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World

First Climbers Reach Mount Everest Summit Since Deadly Avalanches

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For the first time in two years, climbers have reached the summit of Mount Everest. In 2014, an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas, the local guides who often take the biggest risks on the mountain.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Then last year, an earthquake struck the region, killing thousands. Professional mountain climber Dave Hahn was camped at the perilous Khumbu Icefall between two cliffs.

DAVE HAHN: It was terrifying because you had to assume that things were going to fall off the walls on either side of us. And even before the earth quit shaking, you could already start to hear rock and ice roaring down the sides of the mountains all around us.

SHAPIRO: Hahn got out safely. Speaking from his home in New Mexico, he says he'll go back to Everest eventually, but he won't be there this year.

SIEGEL: Jamling Tenzing Norgay, who climbed Everest back in 1996 and whose father famously reached the summit with Sir Edmund Hillary 1953, is at Everest. Mr. Tenzing, the first Sherpas to climb the mountains since the natural disasters of the past two years reached the summit yesterday. Is it customary for Sherpa guides to go up ahead of other climbing groups?

JAMLING TENZING NORGAY: Yes. Actually it was a great moment yesterday because after two years of no climb on Mount Everest, nine Sherpas reached the summit. And it is customary for Sherpas to climb the mountain before any other clients or, you know, any other members because they are the ones who go up and set the root. They basically fix the ropes and fix the lines all the way to the top, hence, you know, getting them to the top first.

SIEGEL: And how would you describe conditions in the Everest area now?

NORGAY: Well, conditions are good this year. You know, we just had a light earthquake yesterday at about 8:30 p.m. in the evening, but the treacherous Khumbu Icefall is a lot more safer this year. The Icefall Doctors who maintain the Icefall with all the ladders and the ropes - they've taken a little slightly more longer route but away from the avalanche dangers.

SIEGEL: Well, what are your thoughts about the reopening of the mountain to climbers?

NORGAY: Well, I think, you know, two years, there was no climbing on Everest, which was good in a way that, you know, Everest needed a rest, you know, from people climbing it all the time. But I believe that reopening the mountain is good. It's good for the economy, good for the Sherpas to have work. But moreover, I think it should be limited to the number of people that climb on the mountain for safety reasons.

SIEGEL: Did the earthquake change the way that you view Everest or the climbing industry that's grown up around it?

NORGAY: You know, we never know when earthquake's going to happen, so we cannot wait for the next earthquake to come. The least that we can do is to protect ourselves and to be safe on the mountain. Never - you never take the mountain for granted at all.

SIEGEL: Your brother Norbu Tenzing has called for reform from the exploitation of Sherpa guides and also the mountain environment. He said give Everest a break. You say it's had a break. Are you more moderate in your demands than your brother?

NORGAY: No, I think it has had a break but not for the Sherpas. They need to get paid a lot more because of the risk they put their lives in on the mountain, and the insurance needs to be bumped up a little bit higher more than what is now.

And I think the bottom line is that the government should put in a certain amount of money that they collect from the royalties, which is almost about $3.5 million per season and if they can put us - little amount in opening a fund so that they can support the family and the children of the Sherpas who die on the mountain.

SIEGEL: It seems from what you are saying that there has to be a balance between the working conditions for the Sherpas and the environment of the mountain and, on the other hand, the need for revenue from the climbing business. Do you think the government is getting that balance about right, or is it not right yet?

NORGAY: Well, I don't think it's right yet. I think the government has not set up the fund - you know, the trust fund for the Sherpas yet. And I hope they do, you know, it soon.

SIEGEL: Does the experience of the earthquake which adds a dimension of danger to this remarkable feat that people attempt to climb Everest - does it change the whole notion of going up Everest, or is it still the same challenge?

NORGAY: Well, yeah. Now I think people are more afraid, you know, because they feel that, you know, earthquakes can happen anytime, and some people are afraid to go back. I know quite a few of the Sherpas that are not climbing this year who have been coming for many years. They say that, you know, this year maybe it might be the third year that, you know, something bad is going to happen on Everest. But you cannot predict what nature's going to do.

SIEGEL: Well, Jamling Tenzing Norgay, thank you very much for talking with us today.

NORGAY: OK. Thank you so much for having me.

SIEGEL: Jamling Tenzing Norgay spoke to us from the Everest area in Nepal via Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.