NAMCHE BAZAAR, Nepal — Eleven thousand feet above sea level, Jules Mountain, 49, a British investor, proposed a toast.

“To the summit,” he said, raising a pint at Cafe Danphe Bar, a popular gathering spot here along the trek to Everest’s South Base Camp. Christof Deblauwe, 36, a Belgian salesman, joined in with a cup of tea.

“It’s going to be a good year,” said Mr. Deblauwe, who was back to make a third attempt to climb Everest, after his last expedition was canceled in 2014. Mr. Mountain added: “If it’s not a good year, things are going to be dire.”

As climbing teams made sorties up Everest’s lower slopes in April, a network of guides, Sherpas and mountaineers offered anxious predictions for the spring season. After two years of tragedy, a drop in climbing numbers this year and a confluence of safety concerns, much is at stake.

In April 2014, an avalanche on the south side of the mountain killed 16 Nepalese passing through the Khumbu Icefall, a stretch of ice towers strung with ropes and ladders. Then, last April, a series of earthquakeskilled nearly 9,000 people, including at least 18 at South Base Camp.

In response to both events, climbing expeditions were canceled. Last year, for the first time since 1974, not a single climber reached the summit of Everest.

Climbing agencies have taken an upbeat tone this year, noting that numbers typically rebound after major disasters. But in Namche Bazaar, the drop in demand is appreciable, with around 290 climbers attempting Everest’s south side ascent so far this spring, down from 357 in the same time period in 2015, according to Nepal’s Department of Tourism.

The Sherpas who often serve as high-altitude guides complain of fewer tourists, fewer jobs and fewer choices. Many lodges, once chronically crammed, now run under capacity. Western climbing agencies, typically well represented on Everest, have struggled to fill teams. Some have offered discounts for returning climbers, while others have canceled teams entirely.

The vacuum has been filled by lower-cost Nepalese operators. In a recent dispatch from Base Camp, Alan Arnette, an American climbing specialist, said he could not recognize many of the names written across expedition tents.

“I have been predicting that the locals would take over Everest and based on this walk thru, the transition is well underway, given that many longtime Western operators have half their usual clients and some are not here at all,” Mr. Arnette wrote on his popularmountaineering blog.

As the unofficial capital of Nepal’s Khumbu region, which has three of the world’s 10 tallest mountains, Namche Bazaar offers a range of travel experiences: from budget rooms partitioned with plywood to a secluded Japanese resort where, on a clear day, guests have majestic views of Everest. Here, lodges promise Finnish saunas and organic coffee sold for Western prices. Across a steep hillside, for a couple of dollars, visitors can enter a Buddhist monastery housing what local residents say is the skull of a yeti.

Photo

A Nepalese builder on a construction site at a mountain viewing point on the outskirts of Namche Bazaar. CreditKarin Laub/Associated Press

Mr. Mountain, the British property investor, said the choice to shift to a lower-cost Nepalese agency was an easy one. After losing the $65,000 he paid in 2015 for a Western-led expedition that was canceled and not refunded, Mr. Mountain has decided instead to climb with a Nepalese agency that typically charges $35,000. He said he was prepared to forgo some of the comforts included in the more expensive package.

“I was offered Jacuzzis and swimming pools and saunas,” he said. “It was all about the money last year.”

Mr. Deblauwe, the Belgian salesman, was also turned away from Everest in 2014 when the expedition he had paid $50,000 for was canceled after the avalanche along the Khumbu Icefall. Only $800 was refunded. The experience, he said, was so frustrating that he opted for a cheaper Nepalese agency this season. Nepalese agencies, he said, “are getting a better reputation.”

“Everest is becoming more accessible, so that’s a good thing,” he said. “That’s good for tourism here.”

But foreign expedition companies warn that the lower cost may entail higher risks. Phil Crampton, the owner of Altitude Junkies in Woodstock, N.Y., who is leading an expedition this year, said in an email that local agencies paid lower wages to their climbing Sherpas and that their guides were less experienced. Climbers who worry about safety, he said, “will go with a foreign expedition company.”

Billi Bierling, 48, a mountaineer and journalist in Kathmandu, said she believed that paying for a Western guide was a worthwhile investment.

“We have all seen people on the mountain that shouldn’t be there,” she said. “At the end of the day, people want to save money. Often, they don’t know, the inexperienced person doesn’t know, how much things cost.”

Among the nagging worries this year is damage to the Khumbu Icefall route, which was battered by last year’s earthquakes and is often cited as the most dangerous stretch of Everest’s southern ascent.

Preliminary assessments of the icefall are encouraging. But Sherpas working along the mountain said these forecasts had done little to quell the fears of their families. Sherpas typically earn $3,000 to $5,000 a season, which lasts from late April through May, and put themselves at great risk for their clients.

“Everybody is nervous,” said Ang Sandu Sherpa, 41, who has guided climbers for nearly two decades and returned to Everest this year.

Every morning, his wife, Lhakpa Yangji Sherpa, 37, burns pieces of rhododendron bush as puja, or a religious offering, to keep him safe.

“I tell him every year not to climb,” Ms. Sherpa said, adding that she allowed him to continue so they could afford to educate their four children. “But now the children are young, and they need to go to school.”

If they finish school, she said, they could emigrate to the United States.

“Everybody in the industry is hoping for a smooth year,” said Dawa Steven Sherpa, the managing director of Asian Trekking, a Nepalese-owned agency sending 15 people to climb Everest this season. “It’s a lot of pressure on the government, a lot of pressure on the associations, on the expedition organizers, on the Sherpas.”

via NYT