Maybe now we’re getting closer to truthiness. The first reports of the high altitude fight on Mt. Everest April 27 came primarily from the three western climbers involved in the dustup with Sherpa guides, climbers, and porters. In the last two days as more witnesses are coming forward, it’s become clear that Simone Moro, Ueli Steck, and photographer Jonathan Griffith were not blameless, despite their early statements, but also that their actions have to be set against larger issues of commercial climbing vs. independent, the complex relationships between westerners and Nepalis, and the challenges of organizing safety when hundreds of people are funneled in a dangerous place.
Tensions were already high on the Lhotse Face before Moro and Steck and Griffith began their climb to Camp 3 on April 27, said Chad Kellogg, who is attempting to break the speed record from Base Camp to the summit and back. On the day prior, April 26, Kellogg and Rory Stark set fixed ropes up the face along the line of the 1953 first ascent, but were turned back by a huge crevasse.
“We had just wasted a day in our efforts,” Kellogg wrote. “As the realization set in we were more than a bit disappointed. Rory and I removed the screws and rappelled the face…The Sherpas just ran down and left us to fend for ourselves and so we coiled 400 meters of rope, collected the equipment, and filled our packs with 50 lbs of gear and rope to bring back down.
“When we arrived to Camp 2 there was a lot of grumbling from the Sherpa crew that we had wasted a day. They had wanted to fix the lines to Camp 3 themselves without the “white eyes” or mikaru as the foreigners are known. We came to find out that the fixing of the lines is a matter of national pride for the Sherpas. We stopped in at IMG for a few cups of juice and to talk with the guides and staff. We explained what we had tried and the insurmountable obstacles that we had run into. They congratulated us on our effort and we resigned to take a rest day and let the 18 Sherpa crew fix the lines up to Camp 3. I observed that tensions amongst the Sherpas line-fixing crew were high.”
The next day, Moro, Steck, and Griffiths set out for their Camp 3, located a little lower than the commercial C3. According to Alpine Ascents guide Garrett Madison, expedition leaders had agreed to avoid the face when Sherpas were setting up the fixed lines, a meeting Moro did not attend. When they arrived at the bottom, the three were asked not to climb it, then were either given permission or proceeded on their own (accounts are conflicting).
The Europeans were not the only independent climbers on the Lhotse Face, however. A group of Russians aiming for Lhotse were ascending parallel to the fixed lines, too.
The Russians wrote, “Headed up to Camp 3 we were caught up at the bottom of the ice wall by the group of Sherpas and a couple of Americans (heads of expeditions, interesting in fixing ropes on Everest) who persistently asked us not to continue our climb so as not to disturb the Sherpas. We tried to explain to them for about half an hour that we could climb aside from the Sherpas without disturbing them, to which they eventually agreed. We set our tent almost below the bergschrund, although we had planned to climb higher for acclimatization.” (Translated into English for Expedition Web).
The weather was deteriorating as the western trio approached the sharp end of the Sherpa efforts — the wind was picking up and temperature was dropping. According to Garrett Madison, whose account was written to share the Sherpa perspective, this is what happened next:
As the fixing team was moving through a steeper section of the Lhotse Face, the three European climbers met with the fixing team. The fixing team alerted the three climbers to not touch or cross the rope. This is a high intensity environment where people’s instincts are at a heightened state. The lead fixing Sherpa spoke with one of the three climbers at which point physical contact was made, at that point Simone came in verbal contact with a number of the fixing team who had now congregated at one of the anchors to secure themselves from sliding down the face.
Simone began to shout, many of the words in Nepali language, and many of the words were inflammatory. At this point the fixing team made the correct decision to drop their loads of rope and hardware, attaching them to the installed line, and descend without any further interaction or confrontation with the three climbers. The fixing team descended to Camp 2 and went to their respective camps as a number of expedition teams work together to fix the route on Mt. Everest. As the fixing team descended to Camp 2, Simone radioed down requesting to know what the Sherpa were talking about. At one point Simone stated over open radio frequency (fixing frequency-tuned in by all the fixing teams and anyone listening on the mountain) that if the Sherpa had a problem he could come down to Camp 2 soon and “f—ing fight.”
As Simone returned back to Camp 2 he again spoke over the fixing frequency a demand to speak with the fixing team comprised of 16 Sherpa (of eight different teams) back at Camp 2. He explained that he would meet them at one of the expedition camps. When he arrived in Camp 2 he went to his tent. At this point some western guides went to Simone’s camp to explain that he should apologize for the situation his team created during a very dangerous workday. As the western guides spoke to Simone, Sherpas from many different teams congregated as a result of his radio call from the Lhotse Face and wanted to speak with Simone and get an apology and to explain to him how difficult their job had been that day. The Sherpas who were together felt that Simone’s words and interactions were both hurtful to the individuals, as well as grave and serious insults to the entire Sherpa community. As the Sherpas approached Simone’s camp tensions were high and they wanted to have a discussion with an already angered Simone. Then Simone came out to talk and both sides approached each other in loud discussion at which point a careless western climber who had not been involved up on the Lhotse Face arrived and entangled physically with a Sherpa.
