Lukla (Nepal): In the Himalayan town of Lukla, excitement mingles with fear as mountaineers make their way up to Everest a year after an avalanche killed 16 guides and triggered an unprecedented shut-down of the world’s highest peak.
Some are returning after being forced to abandon their attempt on the summit last year during the chaos and recriminations that followed the deadliest disaster ever to hit Everest.
“It was just terrible to see so many killed,” said British mountaineer Sam Chappatte, who walked into base camp hours after the avalanche hit the treacherous Khumbu Icefall last year.
“I think the Sherpa staff are absolutely justified in seeking more insurance and benefits for the work they put in, but it feels like we climbers got wiped out in the bargain,” he told AFP in Lukla, the small Nepalese town known as “the gateway to Everest”.
The avalanche that tore through a group of Sherpas who were hauling gear up the mountain on the morning of April 18, 2014, sent shockwaves through the climbing industry.
The tragedy exposed tensions between wealthy foreign climbers and the Sherpas, who take huge risks to ensure the safety of the expeditions by making multiple trips on the icefall that sits above base camp to fix ropes and haul gear up the mountain.
Some threatened to boycott expeditions unless the government, which earns huge revenues from climbers, increased the compensation for relatives of workers who died on the mountain.
The resulting tensions eventually led to all the major expedition organisers abandoning Everest ahead of the brief climbing window in May, when conditions are optimal.
– ‘Need to work together’ –
In an attempt to address safety concerns, Nepalese authorities have this year changed the route up the Khumbu Icefall. They will also station doctors and upgrade weather forecasting systems on base camp.
Phil Crampton, whose company Altitude Junkies is leading 14 clients up Everest, told AFP he hoped things would get “back to normal” this year.
“The Sherpa community realises that we need to work together… everyone wants a trouble-free season,” Crampton said.
The tourism ministry said 335 people have climbing permits for this year, including 118 that were granted in 2014, and more were being processed.
Chappatte remortgaged his flat to fund a second attempt on the 8,848 metre (29,029 feet) peak after Nepal’s government said it would allow mountaineers to use climbing permits bought last year.
The 28-year-old had spent a couple of years saving up to afford the $40,000 expedition fee before the disaster struck.
“I figured I would at least save on the permit and thought I’d better act now before the government changes its mind,” he said.
– Difficult memories –
Not everyone is reassured. Some companies, including US-based Alpenglow Expeditions, have moved operations to the northern side of Everest in China, while even veteran Sherpa guides with several summits under their belts have refused to go up.
“I’ve decided not to climb anymore. The memories of last year make it difficult for me to go back to the mountain,” said Lakpa Rita Sherpa, who has led over 30 expeditions in the Himalayas and reached the Everest summit 17 times.
“I lost my colleagues, my friends… I pulled out their bodies from the snow. I’ve been lucky so far, I don’t think I should try my luck any more.”
Others, such as Brit Alexandra Schneider, are pressing ahead despite concerns.
“I have been feeling very anxious in the days leading up to this, but the best thing is to try and stay positive,” said Schneider, who has already summited four of the highest peaks on seven continents.
“It’s worrying though. There’s so much that can go wrong on an expedition, from bad weather to illness, now we have one more element to consider.”
Nepal’s government initially sparked anger by offering $400 in compensation to victims’ families, but later raised the sum to $5,000.
Industry associations have also pitched in to distribute money raised through a global fundraising drive, helping widows and paying school and college fees for the children of those killed in the avalanche.
But working Sherpas say the government ignored their request for a relief fund to be set up using 30 percent of the climbing permit fees.
“We have so few options open to us that we have to take up jobs which can cost us our lives,” said Sange Sherpa, who lost many friends in the avalanche.
“In the end, we paid for the shutdown. In a normal year I can make $3,000-4,000 on Everest. Last year I took home $1,500.”