So, a Brit, a Swiss and an Italian walk into the Western Cwm …

Sadly, the event that transpired on Mount Everest two days ago isn’t a joke. Ueli Steck and Simone Moro returned to Everest this season with the secretive goal of doing something “big and different.” A new route, perhaps? I don’t know. But the Europeans’ acclimatization and route-scouting efforts quickly went south. Though reports are sketchy and riddled with biased “he said, she said” reporting, we do know that at some point Ueli Steck, Simone Moro and Jonathan Griffith were attacked by as many as 100 rock-throwing Sherpas.

In an email, Griffith wrote:

“Yes were were attacked by some 100 Sherpas. 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—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. Thanks for your support.”

My friend Adrian Ballanger, a guide on Everest this year, shared his thoughts about this event in a well-reasoned post on his blog.

Before I continue, I should share my perspective about Everest in general:

I have not climbed Everest, and likely never will. There are at least four-thousand other objectives before Everest that I could summon more passion to climb.

That said, if someone offered to pay my way to the top, I would almost definitely do it. I’m interested in experiencing the shit-show you hear so much about firsthand, but really, Everest is like running a marathon. It’s something you do just to say that you’ve done it because for some reason people care about that stuff, and because you are not above stroking your ego.

This is based on my belief that dues—not dollars—should be paid in order to be granted access to earth’s most rarified places.
I realize that having never been on Everest compromises anything that I could say about the mountain and its guide culture. But so what? I am like most climbers in that I feel entitled to have an armchair opinion about Everest. This is based on all the mountaineering stories I’ve read, the alpine climbing I’ve personally done, and the dues—not dollars—I believe one should pay in order to be granted access to earth’s most rarified places.

Anyway, back to the attack: It sounds as if Steck, Moro and Griffith were traversing over to their Camp at 7,470 meters while the lead Sherpas were advancing the fixed ropes up the mountain. The three European climbers were not wearing ropes; they were climbing free solo. The Sherpas had asked them to wait for them to finish leading and fixing the section of the mountain before crossing their lines, but they ignored their requests. One report said that the Europeans knocked a chunk of ice off and it struck one of the Sherpas below, injuring him.

It seems as though some of the Sherpas perceived this to be disrespectful. Likely, it seems as thougt they were probably also resentful of the European climbers. A statement released by Simone Moro says: “The lead Sherpa felt that his pride had been damaged as the climbers were moving unroped and much faster.”

A mob of Sherpas soon formed and attacked the European climbers, hurling stones and chunks of ice at them, and punching and kicking them. An unnamed eyewitness told the AFP news agency the incident had been “terrifying to watch—they nearly got killed.” One report describes Steck being left with a big gash in his face.

You automatically lose any argument as soon as you have to throw a punch to get across your perspective.
While I’m sure that all the details about what actually happened will come forth in the next few hours and days, this incident has already sparked some strong feelings for me. First, I’m sad that the Sherpas would resort to violence; you automatically lose any argument as soon as you have to throw a punch to get across your perspective. But the Sherpas are the also the unsung heroes of Mount Everest. They’re the ones who take the lion’s share of the risk, putting the ropes up for all the other climbers/clients/guides, who then need to only put one foot in front of the next as they plod their way to summit glory. I can totally understand they pride the Sherpas must feel in the sole, single act of being the ones to establish the route—to open the gates, so to speak—for the Westerners each season. To have that taken away, even if it wasn’t at all intentional, could understandably evoke some negative emotions in the Sherpas.

But what this sad story reaffirms, to me, is that Everest is not for climbers. It’s for guides and clients, and all the infrastructure that goes into getting a large mass of people up the same two routes, as more than 3,000 people have done in the last 60 years. The mountain has been fully co-opted by the guide culture, and it seems as though there isn’t any room—logistically, if nothing else—for “real” climbers to go climbing as a small team, and demonstrate the self-reliance and skill that normally goes into climbing almost any other mountain.

But at the same time, I have a hard time feeling very sympathetic to Steck, Griffith and Moro, whose actions seem to me to be quite arrogant. I mean, what were they thinking? Going to Everest and complaining, or at least not being differential to the fixed ropes and infrastructure that is so ingrained to the way of life on this mountain each May is as naive as going to Disneyland and complaining that you have stand in line for all the rides.

These climbers know this, too. Last year, Moro quit his summit bid on Everest because he was horrified by how many people were in his way. He reported a scene in which climbers were not even able to change their ascenders from one fixed rope to the next without their Sherpa’s help, all creating a bottleneck clog. For experienced climbers such as Steck and Moro, who have the skills and fitness to go anywhere and do anything, please explain to me where is the joy in this style of ascent?

