World's highest fight
April 30, 2013 3:22 AM   Subscribe

Last weekend, almost 60 years after the first ascent by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, fights broke out between three Western climbers and a group of sherpas, at around 7200m on Mount Everest.

The three Western climbers were noted alpinists Ueli Steck and Simone Moro, and photographer Jonathan Griffith.

The Westerners were climbing between Camp 2 and Camp 3, when they encountered a group of sherpas fixing ropes for teams preparing to make their ascents. What exactly triggered the altercation is disputed, but there was a confrontation, and both groups separately descended to Camp 2. When the Western climbers arrived, they were physically attacked by a very large group of sherpas. The climbers believed that their lives were in danger, and only saved by the interventions of other climbers.

Simone Moro's account (Italian and English) is shaping perceptions in the Western media, and while it is unlikely that we will hear a detailed account from the Sherpa side, a perhaps more balanced account can be found here.

Apologies have been made, and an armistice has been signed by all parties, but the incident raises further questions about the increasing commercialisation of Everest, and the changing role and exploitation of the sherpas.

Previously: Everest Traffic Jam, Ueli Steck
posted by daveje (45 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

"What exactly triggered the altercation is disputed"


It was a cold and windy day... we don’t represent much business for the Sherpa. And seeing 3 alpinists climb unroped for an hour 50/100m to the right of the fixed ropes might have made them nervous (jealousy? Who knows). In any case none of us bragged or provoked anyone. When we crossed the ropes things degenerated. We told them we’d help fix the ropes if they wanted us to, considering that conditions were harsh. They did nothing but shout and threaten, and Ueli and I fixed another 260 meters of rope for them and for everyone else.

The worst thing about cheap bastards is that they don't even realize that they're being cheap bastards. They're not avoiding the ropes to avoid paying the Sherpas, they're just really good climbers.

It is as if each man pays 64 thousand dollars for the greens fees and they're gonna stiff the loopers because "hey we can carry our own clubs."

Useless millionaire playboys.
posted by three blind mice at 3:48 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes the triggers are disputed, including whether a sherpa was injured by falling ice.

They're not avoiding the ropes to avoid paying the Sherpas, they're just really good climbers.

They weren't avoiding ropes, the ropes weren't even up yet and Steck's team were on their way to attempt an entirely new route. They were definitely not trying to save money.

Useless millionaire playboys.

Seriously? Do you have any idea who you are talking about here? They were climbing without oxygen, do you think that's because they were cheapskates too?
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 3:57 AM on April 30, 2013 [14 favorites]

I don't think anyone uses oxygen that low on the mountain
posted by thelonius at 4:07 AM on April 30, 2013

Empath, that's the creepiest link I've ever clicked on.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:09 AM on April 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

“We'll have to watch out in case the Sherpas attack”
— My uncle was like that!
“Like what?”
— Sherp as a tack!

(sorry, one gets too few chances to use Lobey Dosser patter in life.)
posted by scruss at 4:25 AM on April 30, 2013 [10 favorites]

Since when did anyone need to know what they were talking about in order to make a sweeping judgement on The Blue?

Just kidding.

Having a crowd of angry sherpas chasing me with rocks in hand at altitude is about my worst nightmare, having just met one (in the nicest circumstances, for the record)
posted by C.A.S. at 4:57 AM on April 30, 2013

They were climbing without oxygen, do you think that's because they were cheapskates too?

You miss the point. This is a rich man's hobby. They're not saving money by climbing without oxygen, but they are denying the poor sap who makes his living from carrying oxygen bottles his chance to make a living. Like parking your own Ferrari because you "hey why give a few bucks to the valet when I can park it myself."

