KATHMANDU • After 17 years of helping climbers reach the roof of the world, Argentinian Damian Benegas will not be returning to Mount Everest this year, frozen out of the business by cheaper - and some say dangerous - operators.
"It's impossible to convince clients to pay us US$65,000 (S$87,000) for an expedition when there are guys offering trips for US$28,000 or less," said the respected guide.
Western veterans accuse some of the new operators of endangering lives by recruiting untrained Sherpas and by accepting clients with little mountaineering experience.
After the first summit in 1953 by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Edmund Hillary, Everest was dominated for decades by Western expedition companies offering climbers a chance to fulfil their dream of scaling the 8,850m-high peak for US$45,000 to US$79,000.
As the industry grew, Sherpas, an ethnic group thought to be of Tibetan origin and known for their climbing skills, became indispensable as guides and porters. But over the last five years, local climbing firms, many run by former guides and porters, have shaken up Nepal's mountaineering market, offering cheaper, no-frills expeditions.
Mr Dawa Steven Sherpa, managing director of local firm Asian Trekking, among the oldest operators there, said he is increasingly worried. "The combination of untrained Sherpas and inexperienced climbers is a lethal cocktail but, luckily, there are better-equipped companies to rally around in case of accidents," he said.
Nepal tourism department chief Sudarshan Prasad Dhakal said the government is unaware of such concerns, while some locals said it is just sour grapes on the part of the Westerners, after having earned large sums on Everest for years.
For Mr Benegas, who has led many rescue efforts on Everest over the years, the situation is grim.
"This is their country, their mountain - they have a right to do what they want, but we need to be honest about the cost," he said.