Press storms on Everest

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 25/07/2013
The quiet before the storm: Jon Griffith eyes up Everest. Photo: Jon Griffith collection.

In April, three leading alpinists - Jon Griffith, Ueli Steck and Simone Moro - made headlines across the world after being attacked by Sherpas on Everest. But the fight didn’t stop there: the voracious jaws of the media were waiting. Sarah Stirling caught up with Jon Griffith once the press storm had died down, to sort the facts from the media fictions.

This season’s big Everest story started off innocuously: a small report on the Daily Mail website stated that a Mr Woolly Stick had been involved in a fight with local Sherpas up there. But as more reporters scrabbled for fresh news pickings, the story began to grow legs of its own. Truth and lies about a heady mix of extreme Everest action and fears of being stoned to death were soon splashed on front pages across the world.

"We don’t like your altitude: Sherpa mob rage at climber trio" screamed the Sun.

"Mount Everest climbers attacked by gang of 100 guides on world's highest peak" raged the Mirror.

The media interest in the Everest fight was huge. The story became one of the world's most-covered climbing stories, ever; unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. Jon, Ueli and Simone were interviewed by every major newspaper, radio, and TV news agency, world-wide.

The fact that the climbers were still at Everest Base Camp and relatively hard to contact only added to the feeding frenzy. I caught up with Jon when he got back, once he'd had a chance to unwind after the high altitude drama. 

This isn’t the first media storm that has surrounded a climbing, incident and it won’t be the last. But, when the next one blows in, just remember that not everything you read may be true…

Jon Griffith tells his side of the high tension drama on Everest:

It was horrible. I was praying for the media interest to just go away. But once I started talking to journalists, I felt I had to fight to the end and speak to them all. I wanted to make sure I'd had my say.

I was really worried that if I didn’t speak to a certain reporter they’d take a bad stance against us. I had just over 200 different reporters emailing me within the first week after the incident, asking for interviews. That was just me; for Simone and Ueli it was the same.

The media hype was inevitable. We didn’t email news agencies to try and get some publicity out of the story, as some have claimed. This is the worst kind of publicity anyone could ever imagine. I'd like to make it clear I didn’t sell any photos or make any money while dealing with the press storm.

The story of three Westerners almost getting stoned to death on Everest was too big an interest piece - it was bound to leak out. That first week after the fight was taxing in every possible way. I'd never dealt with the media like this before, and it was even harder to have to give interviews with such an exhausted and screwed head. But it was important that we did speak to the press to try to fight for our names. Wouldn’t you do the same?

Personally, I was terrified of the media. People are swayed by what they read and I had a horrible feeling that we were going to get trashed. It was really tiring. We couldn't sleep and we didn't eat much. We were still at Base Camp and felt rooted there simply because we had internet connection. From sunrise until early hours of the following morning, I’d be glued to my computer screen just doing back-to-back interviews.

What did I learn? That the media will lie and make stuff up. I realised that Skype interviews over a bad connection and having to repeat your answers allows people to cut and paste what you say, and turn it into what they wanted you to say.

I read a lot of quotes in the papers that I know I never said, and I know Ueli or Simone never said. There's no point in doing anything about it. Once something has been published, it’s been read.

Maybe the saddest thing was seeing some people jump in on the opportunity for their two minutes of fame. While we were trying to fight for our reputations I saw other mountaineers come on national television and say that we were arrogant and ego-driven, and that was why we had angered the Sherpas. We'd never met these people, they weren’t at Base Camp, they knew really nothing of the story, and they didn't even think to get in touch with us before speaking out against us. It was a sad sight.

On the flip side, it was amazing to see such strong international support. I received tons of emails from all sorts of climbers around the world recounting their past troubles with Sherpas and how close it had got to violence. It was also really heart-warming to see the climbing media take our side, and be able to read the climbing forums and see that, on the whole, climbers understood the problems of Everest.

At the end of the day, the opinions of other climbers was the most important thing to me. Climbing is part of my career, I live in a climbing town, and I meet climbers from around the world all the time. It's my community, and it was incredibly important to me that my community understood. Thanks for the support.

More information

Everest fight: the Sherpa side of the story

Everest: into the death threat zone – original report from the BMC

Read about a previous press storm:
In February 2012, a picture of a young mother climbing with her toddler caused a media storm. Ed Douglas talked to Menna Pritchard about what it’s like to live through a tabloid whirlwind.



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