By the time rescuers were able to pick through the icy rubble of an earthquake-triggered avalanche that swept through Everest Base Camp, eight of Iswari Paudel's climbing guides were dead.
They were in their tents when snow broke free from two mountains, joining together to sweep through a camp that had been considered among the safest in the Himalayas. An American base camp doctor working for Mr. Paudel was sitting in the dining tent when the avalanche struck. She died, too, bringing his total losses to nine out of the 17 who died on the mountain following a series of massive tremors that have devastated Nepal.
It has been a terrible week for Mr. Paudel, whose Himalayan Guides Nepal is among the top three Everest guiding companies in the world. But even as he sorts through the detritus of lost lives, he has been forced to confront his own future, and that of the other 500 to 700 people he employs during the climbing season. Many of them are Sherpas whose guiding skill has helped to build Nepal into a global trekking destination – but like Mr. Paudel, they now face the uncertainty of not knowing how long their industry will take to recover.
Like the country they live in, life for Nepal's Sherpas has been deeply affected by the earthquake.
"I have to start all over again," Mr. Paudel said in a phone interview. "Everything is gone."
This Everest climbing season is the first to go. The route has been damaged, and numerous ladders on the Khumbu Icefall will need to be repaired before climbing can resume. The Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee that normally maintains the icefall lost two people in the earthquake, and repair work has been stymied by further avalanches, as unstable mountains let loose throughout the week.
Many teams have already cancelled Everest expeditions.
It's not clear how long it will take to fix the icefall – some outfitters said it could be 20 days; others two or three, if conditions are good. It doesn't matter to Mr. Paudel. "For me, the expeditions are over" for this season, he said. Even if he wanted to bring more people up, he no longer has any gear. "We lost everything at base camp. We don't have so much as a spoon left," he said.
Home to eight of the world's highest peaks and the heart-stopping vistas they create, Nepal has leaned heavily on its natural endowments to pull itself out of poverty. Tourism directly and indirectly now accounts for 8.2 per cent of its economy – the fifth highest proportion of any economy in the world and 7 per cent of its employment. Nepal's tourism industry is growing more rapidly than any other country's. Apart from remittances sent home by workers abroad, tourism is the country's top source of foreign currency.
But the foundations of that industry have been wrecked by the earthquake alongside its villages and roads. People pay to come see a pretty country. They're less likely to circle the globe to gaze at rubble.
"Twenty-five to 35 per cent of the country is totally destroyed. I don't think any client wants to come see this," said Rishi Bhandari, managing director of Snowy Horizon Treks and Expeditions, an Everest outfitter.
"Tourism has been set back 20 years. We have been trying to develop the country and build our economy with the tourism industry. But it is totally destroyed."
For tour operators, 2015 was already a critical year. In 2014, another avalanche killed 16 guides and damaged the climbing season. Thirteen of those killed were Sherpas, a group that is a Nepali caste. Before the earthquake struck last week, many of the groups that missed Everest hikes had returned; the Nepal government issued 30 per cent more Everest permits this year than last.
This was also an important year for the mountain guides, who won a number of concessions from the Nepali government after the deaths last year. Insurance was raised to $15,000 (U.S.), and the government created both a family relief fund and a pledge to pay for children of killed guides to complete a high school education.
The guides' demands were not entirely met – they want the insurance raised to $20,000, for example, and have asked for more helicopter support to lift loads around the most dangerous sections – but most went into this climbing season feeling like things had changed for the better.
"It's still not sufficient. But they are making progress," said one guide, Dorjee Lama Sherpa.
The earthquake deaths have not brought new calls by the Sherpas for better treatment. "All of Nepal has experienced tragedy. The tragedy on the mountain is small in comparison," said Pasang Sherpa, who has climbed to the summit of Everest seven times and is a mountain guide instructor.
With hikes and climbs cancelled – one outfitter said 80 to 90 per cent of people have abandoned their plans – dozens of mountain guides have offered their help in rescue efforts, using climbing skills and experience with helicopter long lines to help search in rubble and bring aid to remote villages.
Eventually, though, they expect to be back on the hills. The deaths on Everest and in other mountain parks were "very sad. But as climbers, we know our life is a risky one. Nobody knows when death will come," said Pasang Sherpa. And so they keep on.
Some are hoping to resume work earlier than others. Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, is among a small group of outfitters who decided this week to resume Everest hikes as soon as possible, if the trail can be repaired on time. He hopes that will happen in a few days' time. "Why should we abandon it?" he said. As an icon, Everest attracts undue attention, he argued: 17 is a high death toll, but not next to the thousands killed country-wide by the earthquake. Besides, "most of the mountain guides want to climb," he said.
A small but dedicated group of trekkers wants the same.
In Kathmandu this week, Elena Kim and Carmen Bona had decided to press on with their trek to Everest Base Camp. Ms. Kim had quit her job to leave on a three-month trip. Ms. Bona had taken a leave of absence. Both women, who live in California, were determined not to let the earthquake stand in their way. "We're more stubborn than anything," said Ms. Bona.
They admitted to selfish motivations – they wanted to see what they flew around the world to see. But they also questioned those piling onto Internet forums to discuss cancelling their Nepal trips. Some recommended avoiding the country until late in the year.
"If you start cancelling all your plans between now and November, the whole region is going to collapse," Ms. Bona said. "Because the whole Himalayas lives on tourism."