KATHMANDU - Distraught Nepalese guides and climbers cancelled expeditions on Mount Everest Monday after at least 13 colleagues died in an avalanche, as anger mounted at poor payments for sherpas who take huge risks on the world's highest peak.
Sherpas already grief-stricken at the loss of colleagues have told AFP they are considering whether to halt climbs to protest at pay and poor welfare provisions.
The bodies of 13 local sherpa guides have been pulled from the snow and another three are thought to be still buried in the avalanche which hit Friday morning, the worst single accident in the mountain's history.
Another nine were rescued alive from the avalanche, which struck the group of sherpas as they hauled gear up the mountain for international climbers who were waiting at Everest base camp below.
Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International, which lost four sherpas in the accident with another still missing, has decided to cancel its expedition, according to its sirdar (sherpa captain).
"We have lost five members of our team. To respect them, we will not be going ahead with our expedition," said Lakpa Rita Sherpa, who has summited Everest 17 times.
"This was one of the worst days on the mountain and all those who died are sherpas, so many of those left don't want to go ahead," Sherpa told AFP from base camp.
US-based Discovery Channel also cancelled an expedition after losing its team of sherpas in the accident, it said in a statement. The channel was planning a live broadcast of the first winged jumpsuit flight off the summit.
Other teams still at base camp are weighing up whether to go ahead with their expeditions, with many too distraught to climb.
Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, said sherpas want the government to set up a welfare fund for guides and their families, using part of the fees paid by clients.
"It's not about stopping expeditions, but they have demands that need to be fulfilled," Sherpa, whose national body represents tourism promoters, told AFP.
Some of the sherpas and their families are angry about the Nepali government's offer of 40,000 rupees (about S$500) to pay for the funeral expenses of those killed, calling it a disrespectful gesture.
Sherpas, an ethnic group known for their skills on the mountain, earn between US$3,000 (S$3,750) to US$6,000 a season, but life insurance payments currently only go up to US$10,000.
The disaster underscores the huge risks borne by sherpas who ascend the icy slopes, often before dawn and usually weighed down by tents, ropes and food for their clients, who pay tens of thousands of dollars to scale the mountain.
The cancellations are likely to have an impact on the impoverished Himalayan country's economy. It relies on tourism for revenue, earning millions of dollars in annual climbing fees from Everest alone.
More than 300 people, most of them local guides, have died on Everest since the first ascent to the summit by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.
The previous worst accident on the 8,848-metre (29,029-foot) peak was in 1996 when eight people were killed during a storm.