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Kathmandu (AFP) April 23, 2014
Nepal's government strove Wednesday to save the Everest climbing season from an unprecedented walkout by sherpa guides as another major mountaineering company abandoned its expedition following a deadly avalanche last week.
New Zealand-based Adventure Consultants lost three people in Friday's avalanche, which struck a party of sherpas preparing routes for commercial climbers up the world's highest peak and killed 16.
The company said in a statement that "after much discussion and consideration of all aspects, the tough decision has been made to cancel the 2014 expedition this season".
US-based Alpine Ascents International and the Discovery Channel, which intended to broadcast the first winged jumpsuit flight off the summit, have also scrapped their plans on the 8,848-metre (29,029-foot) peak.
Guides and Western mountaineers told AFP Tuesday that the sherpas had held a meeting in the afternoon after an emotional remembrance ceremony at which they had agreed not to climb the peak this season to honour their colleagues.
Nepalese mountaineering officials, eager to avoid a shutdown that could lead to messy compensation claims and a huge loss of revenue for the impoverished country, denied any such move on Wednesday.
The Nepal Mountaineering Association, a national body representing tourism promoters, released a statement saying "we have not received any confirmation regarding the abandon(ment) of the expeditions on Everest".
A government delegation is set to fly to Everest base camp on Thursday to negotiate with the sherpas following talks with leading expedition organisers in Kathmandu.
The situation at base camp, described as tense by climbers there amid fears this year's season could be wrecked, remains fluid and unpredictable with accounts filtering out from climbers and guides.
The location is more than a week's hike from the nearest airport.
Local guide Pasang Sherpa, part of the International Mountain Guides expedition at base camp, insisted that sherpas wanted to sit out this season.
"We don't know what is happening in Kathmandu, but... we don't want to go up the mountain this year," he said.
British mountaineer Phil Crampton, owner of climbing company Altitude Junkies, told AFP that climbing company owners had met government officials in Kathmandu and "asked for immediate action".
Before Tuesday's call to abandon the season, the guides had issued a string of demands to the government, including higher compensation for the dead and injured, a rise in insurance payments and a welfare fund.
The government has offered to set up a relief fund for injured guides using up to five percent of fees paid by climbers, while increasing life insurance payments by 50 percent.
The sherpas want 30 percent of climbers' fees to be earmarked for the fund and life insurance payments, set at $10,000, to be doubled.
The government, expected to earn at least $3 million this year from Everest climbing fees alone, has issued permits to 734 people, including 400 guides, for 32 expeditions this season.
Hundreds of anxious climbers remain at base camp, uncertain whether to leave or stay following the sherpas' announcement, with tensions running high.
New Zealand mountaineer Russell Brice, owner of top expedition company Himex, said he hoped the government delegation's visit on Thursday would persuade sherpas to start climbing again.
"I hope the visit will calm tempers and the sherpas will understand the reasons for continuing the season," Brice told AFP in Kathmandu.
"They can continue their negotiations once the climbing season ends."
Relations between local guides and Western mountaineers hit a low last year when a brawl broke out between three European climbers and a group of sherpas.
The New Zealand firm that pulled out of Everest on Wednesday was also a victim of what was previously the worst disaster on the mountain in 1996, which was immortalised in the best-selling book "Into Thin Air".
Adventure Consultants lost four people in that tragedy, which saw a storm envelop climbers at high altitude, killing eight in total.
More than 300 people, most of them local guides, have died on the peak since the first ascent by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.
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