If you follow any of the mountaineering publications, by now you are fully familiar with the incident that took place this season on Mt. Everest. For those of you who don’t follow such events closely, here is the summary:
This past month three well known and accomplished European climbers, Ueli Steck, Jonathan Griffith and Simone Moro had planned to attempt a new route up the South Col of Everest. They were climbing on the Lhotse face without ropes, in order to acclimatize for the attempt and were at about 23,000ft (7,000m). At that point, a team of Sherpas began setting ropes for a commercial climbing expedition. The ropes were being set in a manner that passed perpendicularly to the line of ascent of the European team, which they needed to take to reach their tents above Camp 2. When the team crossed over the ropes, the Sherpas appear to have become very upset, leading to the exchange of words. It is not clear exactly why this happened. Some have speculated that some ice fell on one of the Sherpas, but no injuries were reported. The exchange seems to have gotten more heated when one of the European climbers offered to help set up the ropes.
The European team returned down to Camp 2, where they were met by a crowd of several dozen Sherpas, and assaulted. Simone Moro, in an interview, states that they would have certainly been killed if it wasn’t for a number of other western climbers who intervened at that point, stopping the Sherpas. Steck, Griffith and Moro then descended to base camp using a more distant route to avoid meeting any more Sherpas.
The incident has been very shocking, in large part because no one can seem to come up with a justifiable reason for the excessive violence used by the Sherpas. Even if Moro and his team mates were rude, an assault by dozens of Sherpas is hardly justified. There does not appear to have been any actual impropriety on behalf of the European team. All of their actions, even if not ideal seem reasonable under the circumstances. We’ll never know exactly what was said, but words alone, regardless of how heated or rude, can hardly account for the over the top response.
I think the incident also points to long standing tensions between alpinists, and tourist/commercial climbers. Mt. Everest has become a tourist attraction, with commercial enterprises employing large numbers of Sherpas to bring paying customers to the top of the mountain. There is often tension between these organized enterprises and alpinists who climb by themselves and do not follow the established routes. I think this incident is one example of this tensions coming to the surface in an unjustifiable way. And lastly, perhaps another layer of tension underlies the whole issue, that of the history of the Sherpas and their status. While initially starting out as simply cheap labor for foreign expeditions, used to carry large loads of equipment, Sherpas over the years have come to represent some of the best climbers on Everest. As part of commercial enterprises, they often literally drag paying tourists up and down the mountain. They have developed a well earned reputation. Perhaps encountering western climbers working above them without ropes hit a sensitive spot. No matter, none of this incident can be justified, and I think it will have unfortunate repercussions for alpine climbing on Everest. Moro and his team have already abandoned their attempt as a result of the incident, and have no plans of returning, at least for now.