"Climbing permits and fees – prorated per person, $25,000 for 1 person; $56,000 for 4 people; $70,000 for 7 people, etc.
Climbing permits and fees – prorated per person, $25,000 for 1 person; $56,000 for 4 people; $70,000 for 7 people, etc.
Sagarmatha National Park Entrance Fee – $100 per team
Khumbu Icefall Fee (paid to Sagarmatha Park for route maintenance) – $2,375 per team
Satellite Phone permit (paid to Nepalese Ministry of Communications) – $2,300 per phone
Garbage and Human Waste Disposal (A comprehensive clean-up and recycling effort is underway on Mount Everest, to counteract decades of environmental abuse. This fee is paid to Sagarmatha Park officials.) – $4,000
Oxygen (High quality oxygen and oxygen canisters are essential to the success and safety of climbers.) – $30,000
Lead guide – $25,000 Note: The more famous your guide, the more he or she will cost you. For instance, for $125,000, you may be able to hire Ed Viesturs, the first American to summit all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks without the use of supplemental oxygen.
2 Assistant guides – $10,000 to $15,000 each"

Each line you cut out of that list is a lost employment opportunity for the Sherpas. I can understand the locals don't like scabs on the mountain.
posted by three blind mice at 5:07 AM on April 30, 2013

There was an article on Bloomberg maybe? That had a quote from an unrelated westerner who was there and placed the blame firmly on the the three climbers. Basically the story told in the other side link. Sherpas asked them to wait until the ropes were up even though they weren't using them, these guys ignored that request which was made multiple times and then they broke off a piece of ice that hit a Sherpa and the whole thing kicked off.
posted by JPD at 5:10 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think the key thing, which is left out of Moro's account, is that they had been asked not to climb the route until the Sherpas had finished fixing ropes on it, but they went ahead and climbed anyway; a few or many metres off to the side but they did have to traverse over the ropes at one point. Regardless of whether the Europeans sent some snow down on the Sherpas while doing so, the Sherpas probably felt dissed that these guys hadn't listened to them.
posted by Flashman at 5:13 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

But listen to what you're saying ... if you're an experienced climber climbing the highest peak on earth, how does what is effectively crossing union lines even come into the picture? I'm not prepared to say that this is what Mount Everest is truly for.
posted by cotterpin at 5:13 AM on April 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

I can understand the locals don't like scabs on the mountain.

Scabs would be if they brought in porters who weren't Sherpas. There's a difference between not hiring Union and simply not hiring.
posted by eriko at 5:16 AM on April 30, 2013 [12 favorites]

Steck is not paying to climb. He is being paid to climb.
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 5:17 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Like parking your own Ferrari because you "hey why give a few bucks to the valet when I can park it myself."

You use this analogy like it's obvious that parking your own Ferrari is some kind of sin; I don't think it is. There's no moral obligation to hire someone to do something because you can afford it. I'm not denying anyone their livelihood when I choose to park my own car, or make my own meals, or wash my own clothes.

In any event, it does seem like the climbers are the ones being dicks, but for unrelated reasons to the ones you suggest.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:18 AM on April 30, 2013 [17 favorites]

So much fascinating stuff here, daveje, thanks. That "commercialism" link is to a great Outside magazine roundtable with climbers from 2006, full of detail about how the guide system works and what's right and wrong with it, including a bit about how hard it can be to tell a successful businessman, "No, you won't be getting to the top this time."

And then there's this:

I think that a huge burden of rescues these days goes on the Sherpas...we all know that the people doing the real rescue work...are the Sherpas. And yeah, the scariest situation as Ed was pointing out there is the lone Sherpa on a team where the western climbers have cut corners all the way and it comes down to that Sherpa working all by himself up there with somebody who has pushed a little too far.

And yeah, you hate to see that burden come on that guy who is a farmer the rest of the year and is trying to support a family.

Oh and empath's link is full of pics of the dead bodies that litter the top of Everest (because no one at that height has the energy to move them) and are now used as landmarks for other climbers. Really creepy and fascinating.
posted by mediareport at 5:24 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not prepared to say that this is what Mount Everest is truly for.

