By Frank Jack Daniel and Andrew R.C. Marshall
LUKLA, Nepal/KATHMANDU (Reuters) - As rescuers lose hope of finding more survivors in Nepal's earthquake disaster zone, a separate drama has unfolded high above them on Mount Everest where the hopes of a few rich climbers and some of their sherpas have also vanished.
After six days of high emotion and harsh words at Everest Base Camp, climbing firm Himalayan Experience finally decided on Friday to abandon its ascent of the world's highest peak, becoming the last big team to do so.
For one of its clients, millionaire Texas realtor David McGrain, it should never have taken that long to call off the climb, given thousands of people had been killed in the valleys below as well as 18 in an avalanche at base camp itself.
"The narcissism among some of my team mates made me want to vomit," McGrain said after leaving the camp by helicopter for the town of Lukla on Wednesday.
"All they could think about was their goddamn climb, when hours before we were holding crushed skulls in our hands."
McGrain, a former weightlifter and self-styled "adrenaline philanthropist" who has a tattooed chest and wears a gold nose-ring, was in a minority of one when he quit his party of at least 10 climbers, all clients of Himalayan Experience.
Another climber, Nick Cienski, speaking from the ruins of base camp where he helped recover bodies and gather the broken remains of victims, initially agonized over whether to give up.
"We are still sorting through a lot of emotions; 24 hours ago we were wrapping people's body parts in bags," said Cienski, who later vowed to help in the quake relief effort.
"So on the one hand (there is) the reality of that ... and on the second hand, we are climbers and this is sort of what we do. And so, does it make sense to continue?"
It is a question that also haunted Everest veteran Russell Brice, who runs Himalayan Experience. He made the decision to quit and bring the rest of his group off the mountain.
"My (team) members are very angry with me," Brice said in Kathmandu, the impoverished country's crowded capital where a quarter of the quake's 6,200 victims were killed by the 7.8 magnitude quake that hit on Saturday.
"But I've made the decision to cancel and they're going to have to live with that."
Brice, 63, a stocky, weather-beaten New Zealander, changed his mind after being stung by suggestions that he was putting the interests of his business, some of his climbers and the vanity of summiteering above all else.
"Today all I had was hate mail," Brice said on Thursday, before he called off the climb.
"'You don't care for the people. You have no heart for the Nepalese people.' That hurts me a lot," he added. "Because I've been working with Nepalese for years and years ... I've injected millions of dollars into the Nepalese community."
Nepal's tourism department said on Thursday that climbers faced "no additional risk" after the quake and could resume their expeditions.
Brice agreed that had his decision been based on climber safety alone, an ascent would have been possible.
"Physically, our team could still continue and get there," he said on Friday.
Dennis Broadwell, who owns the U.S. company Mountain Gurus, also canceled his firm's Everest climb.
"If this happened in America, they would not be playing a ball game the next day," he said. "I told my clients, this is a national disaster, these sherpas just want to go back to their families."
"I HAVE TO WORK"
Around 350 foreign climbers, and double the number of local guides, were on the mountain when its worst ever disaster struck. The avalanche blasted snow, ice and rocks through base camp's tents, splitting skulls, breaking limbs and hurling people up to 200 meters.
Afterwards, the Himalayan Experience and other team camps served as makeshift medical centers to treat about 60 injured people. The dead were shrouded in sleeping bags.
McGrain remembers "two Westerners complaining that they wanted more pain meds, while the sherpas sat there humbly, waiting to be treated."
Last year Phurba Namgyal Sherpa helped dig out the bodies of 16 sherpas buried by an avalanche. That disaster caused the cancellation of the Everest season.
He said he survived this year's one, and helped save his American client, Afghan war veteran Benjamin Breckheimer, by covering their mouths and noses to stop them filling with snow. Breckheimer, injured by a bomb blast in 2009, wanted to become the first wounded U.S. army veteran to climb Everest.
Now heading home to see his family, Phurba said the government's decision to reopen Everest was irresponsible. It was "too dangerous" to climb, he said.
But for many other sherpas, economics will compel them back to the mountain.
In Lukla, Rinjen Sherpa, 49, lay on a stretcher in a room by the town's helipad alongside four corpses. He arrived there on Tuesday with a serious back injury and gashes on his head and arm.
He had been standing outside a kitchen at base camp when the avalanche lifted him off his feet. His face scrunched against the pain, Rinjen said he would return to work if he can.
"What else will I do? There is no other work," he whispered. "I have to work." Rinjen, who was also at base camp during last year's avalanche, earns $7.50 a day.
Jon Reiter, a Californian building contractor, has climbed six of the seven highest summits on all the world's continents, with only Everest left to conquer. He was at base camp when the quake hit, having been there for last year's avalanche as well.
"This is not the year to climb Everest," he said in Kathmandu after leaving the mountain. "It's the year to hope to God these people get through this."
(Additional reporting and editing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Rachel Armstrong)