By Gopal Sharma and John Chalmers
KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal's government agreed on Tuesday to compensation demands for Mount Everest sherpas, after the single deadliest avalanche on the world's highest mountain killed at least 13 guides.
Expedition leaders said tension was running high at Everest base camp after last Friday's incident, which has rekindled debate on the disproportionate risks that sherpas take helping foreign mountaineers reach the 8,850-metre summit.
Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, told Reuters that although some sherpas had proposed suspending work for the rest of this climbing season, they had now agreed to resume expeditions on Saturday.
However, an American climber at base camp said the sherpas had voted to head down and were packing up.
"The ice doctors who set the routes say the current route is too dangerous and there are no alternative routes," said Ed Marzec in an email passed on by a colleague, Daniel Beer, who is overseeing communications for him.
"In addition, the famous Lama Geshe told his people that they should not go to the summit because more will die," Marzec added, referring to the revered Buddhist guru who gives his blessing to Everest climbers.
Several expeditions have already been called off, including a Discovery Channel climb to launch a stunt man from the summit in a wing suit.
The government said the minimum insurance cover for sherpas on Everest would be raised by 50 percent to about $15,000 and it would establish a relief fund for the welfare of bereaved families and also pay for the education of their children.
"We will also take steps to prevent such incidents in the future," Tourism Minister Bhim Acharya told Reuters.
In addition to the 13 sherpas killed on the Khumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous parts of the climb to Everest, three are missing and at least three more are being treated for serious injuries in the capital Kathmandu.
The men were trying to fix ropes and crack snow and ice to carve out a route for foreign climbers through the icefall, located not far above Everest Base Camp, when they were caught in the avalanche.
The government initially announced an immediate payment of $400 to the victims' families to cover funeral costs.
After a meeting at base camp on Sunday, sherpas with 31 expeditions demanded $10,000 in compensation for the families of victims and a doubling of insurance cover for climbs, and they agreed to launch protests if their demands were not met.
Until now there has been no provision for government compensation for sherpas hired by international expeditions to carry gear, and in the past these groups have provided financial assistance on their own in the case of accidents.
Five of 40 sherpas in an expedition organized by hiking group Alpine Ascents were killed in the avalanche.
"It's horrible," said Vern Tejas, a 61-year-old senior guide for the Seattle-based firm who has summited Everest 10 times. "Some of these guys I have been working with for 10-15 years."
He said sherpas expose themselves to far more risk than their clients, moving many times up and down the fragile icefall ferrying loads and fixing lines.
Guiding foreign climbers is the main livelihood for sherpas, helping them make up to $7,000 - and some even more - each year in a country with an average annual income of just over $700.
(Editing by Mike Collett-White)