The Nepalese government is considering cancelling all expeditions to the summit of Mount Everest for the rest of the year as rescuers abandoned their search for three Sherpas believed to be among 16 people killed in an avalanche on Friday.
The avalanche has raised concerns in Nepal about the scale of the climbing business and the dangers to the Sherpa guides. This year, 334 climbers from around the world were given permits, costing $10,000 (£5,958) each, to climb Everest. Filming permits and other fees bring in more money to the government in Kathmandu. If the expeditions are cancelled the government will have to refund the fees.
"This is an unprecedented situation," the tourism ministry spokesman Madhu Sudan Burlakoti told journalists. "We do not know what to do if they want their tax back. We will hold further discussions before deciding anything on this issue."
Sherpas have also been angered by the government offering families of the victims $400 (£238) which will only cover funeral costs.
Expedition leaders, politicians and leading Sherpas have agreed to lobby the government to improve compensation for guides. Sherpas feel they do not get a fair share of climbing royalties but are expected to take a disproportionate amount of the risk and demonstrations are planned before the funerals take place this week.
Mingma Sherpa of Seven Summits Treks warned that there would be no Sherpa involvement in mountaineering in the future if their social security concerns were ignored. "Sherpas are the backbone of Mount Everest expeditions but the government neglects them," he told the Himalayan Times. "We the Sherpas strongly urge the government to immediately act to support the families of deceased Sherpas. A permanent mechanism at government level is required."
Sherpas are an ethnic group in Nepal and have helped foreigners climb the country's towering peaks since before Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Sir Edmund Hilary became the first to reach the top in 1953.
The high numbers of climbers has led to tensions on the slopes. Following an attack on three European climbers last year, the tourism ministry established a government post with liaison officers and security personnel to keep the peace.
Sherpa anger at their exploitation, particularly among the young, is straining relationships with foreign commercial expedition leaders. Among those killed on Friday was Dorje Khatri, a campaigner for Sherpa rights who had previously carried the flag of a porter's union to the summit.
With the working conditions of high-altitude workers in the forefront of the public's mind, organisations representing them have been quick to add to the pressure on the government.
In addition to the $400 offered by the government, the families of Sherpa guides killed will receive $10,000 from mandatory insurance policies. Those working as cooks and other staff will get $5,000.
Ben Ayers, the Nepal country director for the dZi Foundation and a longtime advocate for trekking porters' rights, said that fees should be increased to ensure Sherpas are properly insured: "If the lives of Sherpas were insured at a comparable rate to foreign climbers, that might change the way people think about the risks they face on the mountain. That would be a start. It would increase the cost of climbing Everest by a few hundred dollars but so what? If that meant fewer people on the mountain that would be a good thing, too."
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[Mt. Everest image via AFP]