KATHMANDU, Nepal — The third time Dutch climber Eric Arnold tried and failed to reach the summit of Mount Everest, he was nearly killed by a thundering wall of snow, rock and ice unleashed by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal last year. The avalanche that coursed through Everest Base Camp sent him sprawling, choking on snow but alive. Eighteen others were not so lucky.
Now Arnold, 36, is among 100 or so climbers returning to Nepal after surviving the worst disaster in Everest's modern history, determined to tackle the sacred mountain once again. Dozens are making their way to base camp, with the first trips through the mountain's treacherous Khumbu icefall expected to begin within days.
Arnold knows the odds of success. Four years ago, bad weather forced him to turn back mere yards from the summit. Two years ago, he tried again, but the climbing season was canceled after 16 Nepali guides were crushed to death by falling ice. Then, last April 25, came the earthquake that left 8,000 dead across the country. The deadly avalanche it spawned on Everest might have prompted others to give up their quest to climb the mountain, but not Arnold.
“I didn’t decide immediately to go back. I waited until my emotions were more stable,” Arnold said. “But Mount Everest is my big childhood dream.”
Nepali and Western guide companies and climbers say that this season is likely to be one of the quietest in recent memory on Everest: According to Nepal’s tourism department, 279 climbers have official permits so far, the lowest number since 2011. While not unexpected, it’s still a blow to a struggling economy in a country where tourism is the biggest industry and Everest’s gleaming peak is the magnetic draw.
“I think a lot of people are taking a year off, waiting and seeing what happens,” said Adrian Ballinger, an earthquake survivor and longtime guide. “I still see a huge amount of interest in Everest. The fact that there are risks in climbing Everest is part of its allure.”
These survivors are returning to a Himayalan land scarred not just by the April 25 temblor but by a devastating aftershock May 12.
Ruined houses dot the landscape, business is slow in the teahouses, and hundreds of thousands of residents are still displaced, waiting for government funds to rebuild. To make matters worse, a political furor over Nepal’s newly drafted constitution sparked a six-month border blockade by a tribal community in the country’s lowlands that resulted in gas and cooking-oil shortages.
“Last year was a very dark year,” said Ananda Prasad Pokharel, Nepal’s minister for culture, tourism and civil aviation. “Now we are waiting for a fresh start for the country.”
After months of partisan bickering, Nepal established a National Reconstruction Authority in December. But the authority has disbursed little of the cash it has on hand after receiving $4 billion in pledges from various donors last year. Only a few hundred in the hard-hit Dolakha district have received any of the nearly $1,900 the government has promised victims to build earthquake-resistant homes.
"At this pace, it will take decades to complete reconstruction," the country's prime minister, Khadga Prasad Oli, griped at an event in Kathmandu on March 30, though he serves as head of the authority's steering and advisory committees. Pokharel blamed the delay on red tape and bureaucratic demands by foreign donors.
Tourism officials say they see signs of life returning to the business, which saw a 32 percent drop in visitors last year.
Hotel occupancies, while still down, have risen to between 50 and 55 percent. Private donors are helping rebuild ancient heritage sites such as the Durbar Square in Patan, where carvers are painstakingly re-creating wooden cornices for the collapsed temples of Nepali kings.
Reviving Nepal’s mountaineering trade is crucial to stabilizing the economy, tourism officials say. Nepal’s main climbing season brought in $26 million in 2012, according to Ang Tshering Sherpa, head of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, with trips to Everest contributing nearly half that.
Yet the Everest tragedies in 2014 and 2015 played out against a backdrop of rising concern over conditions on the mountain. A growing number of climbers and new expedition businesses have left a trail of environmental devastation in their wake. Further, a recent report estimated that global warming could shrink Everest's glaciers 70 percent by the end of the century.
The 2014 avalanche also exposed long-simmering resentment over the economic disparities between foreign clients and the local guides from the ethnic Sherpa community, who have demanded better insurance and safety measures.
Sherpas make between $5, 000 and $12,000 for their work, depending on experience and skill level, Ang Tshering Sherpa said, while some foreign climbers can shell out up to $100,000 for a package including airfare and gear.
Ballinger, founder of the California-based Alpenglow Expeditions, decided after 2014 to leave the Nepal side of the mountain and work on the northern face in Tibet, because he feels the conditions on the Nepal side are too dangerous.
“I think the risk is there, and it’s very clear,” he said, noting that 43 high-altitude workers have died on the south side of Everest since 2000.
Before he left for base camp this year, mountain guide Nawang Tenzing Sherpa, 55, sought spiritual guidance from the head lama at one of Kathmandu’s Buddhist monasteries, Seto Gumba. He normally asks for a blessing, but this year he was a bit more anxious, he said, adding that the memory of being trapped at a camp on the side of the mountain after the avalanche still haunts him. He and his team were eventually rescued by helicopter.
“I asked, ‘Should I go to Everest or not?’ ” he recalled. The lama tapped him on the head with his prayer book and said yes. “This time you’ll have good luck,” the holy man said.
Some 42 teams from countries such as Iran, Japan, Australia and India began making their way up to base camp in recent days, hiking along the well-worn route, mingling with yak trains tinkling with tiny bells, ascending through pine groves to colder, more-barren terrain.
At base camp, as many 1,500 climbers, cooks, medical assistants, guides and other staff gather each season. The rubble of broken tent posts and ripped backpacks left by the avalanche has long since been cleared, with shiny new tents erected in their place.
“There is a quiet apprehension around camp,” longtime Everest chronicler Alan Arnette wrote in his blog when he arrived April 10. During conversations, eyes tend to linger on the hanging columns of glacial ice on nearby peaks, he said.
And climbers say everybody is wondering about conditions at the 29,029-foot summit, untouched now for more than a year.
Arnold, back for his fourth attempt, just hopes there are no more calamities.
“A lot of people say, ‘Maybe it’s not your turn, maybe it’s not your fate, maybe the mountain is telling you not to climb it,’ ” he said. “But I still have a passion for it. When I realized that, I decided I have to go back.”