Well, this is an inauspicious start to the spring climbing season on Mt. Everest. Famed alpinists Ueli Steck and Simone Moro, along with Jonathan Griffith, got into a fight with Sherpas from another expedition in a conflict over climbing etiquette on Saturday, April 27, with the trio retreating from Camp 2 back to Base Camp after they said they were attacked by a “mob” and felt their lives were threatened. All three were reported to have been banged up in the confrontation; Steck (below right) spent the night in a hospital and returned by helicopter to Base Camp, where he and Moro are considering restarting their climb. (UPDATE: Moro and Steck are pulling the plug. Read more below.) According to Steck, three Sherpas were removed from the mountain.
Details are still sketchy and mostly one-sided — No2 released a lengthy statement about the incident via Moro’s website (posted in full below), but the group of Sherpas has not spoken to the media at length.
Anish Gupta of Cho-Oyu Trekking, the Kathmandu-based company whose Sherpas were involved, told Agence France Press, “We were told our clients and the guides fought on their way to Camp 3. We don’t have all the details yet, but our clients have come down off the peak.”
According to Moro, he, Steck, and Griffith were climbing unroped on the Lhotse Face from Camp 2 to their tent at lower Camp 3 at 7200 meters. Sherpas were installing fixed ropes on the face, so the trio ascended parallel but about 150 yards away from the lines. When they reached the elevation of their tent, they traversed and Griffith stepped over the ropes. As Steck was passing, the lead climbing Sherpa above them began shouting and banging his ice tools, Moro said, and then he rappelled down the line to confront the trio. Angry words were exchanged, and the Sherpa pulled his crew of 17 off the lines and descended to Camp 2.
In an effort to appease the Sherpas, Steck fixed an additional 260 meters of rope to Camp 3, but it didn’t make the situation better — when the three descended to Camp 2 later in the day, they were assaulted by a large group of Sherpas, Moro’s statement said.
“By the time the climbers descended back to Camp 2 some 100 Sherpas had grouped together and attacked the three climbers. They became instantly aggressive and not only punched and kicked the climbers, but threw many 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 Sherpas claimed that one of their crew had been hit by falling ice caused by Moro (left), Steck, or Griffith. The Europeans were dismissive.
“As it stands no Sherpa has come forward to show any injury,” said the No2 statement. “Furthermore on an ice face getting hit by chunks of ice is a very natural occurrence. The climbers believe that the lead Sherpa was tired and cold and felt that his pride had been damaged as the three climbers were moving unroped and much faster to the side of him.”
An American climber who witnessed the exchange and spoke to Agence France Press on the condition of anonymity said, “The Sherpas told the team not to climb above them while they were fixing the ropes but they did it anyway. Then some ice fell and hit the Sherpas, which made them angry.”
As for the fight, “It was terrifying to watch – they nearly got killed,” they said.
The local police said they were investigating the conflict, though from afar.
“We’re committed to arresting those guilty of this incident and we will provide all necessary security to the foreigners,” said Sitaram Karki, chief district officer of the Solukhumbu region. “Unfortunately the area is out of our reach due to the distance.”
In a statement released Monday on Steck’s website, the expedition said, “The three climbers feel that they don’t believe that their actions were the reasons behind such a mass attack. They believe that the reaction was from a far more deep rooted and long term problem, which is the way that Nepalis feel treated by westerners on the mountain and this was a uprising against that. The three climbers are completely independent and not part of any commercial expedition.”
Given the he said/she said nature of the conflict, the full truth may never be known, but surely the history of Everest will be smudged with a strange black chapter in the 60th anniversary year of its first ascent. If it happened to unknown climbers, it might fade into obscurity. But Steck and Moro are among the most widely known professional alpinists today and, at least, it will be one more ugly piece of evidence for those who say there are too many people on Everest. It’s an Everest “first” that no one wants.
Noted Himalayan climbing historian Elizabeth Hawley told Reuters, “I have not heard of any such incident before.”
There is one bit of whimsy, though: The British mainstream media, which clearly doesn’t know climbing, relied on a poor Google translation of a Nepal newspaper report that changed Steck’s name to “Wool Stick.”
For more on this story, see our latest coverage, including an accounting from the Sherpas’ perspective.
