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After Everest Tragedy, Who Pays When Climbing Season's Suspended?


The short climbing season on Mount Everest ended suddenly and sadly. The avalanche that killed 16 guides last Friday has shaken the Sherpa community and many have left the mountain. As a result, most expedition companies have cancelled their climbs. NPR's Julie McCarthy has more from Kathmandu on the next chapter, who pays when the season is suspended?

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Passion to summit the world's tallest peak drained away as grief and a healthy dose of apprehension took hold this week following the deaths of so many Sherpas on the notorious Ice Fall just above base camp. Expedition leader Adrian Ballinger said a meeting Wednesday night at base camp cinched his decision to pull his team off of Everest when Sherpas told him the mountain had spoken.

ADRIAN BALLINGER: And to them this was a 100 percent clear message that not only should Sherpa not be on the mountain, but neither should westerners. We should respect this decision that the mountain had made for us.

MCCARTHY: Ballinger recalls the eerie sounds that haunted sleep that night.

BALLINGER: All night long you're hearing the glacier that you're sleeping on in base camp creaking and cracking. I was woken up by probably six or seven avalanches through the night from the mountain surrounding us. It's a very strong reminder of where we are.

MCCARTHY: Walking away from the lucrative spring climbing season is a weighty decision. Ballinger says most companies grappled with it and chose to leave. His company, Alpenglow Expeditions, is small and being on the cutting edge of climbing, the cost for the thrill of summiting Everest does not come cheap.

BALLINGER: We're $89,000 per person and that includes everything from Sherpa staffing to Western guides to our expedition...

MCCARTHY: Ballinger's trips are more expensive. They average somewhere around $65,000 per person but his expeditions have cut the climb time in half.

BALLINGER: So instead of a 70-day expedition, it's a 35-day expedition. We're using technology and some different style of climbing like pre-acclimatizing and hypoxic tents at home.

MCCARTHY: But all that acclimatization has gone for naught. And the issue now is how much money Ballinger's four disappointed climbers stand to lose.

BALLINGER: While no numbers are formalized, I hope we'll be able to do a credit towards next season or the season after of somewhere in the vicinity of 25 to 35 percent.

MCCARTHY: That's a significant hit that they absorb.

BALLINGER: I think there's a financial hit and also there's an emotional hit of pouring so much into a project, it's crushing. I've heard it in their voices.

MCCARTHY: Kent Stuart is one of them. Stuart missed out on reaching the summit last year when he was forced to return to base camp because he had not been physically prepared and became extremely sick on the mountain.

KENT STUART CLIMBER: When I came down to base camp last year I was so sure that I would never go back to Everest, that I gave a lot of my gear away to the Sherpas, and had really just decided that it was just not possible for me. And then after being home and getting well and putting the weight back on, you know, it's just one of those things that's hard to let go.

MCCARTHY: But after intensely training the past seven months, traveling to Colorado and Ecuador to practice, Stuart of Birmingham, Alabama is having to let go of Everest a second time. It's a shock to his system. He hasn't yet calculated the shock to his bank account.

CLIMBER: You know, I haven't added it up. I don't really know. But, you know, I try not to think about it.

MCCARTHY: Stuart plans to try to make the ascent again next year and says whatever setback he's suffered this year pales in comparison to the magnitude of what has happened on Mount Everest. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Kathmandu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.