Nepalese guides on Mount Everest have decided to abandon this year's climbing season to honour 16 colleagues killed in an avalanche last week.
The decision throws the plans of hundreds of foreign mountaineers into chaos, with many of them waiting in base camp after paying tens of thousands of dollars to scale the world's highest peak.
"We had a long meeting this afternoon and we decided to stop our climbing this year to honour our fallen brothers. All Sherpas are united in this," local guide Tulsi Gurung told AFP news agency on Tuesday from the base camp.
The Sherpas perform essential tasks on the 8,848-metre mountain, carrying equipment and food as well as repairing ladders and fixing ropes to reduce risks for their clients.
They earn $3,000 to $6,000 a season, but their insurance cover is almost always inadequate when accidents happen.
"Some guides have already left and others will take about a week to pack up everything and go," said Gurung, whose brother is among those missing after an avalanche on April 18 killed 13 Sherpas and left three missing presumed dead.
Battle for relief
The guides had threatened to cancel all climbing on Mount Everest and issued an ultimatum to the government, demanding higher compensation, an agreement to revise insurance payments and a welfare fund.
According to the Associated Press news agency, Nepal has agreed to set up a relief fund for Sherpas who are killed or injured in climbing accidents, one of several key concessions to the mountain guides.
Some high-profile Western mountaineers also headed to the capital, Kathmandu, to seek a resolution to the crisis.
"They have decided that compensation is not the only issue, they feel like they have to close down Everest this year as a memorial to those who died," said Ed Marzec, an American climber who spoke to AFP from the base camp.
Marzec, a retired lawyer who hoped to become the oldest American to conquer Everest at the age of 67, said the atmosphere at the base camp was souring fast - with some climbers putting pressure on sherpas so they would stay on and help them summit.
More than 4,000 climbers have reached the top of the world's highest mountain since 1953, when it was first conquered by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.
Hundreds of people, both foreigners and Sherpas, have died trying, and about a quarter of the deaths occurred in avalanches.