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KATHMANDU (Reuters) - A Japanese man has become the unlikely face of Nepal's desperate efforts to revive its climbing industry, seeking to conquer Everest alone for the first time since 18 people were killed in April - and since he lost all his fingertips to frostbite.
Nobukazu Kuriki, 33, set off on his adventure on Tuesday, leaving Kathmandu for the mountains for acclimatization before tackling Everest next month, the first person to do so since multiple avalanches unleashed by an earthquake slammed into Base Camp in the mountain's worst climbing disaster.
Kuriki, despite his obvious disadvantages, will be the only person attempting to reach the world's tallest peak in the challenging autumn climbing season. He scales cliffs without fellow climbers, bottled oxygen or even a rope, meaning his journey will entail far greater risk.
"I do feel nervous and afraid," said Kuriki, who lost the tips of his fingers and one thumb three years ago. "This is only natural before attempting the challenge of climbing Everest, particularly after the earthquake and at this time of year."
Four months after almost 9,000 people died in Nepal's worst earthquake disaster, followed in May by a second strong tremor, Nepal's government has latched on to Kuriki to promote a tourist revival in the poor Himalayan nation.
The Tourism Ministry paraded the climber before reporters at the weekend.
"Kuriki is climbing at a time when there is confusion in the world about the safety in Nepal after the earthquake," minister Kripasur Sherpa said. "This will be an example for other visitors to come."
But other mountaineers said he was taking too big a gamble.
Ang Tshering Sherpa, who runs one of the largest Everest trekking organizations, called the climb reckless. He said it was unsafe to climb Everest in the autumn anyway because the days were colder, there was more chance of avalanches and strong winds could blow people off the mountainside.
"What he is doing is very risky and dangerous," he said.
Before the April disaster brought the spring climbing season to an abrupt end, Everest was big business in Nepal. Recreational climbers would pay top trekking companies between $40,000 and $90,000 to scale the mountain, depending on how much logistical support and how many sherpas they needed.
There are fears in Nepal that climbers may increasingly switch to climbing Everest from the Chinese side due to concerns about the instability of the Khumbu Icefall, a particularly perilous section of the Nepali ascent.
Elizabeth Hawley, a chronicler of climbing in Nepal, said it showed how desperate the government was to revive the industry that it is promoting this "crazy" man to convince the world it is safe. "They will latch on to anything right now to get people to come back," the U.S.-born Hawley told Reuters.
In the capital, Kuriki made final prayers for his safety in a Tibetan monastery amid the smell of incense and the tinkling of bells before leaving on his expedition.
In the candlelight of the monastery's main chamber, he touched his forehead on the wooden floor in front of a golden Buddha and then a monk in crimson robes tied red string around his neck for good luck.
Kuriki plans to reach Everest's 8,850-metre (29,035-feet) summit by mid-September by the Southeast Ridge route pioneered by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953.
A team of sherpas, known as the Icefall Doctors, will this week begin to rebuild the route through the Khumbu Icefall, a moving glacier that must be negotiated before pushing on to the summit.
Kuriki said he preferred to climb in winter, alone and with minimal gear. "This is the purest form of climbing and it is worth the extra danger," he said.
Kuriki has not taken any extra precautions, saying climbing is inherently dangerous and he will have to trust his instincts.
Four times in the previous six years, Kuriki has taken on Everest alone but each time was forced to abandon the climb with the summit in view.
In 2012, Kuriki spent two days in a snow hole at 27,000 feet in temperatures below minus 20 Celsius. That was when he had to have his fingertips amputated.
Although his injuries mean basic things such as tying laces and gripping an ice ax are difficult, he has the strength and movement to put up a tent and cook food.
"I learn more from my failures than my successes," Kuriki said. "When you fail, you obsess over why things went wrong."
Editing by Douglas Busvine and Nick Macfie