UPDATE: 3:30 p.m. EST, April 29, 2013
Simone Moro and Ueli Steck have ended their No2 expedition. In an interview with Planet Mountain, Moro said, “We’re abandoning the expedition…Despite having met those who attacked us, having embraced and having forgiven them, I wanted that the meeting with everyone at Base Camp ended with my words that underlined the esteem I have for the Sherpa and Nepal, but I also stated that this violence killed our climbing dream and that we are leaving. I will probably stay on, but only to fly the helicopter and carry out rescue operations, but Ueli and Jon will return home. I want to add that that fact that I wish to stay and help with rescues (free for the Sherpa people) shows my desire to help these people. Everyone here is shocked and aware of the violence that was committed, they realised that a simple handshake isn’t enough to change a relationship that has mutated too much since that one in 1953. Today Everest is too much of a business and there are too many heroes.”
The full statement by Steck and Moro’s No2 expedition follows:
At about 8am on 27th April 2013 Simone Moro (IT), Ueli Steck (CH), and Jonathan Griffith (UK) left Camp 2 to reach a tent at around 7200m (lower Camp 3) on the Lhotse Face of Mount Everest. A team of high altitude sherpas were ‘fixing’ the Lhotse face and the climbers were asked to not touch the fixed ropes they were establishing. As such the trio climbed about 50m away and to the side of the Sherpa team to avoid disturbing them in their work. It should be noted that all three climbers have extensive climbing experience all over the world and were very aware of the work being carried out by the Sherpas and the respect given to them for it.
When the three climbers reached the height of their already established tent, they traversed across the snow and were forced to step over the lines of the Sherpas to reach their tent about 20 meters to the side. The climbers chose to step across the lines at a belay stance where 4 other sherpas were attached to the ice face whilst their lead climber continued to fix the line above. Stepping over the lines does not interfere in any way with the work being carried out. The climbers were soloing and not using ropes so there was no rope tangling either. In addition by passing beneath the lead climber no ice or snow could be knocked down on him.
Jonathan Griffith was in the lead at this point and after crossing the rope and traversing another 15 meters on a snow ramp Ueli Steck followed. At the point where Ueli Steck stepped over the rope the lead climber noticed the climbers below and began shouting and banging the ice with his axe erratically. Still shouting down at the climbers, he fixed his rope and abseiled down to the belay stance. 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. Seeing as the trio were climbing a completely independent line and entirely on snow this is highly unlikely.
Ueli Steck tried to help calm the situation by offering to help fix the lines up to Camp 3 but this only made matters worse. Simone Moro then joined the team and the lead climber turned on him wielding his ice axe in his direction. Simone swore at the lead climber as is the natural reaction when faced with this aggression. No amount of talking would calm the lead Sherpa down and as a final act of defiance he ordered his whole team of 17 Sherpas off the Lhotse Face and back to Camp 2. There was no reason to descend off the mountain because of the three climbers. They had not touched or interfered with the Sherpa’s work. To help smooth things over Ueli Steck fixed a further 260m of rope to Camp 3.
By the time the climbers descended back to Camp 2 some 100 Sherpas had grouped together and attacked the three climbers. They became instantly aggressive and not only punched and kicked the climbers, but threw many 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. Nevertheless all three climbers were attacked as well as many of the Westerners who were trying to calm the situation down. 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, who had been pushed away and told to hide, had regrouped and were told that if they weren’t gone in one hour that they would all be killed.
The climbers packed the bare essentials and made a circuitous route back down to the base of Mount Everest in heavily crevassed terrain with no rope on, feeling that given the current situation this was the safest place to be.
The Sherpas said that the reason they attacked the climbers was because they had knocked ice down on a Sherpa below. As it stands no Sherpa has come forward to show any injury. Furthermore on an ice face getting hit by chunks of ice is a very natural occurrence. The climbers believe that the lead Sherpa was tired and cold and felt that his pride had been damaged as the three climbers were moving unroped and much faster to the side of him. Whatever the reason may be, there is no reason to instigate vigilante rule and to try and kill three visiting climbers.
The Nepalese authorities have taken the matter very seriously as have commercial teams on the mountain. At the moment the 3 ring leaders have been taken off the mountain and the Police, Ministry of Tourism and the head of the Sherpa Association are investigating.
The three climbers would like to extend a huge thank you to all those who saved their lives at Camp 2 and to those who are now taking over the investigation.”
Photo of Ueli Steck by Péron Ludovic/Wikimedia Commons