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Climbers leave Everest amid regrets and tensions among Sherpas

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Kathmandu, Nepal – Climbers who had hoped to reach the summit of Mount Everest have instead begun the long journey home: a teenager with epilepsy who wanted to inspire others like himself; a banker who quit his job, sold his apartment and used up most of his savings to pay for the trip; a builder from California who was carrying the ashes of his younger brother.

They had arrived at the mountain’s base camp nervous and elated. But that was before last Friday’s avalanche, which killed 16 Sherpa guides on a perilous ice field.

In the week since, climbers said in interviews, the base camp became a cauldron of emotion, as Sherpa leaders took a hard-line position in favor of canceling the season, against the wishes of the Nepalese government and segments of the multimillion-dollar industry.

Several climbers described an atmosphere that had become menacing, after a handful of Sherpa organizers threatened colleagues who planned to continue. Climbers have expressed passionate solidarity with their Sherpa guides, agreeing that they receive too small a share of the proceeds from mountaineering. But in interviews, several said that they had begun to feel unsafe as the standoff mounted.

“When you go through the icefall, you need such focus and such determination, and the last thing you need to think about is, ‘Is someone going to yank the wires behind me when I go?'” Jon Reiter, 49, a climber from Kenwood, Calif., said in a telephone interview.

Unnerved by the angry speeches of several Sherpa leaders at a prayer service this week, he said: “A couple of us crawled into our tents that night with an ice ax. That made you feel, ‘Do I have the spirit to climb Everest right now?'”

Nepal’s government made a last-ditch effort Thursday to salvage the climbing season, sending a delegation of officials to the base camp by helicopter. But an exodus of Sherpas had begun days before, and major international touring companies began to announce cancellations of planned ascents, mostly for safety reasons.

By Thursday, the population of the base camp had fallen to roughly 100 from 600, said Alan Arnette, who operates a popular website for climbers. Having to leave before reaching the summit was galling to Western climbers, most of whom had paid as much as $100,000 to tour organizers.

“It is a bitter, bitter disappointment,” said James Brooman, 34, a British investment banker. “I’m probably worse off than most in some ways, since I quit my job and my apartment to do this, so to leave here with a shattered dream – no job, a lot less money and no real home – it’s tough.”

On social media, some climbers described alarming tensions. Younger Sherpas, aware of what Western companies charge, are resentful over their share. Sherpa guides typically earn $2,000 to $5,000 a season, supplemented by bonuses if they reach the summit.

When the Nepalese government offered the families of the dead Sherpas a compensation payment of about $408, they were furious. Amid talk of a work stoppage, international teams who proposed pushing forward met with forceful resistance, Tim Mosedale, a British expedition leader, wrote in a blog post on Thursday.

“There was a veiled threat (or rumor of one) that if we go in the icefall, we might not be safe,” he wrote, adding, “Sherpas are being told that if they go on the hill, well, ‘We know where you live.’ Sherpas are turning against Sherpas, and in this country where these threats are sometimes carried out, they are taken very, very seriously.”

In interviews, some Sherpas acknowledged that there were tensions in their ranks, though not violent ones. Pasang Dawa Sherpa, 28, said 90 percent of the Sherpas had agreed not to scale the mountain this season.

“What I know is that they requested others not to continue,” he said, adding that he did not think anyone was pressured. “I don’t think they threatened others.”

Climbers, meanwhile, were venting their frustration and disappointment.

“I can’t help but feel that I have let everyone down,” Kent Stewart, an American climber, wrote in a blog post. “If I don’t ever make it to the top of Everest, I’m afraid there will always be a hole in my life, and frankly, that worries me.”

Others were philosophical. Reiter, who had planned to scatter the ashes of his younger brother, Jesse, on the summit of Everest, said the avalanche had forever changed the way he looked at mountaineering.

His disappointment, he said, was overwhelmed by sadness over the Sherpas’ deaths. On the day of the avalanche, he said, he watched the dead men being carried out of the ice field tethered to ropes dangling from a helicopter, and he found himself wondering whether scaling Everest was worth the risk.

“I have a great plan,” he said. “I am going to go home and hug my 12-year-old. I’ve seen numerous things in my life, but nothing was ever driven home as to watch those guys on cables being brought down. ”

Heading home, “there’s just a tug of war going on within me,” he added. “I have put years of my life into this. But I am going home alive. I think I’m done with the mountains. I’m going to cherish what I have and count my blessings.”

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