As Everest drops out of the headlines for another year, expedition organisers are taking stock following the widely reported confrontation between Western climbers and Sherpas at Camp 2. In this exclusive interview, veteran outfitter Russell Brice tells Ed Douglas about how the incident impacted on the Sherpa community – and why they really feel aggrieved.
Ueli Steck's warning was stark.
Having escaped a mob of angry Sherpas at Camp 2 and then fled the mountain, he was determined to tell the world about his experience on Everest.
“This is not over. It will be a big problem for commercial expeditions in the future, and maybe next time someone will get killed. You can feel the tension. Climbing Everest is so big now, with so much money involved, and the Sherpas are not stupid. They see this, and they want to take over the business and kick out the westerners.”
Steck may never return to Everest, but Russell Brice most probably will. He’s just completed his eighteenth commercial expedition to the mountain with his company Himalayan Experience, 13 on the north side, and five on the south, following the closure of Tibet in the Olympic year of 2008.
He first went to Khumbu in 1974, working for Sir Ed Hillary’s Himalayan Trust. His first attempt on the mountain was in 1981, at the age of 29, when he almost climbed the West Ridge as part of a two-man team with Paddy Freaney, whose ashes were scattered on the summit this spring by his wife Rochelle Rafferty.
Brice talks fondly of the two Sherpas who helped them on their attempt, Ang Rita, who he still sees regularly, and Ang Phu, now dead. Even among Westerners who guide regularly in the Himalaya, Brice’s association with Sherpas is unusually deep. Last year he withdrew his clients from Everest after his Sherpas and guides expressed fears that the mountain was unusually dangerous.
“As a commercial operator,” he tells me, “one of my biggest drives is that I need to find clients to support the 30 Sherpas I employ. I have a responsibility to them – and to find them employment.”
Brice is in London tying up some loose ends from this spring’s expedition. He’s still trying to fathom the media hurricane that engulfed the mountain this year. He was at base camp when the confrontation took place, but two Himalayan Experience Sherpas were fixing rope that day. “They came down and went to their tent. They weren’t angry. They took the next day off, and then went back to work.”
The lurid headlines prompted by reports of the fight are, he says, distorting the public’s impression of the wider Sherpa community and how the economics of Everest impacts on them.
He acknowledges the severity of what happened but argues that the Sherpas should be given space to talk about what happened and make their own changes for the future.
“My sirdar is Phurba Tashi. He’s climbed Everest 21 times. He’s smart and a fantastic leader. He tells me how to run my expeditions. He’s 38 years old and already a powerful person in the community. But he’s totally quiet. So when we talk about the current situation, his answer is I have nothing to say. But I promise you, he’ll have a huge amount to say within his own community.”
Brice was involved in brokering the agreement between Sherpas and Western climbers following the assault at Camp 2. It was a revealing experience. “When older sirdars come to you to apologise for what younger guys have done, and they’ve got tears in their eyes, I really take notice. I never see Sherpas cry, not even at funerals. When a Sherpa apologises like that it’s from their heart and soul.”
"What concerns the Sherpas, he says, was the decision by the three Western climbers to talk to the media."
“The fourth clause in that agreement was not to discuss the fight. The Sherpas on the mountain don’t have access to twitter and facebook and so on. They just want to get back to their jobs. These guys shook hands on an agreement at base camp.
“I love Ueli,” Brice says. “He’s a good mate, and so is Simone. But they also made a big mistake, first with Simone’s comment [calling, to Moro’s own account, Mingmar Tenzing Sherpa a “motherf*cker” in Nepali] and then by going back on that part of the agreement.”
The Sherpas had their own supporters in the blogosphere, I suggest to him, most notably American guides Mike Hamill from International Mountain Guides (IMG) and Garrett Madison from Alpine Ascents International (AAI). Madison accused Moro of spoiling for a fight on an open radio channel. Moro has categorically denied this and others on the mountain have corroborated his version.
“It was interesting how vocal Mike Hamill was on the net but he was less apparent at base camp. There are all these people blogging in their tents but they don't necessarily know what's going on at base camp. The media use these blogs but they don’t check their accuracy.”
Brice acknowledges that Steck wanted criminal charges brought against those who assaulted him. “That’s understandable,” he says. “The problem is we weren’t in Switzerland. I said to Ueli, we can get police from Lukla or Kathmandu and everything will stop on the mountain, which will only exacerbate the problem and everyone will be worse off.”
Mingmar Tenzing Sherpa, who abseiled down to confront Steck, sparking the incident later that day at Camp 2, will face censure from his community, Brice predicts. “He’s the younger brother of one of the senior sirdars who has to deal with his family, his village and a guiding company. I can guarantee you that this younger brother will not be in a position of responsibility next year.”
