'Like being shaken in a snow globe'

KATHMANDU - Ms Ada Tsang remembers the ground shaking and then trying to zip up a tent flap before the roaring ocean of snow overtook her. Ice and rocks flew into her face and the teacher from Hong Kong was slammed to the ground, unconscious.

"Everyone just yelled 'Run! Run!'," she recalled from a Kathmandu hospital, her face cut and swollen and her head bandaged. "Eventually it caught up and hit everyone."

When she awoke, she saw bodies strewn around Mount Everest, just some of the victims claimed by last Saturday's earthquake.

For the second consecutive year, fatal natural disasters struck Mount Everest, hitting one of the most important revenue sources in Nepal, Asia's second-poorest country.

IHS, a consulting firm, says rebuilding costs could "easily exceed" US$5 billion (S$6.6 billion). That is about one-fifth of the annual output of the mostly agrarian economy, which depends on tourism and remittances for foreign exchange.

Websites for United States expedition companies advertise group trips to the summit with Western and Nepalese guides exceeding US$50,000 per person, and more than twice that for ascents with a personal Western guide. For a sherpa, the job pays a salary of up to 700,000 Nepalese rupees (S$9,200), said Mr Bhim Paudel, an operations manager for a trekking company in Kathmandu. That is about US$6,900 in a nation where the World Bank pegs per capita income at US$750.

"People go to Everest knowing there are risks... associated with mountaineering at very high altitudes," said Mr Tom Briggs, marketing director for Britain-based Jagged Globe, which leads groups to Everest. "But they don't go to Everest thinking they might be caught in an earthquake."

Estimates vary for how many people were on Everest when the shaking earth triggered the avalanche. Mr Paudel said there were about 1,000 at the time, of whom 400 were climbers and the rest porters and sherpas. Mr Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, a group that promotes tourism, put the total at 800.

On Monday, a group of light helicopters was able to dart up to a higher-altitude camp and ferry most of the 180 stranded hikers down to the base camp. An icy stretch between the camps known as the Khumbu Icefall had been rendered impassable.

The earthquake was described in a blog post by a guide working for US-based Rainier Mountaineering, who was at a camp at another mountain in Nepal, as feeling "as if we were inside a snow globe being shaken by God".

Mr Briggs said he "can't imagine" that tours will continue this season. "It's difficult to think ahead to potential future Everest expeditions," he said. A Google executive, Mr Dan Fredinburg, who travelled to Everest with Jagged Globe, was among the dead.

As Ms Tsang recalled the noise and the pain of her world turning upside down, she sat near a makeshift ward of mattresses on the ground at Swacon International Hospital in the capital. Some patients refused to go inside for fear of another earthquake.

As for Mount Everest, she said: "No one's going back up after what's happened."

BLOOMBERG