/Getty Images
Family members of the Mount Everest avalanche victims were lighting oil lamps Sunday at a Sherpa Monastery in Katmandu, Nepal.

Update at 12:30 p.m. ET. Despite Government's Concessions, Many Sherpas May Leave:

The likelihood of the upcoming climbing season on Mount Everest being canceled altogether seemed to veer from very possible to very unlikely to somewhere in between within the space of less than an hour on Tuesday as news reports came in from the world's tallest mountain.

As you'll see in our original post below and two earlier updates, the day began with news that the government of Nepal had agreed to many of the demands from Sherpas who want better insurance and other protections in the wake of last week's disaster on the mountain. Thirteen Sherpas died and another three are missing and presumed dead after an avalanche on Friday. It was the single deadliest day ever on the mountain.

The government's concessions led one spokesman for the Sherpas to say that the guides would not follow through on a threat to boycott this year's climbing season, which is about to get underway.

As those reports came to light, however, another Sherpa told news outlets that the boycott was on.

Then The Associated Press moved this report, which falls somewhere in between:

"Most Sherpa mountain guides have decided to leave Mount Everest in a walkout certain to disrupt a climbing season that was already marked by grief over the lives lost last week in Everest's deadliest disaster....

"After a memorial service at base camp on Tuesday, the Sherpas in the camp discussed their options, said Dorje Sherpa, who attended. He said most of them were planning to pack and leave as early as Wednesday. ...

"[But] Sherpa Pasang, general secretary of the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association in Katmandu, said it would try to negotiate with the Sherpas and the government because a total boycott would harm Nepal's mountaineering in the long term."

Late Tuesday morning (in the U.S.), All Things Considered reached one of the expedition leaders on Everest. Todd Burleson said "there is still uncertainty" about the prospects for any climbs this season, but "it appears the Sherpas have decided not to continue."

One of the guides, Lakpa Rita Sherpa, told All Things Considered that "all the Sherpa community" has decided to come off the mountain — not just because they want more insurance and other things, but out of respect for those who died last week. Neither he nor Burleson, though, seemed to be aware of the concessions the Nepalese government says it has made.

Much more from those conversations is due on Tuesday's All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

Our original post and earlier updates pick up the story and have more background:

A possible boycott of the upcoming climbing season by Sherpa guides on Mount Everest may have been averted after the Nepalese government agreed to create a relief fund for Sherpas who are injured or killed while working on the world's tallest mountain. The government is also increasing the Sherpas' insurance.

But even as that news was emerging Tuesday, there were other reports from the mountain of rising tensions between the Sherpa guides — who saw their colleagues swept to their deaths last week — and the foreigners they're paid to lead up the mountain. "A 'puja' ceremony on Tuesday for the 16 Sherpa climbing guides killed by last Friday's avalanche descended into a surge of furious chanting and calls for all climbing to be suspended, according to several mountaineers present," the BBC writes. (Update from the BBC added at 10:12 a.m. ET.)

We wrote Monday about how expeditions slated to depart soon for the summit might not be able to set off because Sherpas were asking for more insurance, higher payments to families of guides who are killed and other things following Friday's deadliest day ever on the mountain.

At least 13 Sherpas were swept to their deaths by an avalanche that day as they worked to rig ropes and make other preparations near a base camp around 20,000 feet above sea level. Another three Sherpas are missing and presumed dead.

On Tuesday, according to The Himalayan Times, Nepal's government announced it will increase the Sherpas' insurance coverage and promised to create a relief fund for them that will be financed from the fees paid by climbing expeditions.

The newspaper writes that "now, each Sherpa will have a life insurance of Rs 15 lakh, [up from] Rs 5 lakh, and health insurance of Rs 4 lakh." That converts to life insurance of 1.5 million Nepalese rupees, or about $15,500, and health insurance of 400,000 rupees, or about $4,100.

The New York Times adds that officials also said the government agreed "to provide pensions for older Sherpa climbers and educational assistance for Sherpa children."

After meeting with government officials, the Times writes, "Ang Tshering Sherpa, the president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, said ... 'climbing will be resumed.' "

There was still some uncertainty about the climbing season, though. Agence France-Presse was reporting Tuesday that one guide, Tulsi Gurung, said from a base camp on the mountain that Sherpas still might refuse to climb. (Note at 9:45 a.m. ET: AFP's reporting began to surface just as we published this post. We added some of it and tweaked our headline to say climbing "may begin," rather than "to begin.")

We also wrote Monday about the risks Sherpas face for what in Nepal are much higher than average wages, but would be quite low wages in more developed nations:

The mean annual per capita household income in Nepal was about $430 in 2010-2011, according to the Nepalese government's latest data.

Sherpas who lead or assist expeditions on Everest, according to the BBC, earn on average about $5,000 per year — more than 10 times the mean per capita. "Sherpas often make 20-25 round trips to carry kit and supplies to advanced camps, exposing them to greater risk," the BBC adds.

The risks are indeed considerable. All Things Considered spoke Friday with Grayson Schaffer, a senior editor and writer for Outside magazine who last year wrote a piece headlined "The Disposable Man: A Western History of Sherpas on Everest."

He reported then that:

"According to the Himalayan Database, which keeps track of such things, 174 climbing Sherpas have died while working in the mountains in Nepal — 15 in the past decade on Everest alone. ... During that time, at least as many Sherpas were disabled by rockfall, frostbite, and altitude-related illnesses like stroke and edema. A Sherpa working above Base Camp on Everest is nearly 10 times more likely to die than a commercial fisherman — the profession the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rates as the most dangerous nonmilitary job in the U.S. — and more than three and a half times as likely to perish than an infantryman during the first four years of the Iraq war. As a dice roll for someone paying to reach the summit, the dangers of climbing can perhaps be rationalized. But as a workplace safety statistic, 1.2 percent mortality is outrageous. There's no other service industry in the world that so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients."

The Atlantic has looked at "who dies on Everest — and where, and why," and reports that:

"The Himalayan Database counts 608 'member' deaths and 224 'hired' deaths on mountains in Nepal, including Everest, between 1950 and 2009. Almost 50 percent of hired deaths were due to avalanches, while nearly 40 percent of member deaths were attributed to falls.

"These patterns have a lot to do with who does what, and where, on mountains like Everest. Sherpas spend much of their time establishing and supplying camps in avalanche-prone zones. Paying expedition members move through those zones as quickly and efficiently as possible to save their energy for summit bids, where the risk of avalanches is lower but the air is thin and falls are more likely to occur."

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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