Conflicting reports from Mount Everest Base Camp leave the fate of this year's climbing season in doubt, one week after an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas on the world's tallest mountain.
Nepal's Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Civil Aviation, which oversees climbing on Everest, released a statement Thursday saying that Minister Bhim Prasad Acharya had visited Base Camp and encouraged the expedition teams to continue the climbing season.
"During the discussion, the minister had urged to continue the expedition activities to all team leaders and members," the statement reads, "and requested to all concerned agencies to fix ladder & rope."
Expedition leaders who attended the minister's meeting described a different message. They say that the minister, who spoke with the aid of supplemental oxygen, was loudly cheered by some Sherpas when he announced the mountain's closure.
"The government of Nepal made an official announcement that Everest is officially closed for 2014 effective immediately," read a statement posted online Wednesday by Peak Freaks, one of the outfitters on the mountain.
Other outfitters gave yet another interpretation of the mountain's status.
"It's my understanding that the mountain is not officially closed, but that the vast, vast majority of teams have chosen to leave out of respect for the Sherpa community," said Adrian Ballinger, leader of Alpenglow Expeditions team, speaking from Kathmandu Thursday night.
According to the tourism ministry, Acharya also told the crowd—which included expedition clients who had each paid $10,000 for a climbing permit—that the ministry would honor those permits for up to five years.
The crisis on the iconic mountain arose Friday when several dozen Sherpas, who were carrying gear and provisions across the Khumbu Icefall for their Western clients, were caught in an avalanche of ice that roared down off the West Shoulder. (See "Mapping the Killer Path of the Everest Avalanche.")
Survivors were evacuated to Kathmandu. Thirteen bodies were recovered, and three were entombed beneath tons of ice.
Following funeral rituals for the fallen, the Sherpas presented the tourism ministry with a 13-point petition that, among other demands, requested doubling the death compensation to $20,000, allocating 30 percent of the $3.5 million that the government collects in climbing permits to pay for rescue services, and increasing benefits for injured Sherpas. (Related: "Injured Sherpas Recall Deadly Avalanche.")
The ministry said it would raise the death benefit to $15,000, allocate 5 percent of the climbing fees to fund rescue services, increase injury compensation for Sherpas, and pay for the education of children of Sherpas who die on the mountain. The ministry then called for the Sherpas to go back to work on Everest. (Related: "Everest's Deadliest Day Puts Focus on Sherpas.")
A contingent of Sherpas denounced the government's offer as disrespectful and called for a boycott of Everest.
As of late Wednesday, at least seven Western outfitters had canceled their expeditions, including Alpine Ascents International, Asian Trekking, Adventure Consultants, Altitude Junkies, International Mountain Guides, Peak Freaks, and Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.
It is now expected that all other teams at the Nepal Base Camp will also abandon their summit attempts. (Teams on the Tibet side of the mountain are still pursuing their summit bids.)
It appears that the call for an Everest strike originated with younger Sherpas, many of whom work for the low-end Everest outfitters known for cutting corners, not paying Sherpas well, and asking their Sherpas to take greater risks than those working for established outfitters.
"There seems to be a bit of the changing of the guard right now," says Ballinger. "The voices of the older Sherpas—who work for well-established outfitters, are paid well, and held in great respect—are being shouted down by the louder, younger Sherpas who have been ill-treated by the non-legitimate guiding services."
But this is only half the story. Everest is a sacred summit in the Sherpa culture, and some believe the mountain is taking revenge.
"Many of the Sherpas at Base Camp feel that the mountain doesn't want them to climb this year. They feel the mountain killed the 16 Sherpas as some kind of punishment for the excesses displayed on the mountain over the past years," Ballinger says.
Out of loyalty to his Sherpas' beliefs, Ballinger ended his team's Everest attempt for this spring. He acknowledged that there were still a few teams trying to stay on, but he thought the pressure to quit from the Sherpas will end the season.
The largest outfitter on the mountain, Himalayan Experience (HimEx), owned and operated by Russell Brice, a longtime Himalayan guide, has yet to announce its decision. Everest veterans say that if any team could still mount a summit attempt, it would be HimEx because of its large number of experienced and loyal Sherpas. Attempts to reach Brice at Base Camp were not successful.
Changes on Everest
How will this affect climbing on the world's highest peak in the future?
Everest watchers say next year Sherpas are likely to be better compensated, client climbers will pay more for their expeditions, and some of the drudgery of carrying loads through the Khumbu could be replaced by helicopters ferrying loads up to Camp 1, which would reduce the number of trips Sherpas must make through the icefall.
Also, some would like to see more government regulation, such as restricting the number of teams (and the size of each) on the mountain, increasing compensation for Sherpas killed or injured, enforcing leave-no-trace ethics, and developing sustainable human waste facilities.
"When I look at other iconic mountains around the world: Denali, the Matterhorn, Kilimanjaro," says Ballinger, "they are strictly managed by the government. I know some of my colleagues will disagree, but I believe Everest needs strong, effective government management to maintain the sustainability and beauty of Everest."
As for climbing on Everest, if the disaster of 1996, when eight people died in a single storm, is any indication, ironically, more people are likely to want to climb Everest in 2015. The tragic death of these 16 Sherpas will gradually be turned into a story of danger, giving climbing Everest even more allure and reaching its summit more cache.
"The magic of Everest, positive and negative, won't disappear," says Ballinger. "It's the highest mountain on Earth, and climbers will still come here with a deep desire to stand on top."