Violence erupted on Everest over the weekend as three well-known climbers were attacked by a gang of up to 100 Sherpas at Camp 2 following an altercation on the Lhotse Face. The assault was the worst possible way to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first ascents – and reveals tensions about who controls the mountain, as Ed Douglas reports.
The three climbers involved in the assault are among the world’s leading alpinists, Switzerland’s Ueli Steck, the Italian Simone Moro and the Chamonix-based photographer Jon Griffith. Steck and Moro were attempting the mountain without bottled oxygen, possibly by a new route depending on conditions this season.
According to Simone Moro’s blog, at about 8am on Saturday, Steck, Moro and Griffith left Camp 2 to reach a tent at about 7,200m on the Lhotse Face as part of their acclimatisation programme.
A team of high-altitude Sherpas were fixing ropes on the face and the climbers were asked not to touch them. The three men consequently climbed a line 50m to one side to avoid disturbing the Sherpa team. When they reached a point roughly level with their tent, they began to traverse across to it, and it was at this point that the trouble began.
The three Western climbers chose to cross the fixed lines at a belay stance where four Sherpas were tied into anchors, watching a fifth Sherpa fixing lines above them. Griffith, soloing like Moro and Steck, was the first to cross, but as Steck followed the lead climber looked down and began shouting at him. He then abseiled down to where Steck waited.
What happened next is disputed. Moro’s blog states: ‘As Ueli was soloing and therefore not attached to a rope it was natural that he should hold his hands up to take the impact of the force arriving on him from the lead climber abseiling right on to him. This prompted the lead climber to accuse Ueli Steck of “touching him”. In between hitting the ice with all his force and screaming at Ueli Steck “why you touch me”, he said that they had kicked ice down on them and injured a Sherpa.’
Steck tried to calm the situation by offering to fix rope for the Sherpas but this made things worse. When Moro arrived, the lead Sherpa threatened him with his ice axe. Moro responded by swearing at him. The lead Sherpa then ordered the rest of his team, 17 Sherpas in all, back to Camp2, cutting short their work.
When the three Western climbers returned to Camp 2, after fixing rope as a peace offering to defuse the situation, they were, Moro claims, set on by a large gang of up to 100 Sherpas.
‘They became instantly aggressive and not only punched and kicked the climbers, but threw rocks as well. A small group of Westerners acted as a buffer between the out-of-control mob and the climbers, and they owe their lives to these brave and selfless people. The climbers were told that by that night one of them would be dead and the other two they would see to later. After about 50 minutes the crowd had calmed down and the climbers… were told that if they weren't gone in one hour that they would all be killed.’
The climbers left quickly with only the bare essentials and made a circuitous route back to base camp through heavily crevassed terrain to avoid further encounters. They suffered minor injuries, with Steck receiving a bad cut to the face. Despite a meeting on Monday to reconcile differences, the three climbers subsequently left the mountain.
The Sherpas claim that one of their number was struck by ice knocked down by the three men, but there is no evidence available confirming this story and Moro denies it happened. Earlier this month, Mingmar Sherpa, one of the so-called Icefall Doctors who place and maintain the fixed ropes, died after falling into a crevasse between Camp 1 and Camp 2. This followed the death in January of the longstanding leader of the ice-fall doctors, Ang Nima, at his home in Pangboche, aged 59.
Jon Griffith commented on Facebook: ‘We only lived thanks to some very brave people; we felt for sure that we were going to get stoned to death. The reasons behind the attack are complicated and deep-rooted and to do with the relationship between Westerners and Nepalis on the mountain over many years. They are not because of our direct actions. I would like to think that anyone who has climbed with us knows that we are more than capable and would never interfere with the Sherpa's work.'
Ed Douglas, writes in The Guardian, on how Sherpas are beginning to take control