New Zealand guide backs sherpas' decision to abandon climbing season on Everest

Relatives of mountaineers killed in the avalanche cry during the funeral ceremony in Kathmandu on Monday. Picture: AP
Relatives of mountaineers killed in the avalanche cry during the funeral ceremony in Kathmandu on Monday. Picture: AP

A veteran New Zealand hiking guide has welcomed the decision by Nepalese sherpas to abandon this year’s climbing season on Mount Everest after a massive avalanche killed at least 13 of their colleagues last week.

The move throws the plans of hundreds of foreign mountaineers into chaos, with many of them waiting in base camp after paying tens of thousands of dollars to scale the world’s highest peak.

But New Zealander John Gully, the founder and managing director of Everest Treks, said he did not ‘‘give a damn about the plans of wealthy white men’’ when compared with the loss being experienced by the families of the sherpas who were killed in Friday’s avalanche - the most deadly recorded climbing accident in Everest history.

At least 13 sherpas died when a block of ice tore loose from the mountain and triggered a cascade that ripped through teams of guides hauling gear. Three more sherpas remain missing and are presumed dead.

‘‘It’s a very good move to cancel the expeditions for the year,’’ Mr Gully told Fairfax Media from Nepal.

‘‘The tragedy is that all of these young sherpa men have died, and it’s being done out of respect to them and their families, and also to the mountain.

‘‘Basically I don’t give a damn about the plans of wealthy white men, because that’s insignificant in comparison to this tragedy.

‘‘Over the last 20 years the mountain has become just a way for wealthy Western people to massage their egos and I struggle with the commercialisation on the mountain, and I struggle with people that put their hand up to say ‘Look at me, I’m a super hero.’

‘‘The mountain is the spiritual mountain for all sherpa, and the spirit has been disturbed.’’

Sherpas perform essential tasks on the 8848-metre mountain, carrying equipment and food, as well as repairing ladders and fixing ropes to reduce risks for their clients.

They earn between $US3000 ($3225) and $US6000 a season, but their insurance cover is almost always inadequate when accidents happen.

Now that the sherpas have boycotted the season, many of the climbers would forfeit most or all of the money they have spent to climb Everest, which can amount to $A95,000.

Mr Gully has been trekking in the Everest region for 25 years, and has guided many New Zealanders and Australians. He managed climbing expeditions to Mount Everest from 1988 to 1990, before concentrating on trekking on established trails in the Everest region, and conservation work.

One of Mr Gully’s friends and a former sherpa, Chhepal, told Fairfax Media that eight of his friends had died in last week’s avalanche.

‘‘I have lost eight very good friends. The sherpas belong to four families. All of them are married,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s very hard to decide [to abandon the season]. The sherpas are doing climbing expeditions for money. But if they keep pushing the sherpas it will keep happening for a long, long time.’’

Australian teenager Alyssa Azar was one of those climbers at base camp preparing to ascend Mount Everest when the avalanche hit. Immediately after the accident, the 17-year-old said she was planning to continue her quest to become the world’s youngest non-sherpa female to make it to the top, and Australia’s youngest Everest conqueror.

It was unclear whether she would abandon her attempt after the sherpas announced their boycott. Alyssa’s team has been contacted for comment.

Local guide Tulsi Gurung told AFP from base camp on Tuesday that Nepalese guides on Everest were already packing up and leaving the mountain.

‘‘We had a long meeting this afternoon and we decided to stop our climbing this year to honour our fallen brothers. All sherpas are united in this,’’ he said.

‘‘Some guides have already left and others will take about a week to pack up everything and go,’’ said Gurung, whose brother is among those missing.

Another sherpa, Pasang Sherpa, added: ‘‘Sixteen people have died on this mountain on the first day of our climb; how can we step on it now?’’

The guides had threatened to cancel all climbing on Mount Everest and issued an ultimatum to the government, demanding higher compensation, an agreement to revise insurance payments and a welfare fund by next Monday.

The decision to abandon the season appeared to pre-empt the outcome of talks which are under way in Kathmandu.

High-profile Western mountaineers left base camp for the capital on Tuesday afternoon to seek a resolution to the crisis.

‘‘They have decided that compensation is not the only issue, they feel like they have to close down Everest this year as a memorial to those who died,’’ said Ed Marzec, an American climber, who spoke to AFP from base camp.

More than 300 people, most of them local guides, have died on the 8848-metre peak since the first ascent by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.

- with AFP