It's a tall mountain.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:34 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Plowing on, the "more balanced" report is a must-read for its attempt at recreating second-hand what may have happened, noting "There is an unwritten rule that all climbers stay off the Face while the Sherpas are fixing rope." It also links to this thoughtful blog post from guide Adrian Ballinger, who was on Everest at the time of the incident:

To me, the bottom line is that multiple mistakes were made by both sides. On Everest, the professional climbers (even when attempting new routes) also benefit from fixed ropes, trails broken, and rescue caches placed, primarily by the Sherpa. The professional climbers involved could have and should have chosen somewhere else to acclimatize on this day, instead of solo climbing above the rope fixing team. Everyone knew about the rope fixing effort, and other teams that would have liked to be climbing where the incident occurred respected the rope fixing effort and stayed off the Lhotse Face. Even if no rock or ice actually was knocked off by the professional climbers, and even if no rope-fixing sherpa was injured, there was still a perception of disrespect for the effort. As part of past rope-fixing efforts on Everest, I can attest to the importance of not having other climbers pushing the team from below, or putting the team at risk from above.

With that said, the response from some (not all) of the Sherpa was inexplicable and inexcusable. Regardless of the disagreement, or the inappropriate language used by the western climbers, the threats and attempts at violence by the Sherpa involved were wrong. I was given numerous possible explanations for the severity of their anger, but none of them justify attempting bodily harm. This behavior would be wrong anywhere. Above 6000 meters on a mountain, where we all need to depend on each other to try to minimize accidents, injuries, and death, this behavior does nothing but undermine the bonds between teams and climbers that we depend on. It is my understanding that a small number of sherpa led and incensed the rest of the "mob" that formed. It is my opinion that these sherpa should be removed from the mountain for this season, and potentially prosecuted. The same goes for the westerners, if eyewitness reports stand true, that responded with violence. Their behavior stands in sharp contrast to the numerous westerners and sherpa that did not resort to violence and attempted to diffuse the situation, even at risk to themselves.

posted by mediareport at 5:44 AM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh, this part is worth pulling out, from an interview with Moro linked by Alan Arnette:

We owe our lives mainly to 4 people. The first and most important is American climber Melissa Arnot. Then a Sherpa named Pan Nuru. Then an American guide named Greg who belongs to the IMG expedition.
posted by mediareport at 6:02 AM on April 30, 2013

I wonder how much of this is because being at that kind of altitude can really fuck with your judgement.
posted by rtha at 6:40 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seems to me the climbers got involved in a land war in Asia. Classic mistake.
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:46 AM on April 30, 2013 [16 favorites]

Considering they've got wi-fi up there now, what's the mountain climbing equivalent of WorldStarHipHop?
posted by surplus at 7:08 AM on April 30, 2013

Wow, this sounds incredibly scary.

It's fair to say that Simone Moro is one of the true heroes of Everest, flying many incredible helicopter recovery missions at stupendous altitudes and in horrific conditions. The "millionaire playboys" and "scabs" talk is completely orthogonal to what's going on here.
posted by pjm at 7:10 AM on April 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

Each line you cut out of that list is a lost employment opportunity for the Sherpas. I can understand the locals don't like scabs on the mountain

Are you kidding me? People want to bravely go ahead on their own and conquer Everest, and you're talking about how it's a lost employment opportunity for Sherpas if they do it themselves, and like "scabbing"? The mountain doesn't belong to the Sherpas.
posted by corb at 7:44 AM on April 30, 2013

Like parking your own Ferrari because you "hey why give a few bucks to the valet when I can park it myself."
I think it's more like doing your own mechanic work on your Ferrari because you enjoy the challenge. The professional Ferrari mechanic isn't getting paid, but it's not because you're trying to save money.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:54 AM on April 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

They're not saving money by climbing without oxygen, but they are denying the poor sap who makes his living from carrying oxygen bottles his chance to make a living.

"Man, fuck Jonas Salk. Do you know how many people lost jobs building iron lungs?"
posted by Etrigan at 8:31 AM on April 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

When you hire them because of their experience for the express purpose of getting you safely up the mountain, you apologize, and move on.

posted by prepmonkey at 8:55 AM on April 30, 2013

When you hire them because of their experience for the express purpose of getting you safely up the mountain, you apologize, and move on.