We always lament the fact that no one has put up a new route on Everest in many years, or even drastically improved upon the style of climbing this mountain since the West Ridge was done 50 years ago, or Messner’s oxygen-less ascent. But it seems like the sheer logistics of trying to go against the grain and do something new and different without getting in the way of the sheer industrialization that is engineering a safe path for a large mass of climbers is, literally, crushing.

It’s simply stunning that the single largest objective hazard to climbing Everest nowadays isn’t rockfall, icefall or exposure: it’s other people getting in your way, whether that’s the ant-line on summit days, or even, apparently, a violent gang of rock-throwing Sherpas.

I say let the culture of guides and clients have Everest. If you want to do something big and different, go elsewhere! There many other places to do some real alpine climbing and have an amazing, powerful experience in the mountains with your close friends. If I had Steck’s lungs and legs, I certainly wouldn’t be going back to Everest, a mountain he has already climbed.

Otherwise, you may as well just stay out of the way and get in line with all the others.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/john.t.young John Thomas Young

    Remember what Mr. Rodgers’ Mom said, “In any disaster look for the helpers.” Maybe a good story would be about the Westerners and Sherpas who buffered the climbers from The Mob?
    Anyway, loved the story and your perspective.


    • http://eveningsends.com Andrew Bisharat

      Great perspective and comment. Thanks John. I am really interested in hearing the non-Western perspective, especially …

  • Pingback: Sherpas attack climbers on Everest – what’s really going on? – Cathy O'Dowd - inspirational speaker, adventurer & author

  • Harkey

    Thanks for this piece. This is an important discussion that needs to be had. The author has hit the nail on the head with the title. Or at the very least raised the important question about the meaning, purpose and expectations about climbing this world-famous mountain/feat. I think there a couple of other things that needs to be mentioned here though.

    Before we get into the whole who is right who is wrong debate, it needs to be made absolutely clear that no form of violence or intentional harm is justifiable. Especially in extreme conditions like Everest. But before we pass judgments and start talking about this being a matter of “pride” some background and perspective is necessary.

    First, the Sherpa people are indigenous to this area. This is their home, their source of living, and for many Everest and its surrounding area is the only piece of the world they will ever see. Since time immemorial the Sherpa people have also understood and accepted Everest, or Chomulungma as they know it, as extremely holy and sacred. Anyone who has been to Everest is well aware of this.

    Secondly most of the Sherpas who lead and help in expeditions are not entirely doing this work by choice. For the majority this is the only source of real income for the needs of today’s modern world and more often than not entire families (if not extended families) are dependent on the income of one Sherpa for an entire year. They, more than anyone, are acutely aware of the dangers and challenges of altitude, the terrain and attempts to climb it. Death is common and they live with it year in, year out.

    Now, the Sherpa people who have welcomed tourists from all around the world, carried and lead the thousands to the summit and the hundreds they have saved from the face of death are not “naturally” hostile people by any stretch of the imagination. They have readily accepted Everest for what it is for the rest of world and have tried to do their best to what they can, granted for a nominal fee. So put yourself in that position and think of the lead climbers fixing the lines on which the safety of hundreds, including their own, is going to depend on. As mentioned in the reports, they asked the three to hold off until they had done their job before doing whatever it is they wanted to do.

    Not only did these climbers not heed a simple and rational request but eventually put the lives of the Sherpas below in danger. Yes no one got hurt but it very well could have been something much much worse. For them to be confronted is only natural, but to say this is the result of “pride” is simply moronic and ignorant. Life and survival in these conditions is hard enough to be concerned about something as banal as pride. If anything it probably reveals that pride itself was probably the motivation for the climbers to do what they did. Hopefully we will hear all accounts regarding this in the days to come to truly understand what and how things went down.

    Given the exorbitant amount of time and money that climbing Everest requires it is not uncommon for many who get to the Everest region to somehow feel a very strong sense of “entitlement”. This type of behavior and attitudes is seen every year and is truly sickening on a purely human level. Unfortunately this probably cannot be helped and will continue for long. But anyone who is going to climb Everest should be aware of all these issues and understand things from a grander scale.

    Once again as the title here suggests, for any climber who enjoys climbing and wants to do what they want, Everest is probably not the right place. Its a much bigger, more complex place than just a beautiful mountain. Any climber who wishes to go here must be aware of this so as to have the right expectations and basically not be limited to a self-centric, entitlement-driven, egotistical worldview.