A confrontation high on the slopes of Mt. Everest turned violent this past weekend as an angry mob of Sherpas attacked a trio of independent mountaineers there. The confrontation began with a fiery exchange near Camp 3, located at 7200 meters (23,622 ft) on the mountain, but later escalated when the three Western climbers descended to a lower camp. Upon arrival, they were met by an angry mob that immediately proceeded to punch, kick and hurl rocks at them. Had other climbers not intervened, it is likely that the three men would have suffered severe injuries or even death. The incident involved Swiss climber Ueli Steck and Italian Simone Moro, two of the more high profile mountaineers on Everest this spring. They were climbing up to Camp 3 with expedition photographer Jonathan Griffith of the U.K. on Saturday when they approached a team of Sherpas that were busy fixing lines up the Lhotse Face. The Sherpas warned the European climbers to stay off the ropes and to not climb above them as they could potentially dislodge ice and other debris which would fall down upon the team. According to Steck and Moro, they then proceeded up the slope on their own ropes that ran parallel to those that the Sherpa were busy affixing.
As the approached their campsite, the three Westerners were forced to carefully cross the fixed ropes that were already in place. When the lead Sherpa, who was working above them at the time, spotted the team he quickly descended and began berating them for crossing the lines even though they had been told not to. He accused them of knocking ice off the slope, which then tumbled down the mountain, allegedly injuring a Sherpa working below. The confrontation got heated with angry words exchanged on both sides, at which point the lead Sherpa pulled his entire 17-man crew off the job and descended back to Camp 2.
Steck, Moro and Griffith then proceeded to their campsite where they deposited gear and decided what they should do next. In an attempt to smooth things over, Ueli – who is a Wenger sponsored athlete – even went about fixing 260 meters of rope himself. This was a gesture intended to show the Sherpas that the Westerners understood, respected and appreciated their efforts. All three members of the team are extremely experienced climbers who have worked closely with the Sherpas in the past.
The Europeans decided it was best if they descended back to Camp 2 as well and quickly proceed down the mountain. Upon arriving there however the situation turned from bad to worse. By some accounts as many as 100 Sherpas assaulted the team wildly throwing punches, kicking and tossing rocks. The commotion caught the attention of other climbers in C2, who came to the aid of Ueli, Simone and Jon. If those other men and women hadn’t intervened, it is possible that the three climbers would have been killed.
The angry Sherpas told Steck, Moro and Griffith that they had one hour to get out of camp and head down the mountain. They were also allegedly told that if they stayed there one of them wouldn’t survive the night and the others would be dealt with as well. Gathering up a few belongings, the men then proceeded the rest of the way back to Base Camp, choosing not to use any of the ropes that are currently in place out of fear for their safety.
Upon reaching Base Camp, Steck was flown to a hospital in the village of Lukla where he spent the night and was treated for a minor wound received when he was struck with a rock. His companions also suffered some minor injuries as well and all three are bruised and battered. After the night in the hospital, Ueli returned to BC where the team is now deciding if they’ll continue with the expedition. They had planned to climb Everest along a new route this spring, but if their safety is in question, they may decide to leave the mountain altogether and head home.
Meanwhile, three Sherpas who orchestrated the attack have been taken off the mountain by authorities pending an investigation. The Ministry of Tourism, Nepalese police and the local Sherpa Association are working to investigate exactly what happened. Attacking foreign visitors isn’t exactly healthy for the economy of Nepal, which depends on climbers and trekkers to help provide much needed funds for the country’s economy.
Details from the confrontation remain a bit sketchy at this time, but it seems both sides allowed the situation to get out of hand when they argued on the Lhotse Face. But what happened after that is simply inexcusable and unconscionable. The fact that such a large mob of Sherpas would attack climbers on Everest, a mountain that serves as the source of their livelihood, is impossible to fathom. Thankfully the actual assault took place in Camp 2 where other climbers could help defuse the situation. Had it taken place in Camp 3, there would have been no one there to lend aid to the three Europeans and their ultimate fate could have worse.
I don’t know Simone or Ueli personally but their reputation greatly proceeds them. The two men are amongst the best climbers of their generation and have shown remarkable respect for the places they climb and the people that live there. Both have risked their lives in the past to save other climbers and both men seem to possess a very high level of integrity. If they did do something to anger the Sherpa team, it is my belief that it was purely on accident. More likely, this is a conflict between independent climbers, who choose not to use Sherpa support and the Sherpas themselves, who earn their living as mountain guides.
Thankfully this situation didn’t result in anyone getting too seriously injured and no one was killed. I’m sure things remain tense on Everest at the moment, but this could have ended much worse.
[Photo Credits: Papa Lima Whiskey, Ueli Steck]