What happened next, as described by Kellogg, sounds surreal.
Melissa [Arnot] … saw a large group of Sherpas, between 35 and 75 men, headed for the encampment of Simone, Jonathan, and Ueli. She was closer than the mob so she ran to the tent and told them to make a run for the glacier and hide. Simone and Jonathan made it out to the glacier while Ueli stayed behind.
Ueli said that he was confronted by the mob and was immediately hit in the head by a fist followed by a rock to the head. Melissa pushed Ueli into the kitchen tent to protect him from the mob. The Sherpa men would not hit a woman so she was the buffer of protection from the very angry mob. Since it was too hard to figure out what was happening to Simone and Jonathan, Melissa sent a Sherpa from Simone’s camp to get he and Jonathan from the glacier. They were secretly ushered into the same kitchen tent as Ueli and buffered from the mob by Melissa and the head of Camp 2 for IMG. The men promised that if Simone came out on his knees and begged for forgiveness he would not be hurt. Simone tried to get out of the tent on his knees when he was beaten and forced back inside. Awhile later Melissa asked Simone to get back on his knees outside the tent and ask for forgiveness again. She had been assured by the instigaters that he would not be hurt. So Simone got on his knees to ask for forgiveness and was kicked under the chin, someone tried to stab him with a pen knife, but fortunately the knife hit him in the padded belt of his backpack.
Simone retreated inside the tent again. Marty Schmidt recalled when I talked with him at Camp 2 that he saw a man getting ready to bring a large rock down on Simone’s head to kill him. Marty grabbed the rock and the man’s arm and shouted, “No, no violence.” For his intervention he received a rock to the head himself. Marty was still wearing the bandage on his head when I spoke with him.
Eventually, the crowd of angry men dispersed. Swearing that if the three, Simone, Jonathan, and Ueli were still there in an hour they would come back and kill the three of them. Simone, Jonathan, and Ueli left by the main glacier behind camp and hidden from view. They did not even have a rope to protect them from the crevasses that lurk there as an ever present danger. Beat up but mobile, the trio made their way down from Camp 2 to 1 and through the icefall back to Base Camp.
The next day, the parties signed a “peace agreement,” and the westerners ended their No2 expedition. Steck and Griffith are heading home to Switzerland and the U.K., respectively. Moro, a rescue helicopter pilot, initially said he would stay on the mountain, but the Pakistan Times reported that, he, too, is leaving the Khumbu Valley.
Steck and Moro blamed the fight on a clash of values between commercial climbs that would depend upon the fixed ropes the Sherpas were setting and independent climbers such as themselves who wouldn’t.
“I don’t think it was a personal problem towards our team,” Steck told Swiss Info, “but a long-term problem that has been growing in Nepal recently. I guess we were just at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He went on to say that the Nepali climbers were jealous of their richer western clients. The Swiss Info interviewer pressed Steck, asking, “Are you sure you did not provoke them?” but he replied, “The Sherpas have worked here for many years and they are the rich people in Nepal, and they have gained a lot of power. But on the other hand they see all these westerners making all that money. And there is a huge gap between them and the westerners. What happened up there is the display of anger that has been growing for years. It is the rift between two worlds and the jealousy has grown over years.”
As with most conflicts, the situation on Everest wasn’t that simple. The Base Camp peace agreement stated: “All those present agreed and committed that such activities must never be repeated by anyone in mountaineering and in the tourism sector. If any party is dissatisfied with the actions of another party, they commit not to go into conflict or use violence against the other party. Instead they commit to report the actions to the government representatives or relevant government recognized association present at the base camps, to come to an amicable solution between the parties.” It is a worthy and noble idea, and maybe it will lead to better understanding. But 50 years to the day since the first American ascent, the Everest climbing scene has become a complex mix of big-money efforts fueled by intensely goal-oriented people, where cultural and language differences easily lead to misunderstanding, all set in an extremely dangerous natural environment at an altitude that diminishes decision making and weakens the body. In light of all that, summiting might be the easy part.
UPDATE MAY 2, 2013
In an interview with Explorers Web, Simone Moro said, “Garrett Madison’s report is completely false. He wrote: ‘…At one point Simone stated over open radio frequency (fixing frequency-tuned in by all the fixing teams and anyone listening on the mountain) that if the Sherpa had a problem he could come down to Camp 2 soon and ‘f—ing fight’.’
“This is completely, completely, completely false! I never did such a stupid and provocative radio call, and I have witnesses to confirm it. The report is falsifying facts to justify the tension and the violence in Camp 2. I can understand that he has to defend his business, but lying is not the way to do it. ”