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Many of the Sherpas mountain guides — whom climbers depend on to scale Mount Everest — have decided to boycott the rest of the climbing season, which was set to run through May, leaving mountaineers at base camp uncertain about what will happen next.
The move comes in the wake of the mountain’s deadliest disaster last Friday where 16 Sherpas were lost in an avalanche. Thirteen bodies were recovered and three Sherpas still missing are presumed dead.
Early on Tuesday, Nepal's government agreed to some of the Sherpas' demands to avoid the looming boycott, such as setting up a relief fund for Sherpas who are killed or injured in climbing accidents, but the funding fell short of what the Sherpas wanted.
The Nepal National Mountain Guide Association in Katmandu said they would try to negotiate with the Sherpas and the government because a total boycott would harm Nepal's mountaineering in the long term, according to the group's general secretary, Sherpa Pasang.
After a memorial service at base camp on Tuesday, the Sherpas in the camp discussed their options, said guide Dorje Sherpa, who attended. He said most of them were planning to pack and leave as early as Wednesday.
"It is just impossible for many of us to continue climbing. While there are three of our friends buried in the snow, I can't imagine stepping over them. We want to honor the members we lost and out of respect for them we just can't continue," he said.
"When you go there, you get to know those Sherpas, you bond with them."
The move would leave hundreds of climbers currently at Everest base camp without any safe and reliable way to get up the world’s tallest peak.
But many climbing veterans were taking the developments in stride, and they showed solidarity with the Sherpa community.
“People are sad, people are sad at the loss of life,” veteran climber and Everest blogger Alan Arnette told NBC News on Tuesday, after speaking with friends at the mountain. “When you go there, you get to know those Sherpas, you bond with them ... I don’t know anyone over there who’s not very emotional.”
He noted that while many of the younger Sherpas are pushing for more work protections, for the older ones, “there’s a spiritual aspect: Mt. Everest is sacred to them, and they feel very strongly that they should not be climbing the mountain.”
Arnette, who last ascended to the top of Everest in 2011, estimated that, of the 340 or so climbers on the mountain today, “there are only probably a handful who have the skills and the strength to climb it without Sherpa support.”
People looking to climb Everest usually pay anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 — and in some cases up to $90,000 — for all of the equipment, permits and support staff needed to make the trek, but Arnette said people he talked to weren’t focused on the potential loss of their investment.
“Yeah, they want to go climb the mountain, but they’re also keeping things in perspective,” he said. “At some point it shifts from being about you to being about everybody else, and I think people are going through that transition right now.”
Seattle-based mountaineering outfitter Alpine Ascents International lost Sherpas in Friday's accident, and was pulling out of Everest altogether for the season, Director of Programs Gordon Janow told NBC News.
He said the decision was made “as a mourning for the Sherpa and climbers that were lost and not wanting to ask people to climb through the area where their friends and brethren were just killed.”
Asked about refunds for their customers, who paid about $65,000, Janow said it was something they were considering.
“Traditionally there haven’t been (refunds) but we have a long-standing relationship with our climbers and we’re talking to them. I’m not ruling anything out. There’s not a precedent for this.”
Arnette said he believed there is about a 50/50 chance the entire climbing season would be scrapped.
Janow was less certain. "It’s hard to say, we've never had anything like a Sherpa boycott before — hopefully it will affect their working lives in a good way."