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.
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.
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.