KATMANDU, Nepal – Cheddar Sherpa has scaled Mount Everest seven times while guiding Western climbers to the top of the world. He has narrowly escaped three avalanches and seen a dozen of his friends perish on the icy Himalayan slopes.
But an avalanche in April that swept 16 Sherpas to their deaths — the deadliest climbing accident on Everest — has shaken him. He's decided that the dangers of his job outweigh the financial benefits.
"I am 48 years old now and I thought I had least another five years of climbing left in me," Cheddar said. "But after the avalanche, I don't think I want to ever go back." He is not sure what he will do for a living now.
The April 18 disaster on the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, where a group of Sherpas were carrying clients' equipment up the mountain before the peak climbing season, has accelerated an exodus of Sherpas from the mountain-climbing business. The younger generation has become more educated and many are moving away to less grueling jobs in the capital Kathmandu or outside Nepal. Thousands have migrated to the United States and Europe.
"It used to be that almost every family had at least a few members who worked for mountaineering teams in the past but now things have changed. There are less numbers of Sherpa who are continuing the mountaineering tradition," said Ang Tshering, of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.
Since the April tragedy, which briefly led to a boycott by Sherpa guides, many have told Tshering they want to quit because of pressure from families worried about their safety.
But even before the accident, Sherpas — an ethnic group that many also use as a last name — have been drifting away from mountain work. Cheddar, for example, forbade his four sons from becoming guides and instead insisted they go to college. One is now an engineer.
"These people do not want their children to face the hardship they faced in mountaineering and hope to get them into better professions which are easier and safer," Tshering said.
Once yak herders and potato farmers in remote Himalayan villages, Sherpas began helping foreign climbers scale Nepal's peaks since the country opened up to Westerners in 1950.
One of the big draws of the job is its relatively good pay. In a country where the average annual income is just $700, a high-altitude Sherpa guide can make $7,000 during the three-month climbing season. Foreign climbers can pay $100,000 for a chance to summit Mount Everest.
Sherpas face enormous dangers to facilitate these high-paying visitors. They are first up the mountain. They break the snow, lay the ropes used by the climbers and carry the heaviest loads.
Beyond the brutal cold and lack of oxygen at higher elevations, they face the risk of avalanches and altitude sickness.
As their incomes have risen, many Sherpa families have left their rural homes, hoping for a more comfortable lifestyle in the city or abroad.
"I never wanted to become a mountaineer. I would probably die from altitude sickness if I even tried," said Karma Gyalzen, a 26-year-old Sherpa who works at a supermarket in Katmandu's tourist district.
While there are no estimates of how many Sherpas have left mountain-climbing jobs, census numbers show that the Sherpa population in Nepal has declined from 154,622 in 2001 to 112,946 in 2011. Those figures are disputed by Sherpas who say census officials did not reach all the villages and previously counted Sherpas as other ethnic groups.
Wealthier families have sent their children to foreign universities. In New York City alone, some 4,000 Sherpas work in restaurants, offices and driving taxis, according to Ang Chhiring of the New York-based United Sherpa Association.
"The number of Sherpas migrating to foreign countries has swollen in the recent years," said Bal Bahadur K.C., a lawmaker from Solukhumbu, a district where many Sherpas live.
The dwindling number involved in mountain-climbing has opened the way for other ethnic groups such as the Tamangs and Gurungs, many of them very poor, to take jobs as high altitude guides. Three of those killed in the April avalanche were not Sherpas.
Yet because of the trust and name recognition that Sherpas have earned over the decades, some members of other ethnic groups describe their jobs as "sherpas."
"For decades it was only the Sherpas who worked on the mountains," said Bishnu Gurung, 46, who has scaled Everest twice. "It has been only a few years since some of us from other ethnic groups have been able get a chance to guide mountaineers because there are not enough Sherpas now to meet the demand."