Early on April 18, giant chunks of ice swept down a treacherous section of Mount Everest known as the Khumbu Icefall, claiming 16 lives in the single deadliest accident on the world’s highest peak. All of the dead were Sherpas, members of the Nepalese mountain community that guides, cooks, hauls gear and sets ropes for foreign climbers. For three months’ work, they earn about $6,000–nine times the average annual wage in Nepal but about one-tenth of what a foreign climber typically pays companies that manage expeditions and employ the Sherpas.
After the tragedy, the Sherpas refused to work unless the government agreed to a list of demands, including guaranteed pay even if the climbing season is canceled. When their demands weren’t met, the Sherpas left the mountain, and the 334 climbers hoping to scale it had to abandon their plans.
Here’s a look at the economics–and the perils–of climbing Everest.
[The following text appears within a map. Please see your hard copy for actual map.]
[The following text appears within a diagram. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual diagram.]
Climber success rates by year
Nepal is home to eight of the world’s 14 highest peaks. Tourism accounts for 4.3% of Nepal’s GDP.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first reached the summit in 1953.
An ice collapse killed six Sherpas carrying loads for a Japanese team in the same area as a recent avalanche.
Eight climbers perished after a massive storm in 1996. All died from exposure except for one, who likely fell.
Through May 5
In 2010, at age 13, Jordan Romero became the youngest person to reach the top. Yuichiro Miura, 80, became the oldest three years later.
Top causes of death
Sherpas, though genetically adapted to high altitudes, are nonetheless more susceptible to natural disasters because they spend more time in dangerous terrain than foreign climbers.
What a typical expedition costs a foreign climber
Airfare, hotels and other transit
Gear, oxygen and food
Permits, fees and deposits
Local companies providing guides
Hired Sherpas make an average of $6,000 per season. The salary varies based on job and experience.
CAMP STAFF $1,000
Run errands, help the cooks and clean camps
Carry gear and supplies; salary increases with number of trips
Organize expeditions and accompany foreign climbers
Top of the world
At the summit, climbers breathe about 70% less oxygen than they do at sea level, which is like breathing through a straw.
BOEING 747 CRUISING ALTITUDE
(Tallest man-made structure)
EMPIRE STATE BUILDING
SOURCES: HIMALAYAN DATABASE; THE HIMALAYA BY THE NUMBERS; WORLD TRAVEL & TOURISM COUNCIL; REUTERS; HIMALAYAN RESCUE ASSOCIATION; NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
This appears in the May 19, 2014 issue of TIME.