The way that the events played out on Everest on the last days of April is now well enough known. Three western climbers, Uli Steck (Switzerland, Simon Moro (Italy) and Jonathon Griffiths (UK) would attempt a route described on climbing.com by editor of the American Alpine Journal Dougald Macdonald as “a major development in Everest’s climbing history, particularly if they succeed in pure alpine style, without supplemental oxygen.” After an altercation with the Sherpas who were fixing lines above Camp Two, in which there was shouting and disagreement, the Sherpas descended.
Later, when the trio of European climbers descended to Camp Two, there was an altercation with a large crowd of Sherpas which is described in disturbing detail by Garrett Madison, among others. Steck was punched and hit by rocks, a knife was used or thrown and Griffith wrote “We only lived thanks to some very brave people; we felt for sure that we were going to get stoned to death.”
The next morning, according to the head of the Nepalese Mountaineering Association, a kind of agreement was signed between the parties by way of an apology. There is also a police investigation.
Questioned in the Swiss media about why it might have happened, Steck said “The Sherpas…are the rich people here in Nepal, and they have gained a lot of power. …but they see these westerners making all that money. It is the rift between worlds…the jealousy has grown over the years.” Broughton Coburn at National Geographic framed the differences positively, however: “ They each embody the romantic human ideal that each is striving for: The sahibs see the Sherpas as spiritual, grounded, resourceful, self-effacing, and light-hearted. To the Sherpas, the well-educated sahibs have an enviable command of technology and organization.”
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Either way, the problem’s proximate cause seems to be that the Sherpas’ mode of working is to agree on which Sherpas will participate in fixing which parts of the route on which days. They prefer not to do this under the watch of their mainly western clients, because it is dangerous and difficult enough on their own. The sudden arrival of other climbers, including another team, who were climbing unroped, crossing the fixed lines and so on, even if they represented no actual risk to the Sherpas, constitutes a major lapse in status and procedure.
It also, of course, represents a type of climbing which, if it were more common, could represent threats to their role on one of a very poor country’s only top-flight tourist assets and their income.
The crisis represents a quandary for climbing’s chattering classes. The Europeans are darlings of the alpine style fraternity and represent a relatively low-impact approach which, had it been adopted from the start on Everest, would have seen a lot less garbage and degradation of the mountain and probably fewer tragedies involving unprepared climbers. Everest prior to the modern guiding culture was a huge challenge by any standard.
But the Sherpas are in their own country and there seems to be just a soupcon of imperialism to telling them how they should manage their mountain. As the removal of bolts on Cerro Torre showed, high-minded outsiders are, nonetheless, outsiders. DCS