KATHMANDU - Two foreign mountaineers have returned to Everest after a deadly avalanche effectively ended the climbing season, flying by helicopter partway up the peak before starting their ascents, an official said Tuesday.
The female climbers, from the United States and China, took the rare step of hiring a helicopter that flew them above the Khumbu Icefall, where the worst accident in the mountain's history killed 16 sherpa guides, the air charter company said.
The climbers, thought to be the first back on the mountain since expeditions left in controversy over the April 18 disaster, flew from Everest base camp to Camp 2, skipping the section where the avalanche hit.
"Two climbers are heading up from Camp 2," tourism ministry official Dipendra Poudel told AFP. "There are also other climbers who have shown interest to continue their expeditions this year." The Chinese climber, accompanied by six sherpas, is attempting to scale Everest while the US mountaineer is heading alone for neighbouring Lhotse peak. Lhotse and Everest share the same route as far as Camp 3.
"This is the first time we've taken climbers up to Camp 2. Earlier we made such flights to transport only equipment or in cases of emergencies," said Ramesh Shiwakoti from Fishtail Air, which flew the climbers.
Shiwakoti said they had decided to fly to Camp 2 because the route below, normally prepared by sherpas beforehand with ropes and ladders, has not been completed this season.
Some members of the Nepal climbing community said the women and their sherpas were effectively breaking ranks with their decision to go ahead.
Most climbers abandoned plans to ascend Everest from the Nepalese side - the easiest and most popular route up the world's highest peak - after the avalanche.
The disaster sparked a labour dispute between the 600-strong sherpa guides and the government, and a boycott by most sherpas that left foreign expeditions with no choice but to abandon plans for the season.
"We decided not to climb out of respect for our friends who lost their lives at the mountain," said Tashi Sherpa, whose expedition team lost three guides in the avalanche.
"It is not good that they are climbing. It does not reflect well on them or the mountaineering community here," Sherpa told AFP.
Dambar Parajuli, president of the Expedition Operators Association, said the government should investigate "how the two women chartered a helicopter and went off without informing anyone".
The government has stressed that the mountain is still open for business despite the effective closure of the season, which is normally a key revenue earner for the impoverished country.
It promised the foreigners who left the mountain that their climbing permits, usually costing at least US$11,000 apiece, would be extended for five years in a bid to encourage them to come back next season.
The disaster highlighted the risks taken by sherpas on behalf of foreign clients and fuelled demands for better death and injury benefits after the government initially offered US$400 to the families of those killed.
The window for climbing Everest lasts until May 25, after which the temperature gets warmer and the mountain more dangerous.