Kathmandu, Nepal - Surrounded by her female relatives, 48-year-old Kanchhi Sherpa gave a shrill cry, choking back tears. She gestured towards a pick-up truck, its front covered with a huge poster of her young son standing atop a snow-clad Himalayan peak, proudly displaying the Nepali flag.
Dozens of Buddhist priests in maroon robes chanted mantras and blew horns from the back of the truck, as prayer flags fluttered in Kathmandu's spring air.
Mourners gathered here, in a football field in Nepal's capital, for a funeral procession following the deaths of 13 Nepali Sherpas in an avalanche on Mount Everest last Friday. Authorities have called off search-and-rescue operations, citing bad weather.
Kanchhi's eldest son, Ningma Sherpa, 28 - the only bread-winner in the family of five - was among the victims of the disaster, billed as the biggest tragedy in Everest's history.
"He was my eldest son. He was the one who earned money and supported our family. Now who will look after us?" said Kanchhi, whose husband died 12 years ago. She said Ningma had left for Everest a month ago, telling her that he would call her as soon as he was done with the seasonal job. In a tearful voice, she explained that her son was funding the education of his brother and two sisters.
Friday's accident has shone a spotlight on the foot soldiers of the Everest-climbing industry: the Sherpas, an ethnic group living in northeastern Nepal in the shadow of the world's highest peak.
|Sherpa families lose vital income after Everest tragedy
Sherpas earn between $3,000 and $5,000 during peak Everest-climbing season, which runs from April to May. Yet many say they are ill-paid given the gruelling and dangerous nature of their work.
During the spring climbing season, more than 500 climbers attempt to reach the top of the 8,848m peak. These climbers - who pay between $40,000 and $100,000 - are supported by armies of Sherpas who cook food, haul loads weighing as much as 40kg and guide their clients up and down the treacherous, icy slopes.
The young Sherpas carry oxygen cylinders, tents, food and mountaineering gear; break up ice to produce water; set up camp; fix ropes and hurry to arrive at camp before their clients, to serve them hot drinks. Sherpas often make several trips up and down the mountain during each client's ascent, because of the complex logistics involved in scaling Everest.
In an investigative report on the high mortality rates of Sherpas published in August last year, the American adventure travel magazine Outside wrote that "no service industry so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients".
"A Sherpa working above Base Camp on Everest is nearly 10 times more likely to die than a commercial fisherman - the profession the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rates as the most dangerous non-military job in the US - and more than three-and-a-half times as likely to perish than an infantryman during the first four years of the Iraq war," the story noted.
New line of work
Such findings appear to resonate with the Sherpa community, whose members are increasingly pursuing careers beyond the mountains: medicine, academia, commerce and journalism.
"The question we are asking now is: Is the risk worth it? For nearly 20 years, the wages for Sherpas have remained the same while the prices of equipment have increased many times," said Pasang Sherpa, general secretary of the National Mountain Guide Association.
"Moreover, despite the foreign clients' reliance on our knowledge and hard work, most of us are not allowed to lead an expedition, he said, adding: "The accident showed to the world how poorly we are treated when such a tragedy strikes up the mountain."
Sherpa said that the government has done nothing except collect royalties amounting to about $2.4m annually from Everest climbers. "Instead of making the regulatory mechanism strong, the government officials seem happy to collect the royalties and forget about the responsibilities," he said.
Santa Subba, chairman of the Himalayan Rescue Association, which carried out the search-and-rescue operations, said the government and private stakeholders should agree to form a social security system for Sherpas who work on the Himalayan peaks.
The business model itself is exploitative. The Sherpas, despite... such risks, are not rewarded.
"This is surely not the last disaster on Everest. Although we can't predict it, we must be prepared to face such calamities. Unless all the stakeholders unite to build a professional system where everyone is fairly compensated, the problem will resurface in future," he said.
"But for now, the victims' families should be given the preference. These men have wives and children whose education and livelihood is now the most pressing issue."
Temba Tsheri Sherpa, who runs a small mountaineering agency called Dreamers' Destinations, echoed Subba's views.
"Generations of Sherpas have toiled in the mountains. For the government, Everest has become a cash cow. Now we must get what we have long deserved. The family of the dead must be looked after by the government. There must be a package so that they have a dignified living, not a measly hand-out of 40,000 rupees ($400), which is an insult to them."
While mountaineering agencies have pointed fingers at the government, one documentary film-maker who has worked on Nepal's mountains holds that the Kathmandu-based outfitters also share some of the blame.
"Foreign climbers deal with local outfitters who supply the vital workforce of Sherpas. While these agencies draw thousands of dollars from their clients, look at how badly the Sherpas are paid," said Hari Thapa, one of the two directors of Sherpas: The True Heroes of Mount Everest.
"For a foreign climber, an additional $2,000 is not a big deal. But the agencies act like a typical broker - amassing huge sums from the clients and giving peanuts to Sherpas to do the riskiest of the jobs."
The financial lure draws young Sherpa men to work on the mountains, he said, adding many have few other job options in the remote mountain regions where they live.
"The business model itself is exploitative. The Sherpas, despite... such risks, are not rewarded. Some agencies are notorious for not paying on time. The job looks full of adventure, to many it may even look glamorous. But deep inside, they suffer pain," said Thapa, who spent three months in Everest base camp in 2008 to shoot the documentary.
"Unless they carry out a reform from within, passing the buck to the government will not solve the problem."
Follow Deepak Adhikari on Twitter: @DeepakAdk