Brice gives a rueful laugh when I mention suggestions in the media that Sherpas are exploited
Phurba Tashi, he says, earns as much as a Western guide. “He deserves it too.” His other Sherpas working on the mountain, earning a mixture of a salary, bonus and equipment allowance – on top of the equipment they are given – will clear around $6,000 for the season, a significant sum in Nepal. Many of Brice’s Sherpas will have invested in trekking lodges and businesses, run by their wives, which will make even more.
That kind of earning power is in stark contrast to Sherpas working for the cheapest Nepali expedition organisers, particularly the popular Seven Summit Treks. Run by three Sherpa brothers from the Makalu region, including Mingma Sherpa, the first Sherpa to climb the 14 8,000m peaks, the company offers Everest for $18,500 – including the $10,000 peak fee – and attracted 98 clients to Everest this year. But their Sherpas – often young and inexperienced – earn a fraction of what their Khumbu equivalents do on more expensive expeditions – as little as $800 according to Brice.
This differential raises tension on the mountain. Maoist cadres had a far greater impact in the Makalu region than they did in Khumbu during the civil war that ended in 2006. “The Maoists taught kids that they could get what they want by throwing rocks or threatening violence.” Nor have Sherpas in the Makalu region benefitted from improvements in education enjoyed by counterparts in the Khumbu region.
Brice doesn’t see any frustration from Khumbu Sherpas at the influx of outsiders. “I don’t think the Khumbu boys are proprietorial in that way. They know we need more people working on the mountain. However, what we can’t do is put people from different regions on the same team. We as operators know that. And the Khumbu Sherpas know they’re good, partly because they’ve got the most experience.”
Seven Summits, Brice says, has made no secret of the fact they don’t believe Western operators are needed anymore. “That’s the attitude they’re bringing to their younger Sherpas.” Yet he questions their ability to operate safely and in an environmentally sustainable way at such a low price.
“People are leaving tents at Camp 4 with sleeping bags and food inside. They just walk off. We take everything including human waste from the South Col down because our clients pay for enough Sherpas to do that.
It costs $110 per Sherpa round trip from Camp 2 to the South Col. Local operators charging $18,500 don’t have the resources to do that. We don’t object to other companies at all, just as long as they do their job properly.”
He’s not convinced by calls for better government regulation, perhaps unsurprisingly given the Nepali government’s struggle with corruption and a culture of impunity that sees political murder and torture go unpunished, let alone scuffles among climbers. “Nobody’s going to enforce this. It’s up to us to do it.” Following pressure from Brice and other commercial operators, a new organisation, the Expedition Operators Association was established and this year was recognised by the Nepali authorities. Its goal is to organise rope fixing from the top of the Icefall to the summit as a way of easing tensions over sharing the cost
There have also been calls to make it obligatory to use IFMGA guides on Everest.
Brice himself has been an IFMGA guide for decades but resists this, at least for now. “We have non-IFMGA people working for us, because they’re already very experienced.”
Last year the IFMGA recognised Nepal’s guides association, established with special dispensations not to include skiing, to boost standards among local guides. There are now 31 Nepalis on the scheme. Privately, some Western guides are concerned this will dilute mountain training’s gold standard – and that IFMGA guides were involved in the fracas at Camp 2.
“That was my second thought when I heard the news,” Brice says. “But on the day of the riot, as I understand it, there wasn’t one IFMGA guide there. I’m confident about the situation. I promoted the IFMGA link. I sometimes say to them, okay you’ve got a badge but now you start learning. But I don’t think the IFMGA thing is relevant here.”
Brice is now in his early 60s and despite looking fit knows his career can’t last forever. He clearly feels a huge responsibility to maintain standards on Everest in the face of intense competition. Does he feel pessimistic for the future?
“No, not at all.” He singles out Dawa Stephen Sherpa who leads expeditions for local operators Asian Trekking. The company hasn’t always enjoyed the best reputation, but Brice is full of praise for the impact Dawa Stephen has had in providing a quality local service. “I spent hours and hours at base camp talking with Dawa about these issues. He’s a fantastic spokesman for modern Sherpas.”
Ed Douglas is a writer and journalist who has been climbing for 30 years. He's a former editor of the Alpine Journal, and his books include Tenzing: Hero of Everest, the first full-length biography of the first man, with Sir Ed Hillary, to climb Everest. Follow him at @calmandfearless on Twitter.
Russell Brice is an experienced mountaineer and expedition leader who has guided in the Himalaya since 1974. In 1996, he founded the adventure expedition specialists Himalayan Experience.
Our original report on the confrontation.
The final press release by the Ueli Steck team
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