RICHLAND -- A Richland man who has summited Mount Everest 17 times might never again look out from the mountain's peak.
"This is my last," Ang Dorjee Sherpa told the Herald by cellphone in Nepal this week. "I'm finished."
In the past, he's said climbing the world's highest mountain is routine for him but also a gamble.
He has returned to his native Nepal for years to help climbers summit the 29,035-foot Everest despite the dangers and, as recently as last year, planned to continue for another three or four.
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But this month's avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas, including three from Ang Dorjee's own crew, has led him to question if he'll try again.
The avalanche has strained relations between expedition companies, Nepal's government and the Sherpas, an ethnic group renowned for their mountain climbing skills.
They've criticized the lack of support for the families of the dead and the government's tight control of the business brought in by the expensive expeditions.
The Sherpas have since declared they would not climb Everest this season, canceling most expeditions.
Ang Dorjee remains near Everest to help his company's clients off the mountain and to pack up base camp. He could be back to the Tri-Cities as early as June.
"It's hard to tell what's going to happen," Ang Dorjee said. "Right now, at this moment, nobody wants to go back."
His wife, Michelle Gregory, said while she wouldn't be disappointed if he never climbed Everest again, she admitted he has a lot to consider.
"He has to quit sometime," she told the Herald. "I just don't want him to be rash."
Legend among Sherpas
Ang Dorjee, 44, first summited Everest in 1992 when he began working for Adventure Consultants, a New Zealand-based company.
He met Gregory, a research scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, while she was doing research at the Everest base camp in 2002.
He spends most of the year in Richland with her and their kids, Karma, 8, and Tashi, 10, working as a wind turbine mechanic.
In the mountaineering community, Ang Dorjee is a legend for guiding expeditions in his native Nepal, as well as in Pakistan, Europe and South America.
For years, he's returned to Nepal in mid-March and stayed until early June to aid climbers up the infamous peak.
The Sherpas killed April 18 were on Everest, preparing for this season's climb. Gregory was out of town when she heard about the disaster. She quickly called Adventure Consultants, who relayed that Ang Dorjee was safe at base camp.
"He was distraught and devastated," Gregory said of their first phone call. Ang Dorjee spoke then of not returning to climbing.
Now the cancellation of this year's expeditions is putting climbing companies under immense pressure. Customers have paid $100,000 just for a team permit to climb Everest, in addition to the tens of thousands of dollars spent on travel, guides and equipment.
"Clients are not happy," Gregory said. "It's been a really tense situation at base camp."
Not the first disaster
Death on the mountain is not new. Ang Dorjee was on Everest during the 1996 disaster when eight climbers in other groups were killed in a single day. Author Jon Krakauer later wrote the best-selling book Into Thin Air about the tragedy, and Ang Dorjee was featured in it.
Nine people, including four Sherpas, were killed on Everest during the 2013 climbing season when Ang Dorjee helped 12 climbers summit the mountain.
But the avalanche is now the single deadliest incident on Everest.
The fact that they were all Sherpas, all friends, led Ang Dorjee to question for the first time since reaching the top of Everest more than 20 years ago why he should continue doing it, he said.
"I have two little kids at home," he told the Herald. "This is telling me to stop."
And it's too soon to say how the avalanche and concerns of the other Sherpas will change future expeditions, Ang Dorjee and Gregory said.
Many Sherpas depend on the income, which can be as much as $6,000 for the best guides. That's far above the $700 national average salary in the small, mountainous country, reported The Associated Press.
The government doesn't fully share the wealth the climbing expeditions bring in, and the death of a guide can leave his family without any financial support. Gregory said there is no concept of insurance in Nepal.
The government initially promised to pay the families of the latest victims 40,000 rupees each, or about $413, but more recently agreed to set up a relief fund and make other concessions, the AP said.
As for Ang Dorjee, never returning to Everest is a big decision, Gregory said.
It's part of his identity and she has urged him to take some time to think about it. He'll likely seek guidance on the matter from his relatives and others while still in Nepal, she said.
It would also be a change for his Richland family.
Ang Dorjee has been absent for every Easter and Mother's Day.
This week his son Tashi was wearing one of his father's previous expedition T-shirts as he played with a slinky. His father would probably miss the mountain, Tashi agreed.
What about the prospect of having him home every spring?
"I'm glad," Tashi said.