They didn't hire them.
posted by eugenen at 9:52 AM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

What has so surprised the international climbing community is the target for the Sherpas' wrath. Steck, nicknamed the Swiss Machine, has made a speciality of climbing difficult alpine routes without ropes in record times and now does the same in the Himalayas. He is widely respected for his views on how climbing should be practised.

Moro has climbed Everest four times and made the first ascent in winter of Makalu, the world's fifth-highest peak. He is also a helicopter pilot, volunteering to fly rescue missions in Nepal. He was awarded a fair play award by Unesco for the rescue of a British climber in 2001.

Griffith, one of Britain's most capable alpinists as well as a leading climbing photographer, said: "The reasons behind the attack are complicated and to do with the relationship between westerners and Nepalis on the mountain over many years – not because of our direct actions."

Sounds about right.
posted by lazaruslong at 10:08 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wait, there are people here who don't pay other people to type in their comments? And it's morally OK to not have to employ someone? So I can safely ignore the threats from this gentleman I've hired to type my comments that if I fire him he will att
posted by A dead Quaker at 10:22 AM on April 30, 2013 [7 favorites]

I kinda enjoy the argument, "It's a rich man's hobby, and by God it should STAY that way!"
posted by cribcage at 10:29 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

The professional climbers involved could have and should have chosen somewhere else to acclimatize on this day, instead of solo climbing above the rope fixing team

The million dollar question -- were they already climbing when the rope fixing team decided to go out, and if so, was there any way for them to know, before they started climbing, that there would be a rope setting team out at that time.

If the answer is "no" and "no", then there is absolutely no blame for them. They went out climbing, and a rope team forms up behind them and it's their fault?

If either of the answers is yes, then there is a great deal of blame for breaking a large social convention and safety rule, which is one doesn't climb around the rope setting team.
posted by eriko at 11:04 AM on April 30, 2013

The Sherpa's viewpoint.
posted by daveje at 2:03 PM on April 30, 2013 [9 favorites]

Wow. daveje's "Sherpa's viewpoint" link includes a report from Garrett Madison, an expedition leader on Everest at the time. It does not make Simone Moro look good, but it appears that a "careless Western climber" who "entangled physically" with a Sherpa back at camp (this may be the same report of the person who knocked a rock out of a Sherpa's hand elsewhere) was the precipitator for the fight. A long excerpt from Madison's email:

All expedition leaders and Sherpa Sirdars were invited and attended a meeting in Everest base camp to discuss the rope fixing strategy for this season on Everest. At this meeting everyone had a chance to suggest the best strategy and route to safely climb the mountain. The meeting concluded with the nomination of fixing Sherpas (the best available) and the suitable dates to complete the work. It was also agreed at the meeting by all the expedition leaders that nobody would be climbing on the route on these dates except the fixing team. That while these young men were working to fix the route for all expeditions at base camp, no expedition would disrupt or create a distraction for them. Unfortunately, Simone Moro did not attend this meeting, and might not have been aware that this protocol is an unwritten rule on Everest...

The 3 European climbers set out the morning of the 27th heading for the Lhotse face. After suggestions from both guides and Sherpa at Camp 2 and below the Lhotse face to turn around, because fixing the Lhotse face demands strict concentration, the 3 climbers continued on to the Lhotse face moving up and to the left of the fixing route. The 3 climbers moved alpine style up the Lhotse face and were headed towards their camp (just below camp 3 on the Lhotse face).

At this time the Sherpa fixing team were working on the Lhotse Face and have reached one of the steeper & more exposed areas. The temperature was dropping and the winds were picking up. As the fixing team was moving through a steeper section of the Lhotse face, the 3 European climbers met with the fixing team. The fixing team alerted the 3 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 3 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 3 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 8 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. This was the ignition for what ensued next. It is safe to say that the Sherpa thought this western climber was part of Simone’s team and had initiated a dangerous confrontation. At this point the Sherpa felt as if they needed to defend themselves as they had just seen one of their colleagues attacked. The tense situation ignited and a brawl ensued.

posted by mediareport at 2:53 PM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thanks, daveje; this is really fascinating. I'm really glad we're seeing detailed reports, and hope Melissa Arnot changes her mind about sharing what she saw and heard. Chad Kellogg's version is very different from Garrett Madison's:

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 mans 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.

posted by mediareport at 3:38 PM on April 30, 2013

Can someone explain why the rope fixing work was needed? Does the rock crumble away, or do the old pitons come out?
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:29 PM on April 30, 2013

As described in daveje's link, the rope fixing Sherpas were working on the Lhotse face. Lhotse is a secondary peak connected to Everest, and is ascended by a wall of ice on the western flank of the mountain. Google "Lhotse Face" and you'll see plenty of images of exactly what this entails. So the rope is anchored to ice, not rock, and the rope must be re-set every year at the beginning of the climbing season.
posted by zueod at 5:13 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

This repeated use of the word 'jealousy' by both Steck and Moro is so strange to me. The idea that the sherpas might be jealous that they are moving faster up the mountain seems pretty ridiculous. They're fixing ropes, they're doing a job. Why they would possibly be 'jealous' is beyond me. And while I guess it's possible (???) it's also the argument you hear used against people with real complaints or criticisms to try to de-legitimize them, so...

Although I like Ueli Steck, this kind of language makes me pretty suspicious of the whole narrative he and his team have going on. I'm glad the sherpas got more voice with that dispatch sent from Garrett Madison.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 6:30 PM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Can someone explain why the rope fixing work was needed? Does the rock crumble away, or do the old pitons come out?
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:29 PM on April 30 [+] [!]

The Lhotse face is a steep ice/snow climb that many climbers would not be comfortable doing unroped.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 8:19 PM on April 30, 2013

Can someone explain why the rope fixing work was needed? Does the rock crumble away, or do the old pitons come out?

Rope has a finite lifespan in terms of how many times you want to climb on it and in terms of how it's going to hold up on the side of a mountain for a year. I expect the latter is the greater consideration--last year's ropes probably can't be relied on.
posted by hoyland at 8:39 PM on April 30, 2013

Also bear in mind that most fatalities happen on the way down, not the way up. The fixed ropes provide a way for guides and clients to find their way back to camp.
posted by daveje at 11:55 PM on April 30, 2013

I heard part of this interview (transcript) with Griffith yesterday on NPR. The bit I heard that I had me rolling my eyes so hard I almost had to pull the car over was where he said:

But also, it brings up the bigger issue which is you can't tell people when to climb and when not to climb. You know, this is mountaineering. It's meant to be a very free activity and that's why climbers enjoy doing it. So to be able to say the people have decided to fix the mountain on that day and that no one can climate [sic], is a very controversial thing to be able to say in the first place.

posted by rtha at 6:14 AM on May 1, 2013

The executive director of the American Alpine Club, Phil Powers, released a statement today that addresses Griffith's argument in the NPR interview:

"On piste" climbers follow a known track, often with guides. Sometimes the track is even prepared, like Everest’s Southeast Ridge, with a fixed icefall, fixed lines on the route, and preset camps with food and oxygen. "Off piste" climbers go everywhere else. And sometimes we all end up near each other. There is room for both as long as we have a little respect.

Both sorts climb on Mount Everest. This week, the most cutting edge of off-piste climbers bumped up against one of the most entrenched traditions of the on-piste climbing world: the fixing of the lines for Everest’s pre-monsoon season.

People are different...Climbing is dangerous and how one approaches the heights is a very personal decision. Those style choices are freedoms we all enjoy until they affect others or hurt the mountain. Yes, the domination of the guided routes on Everest affects others. But that is a concession I think we can make given the near limitless opportunities in the off-piste world...The climber without a guide knows that choosing an on-piste route brings the hazards (and joys?) of other people.

It also means that those who are expanding the envelope of human potential in their off-piste pursuits must play by the rules of the route. Generally this has been dictated by the mountain, but when numbers are added to the environment, the environment itself changes and so must one’s approach to it. Every spring on Everest, the climbing teams get together and make some rules: when the icefall will be fixed, who will do it, what the budget will be, and how other climbers will operate while it’s going on. Disregarding these facts of the mountain is like disregarding the avalanche conditions or weather. It puts one on a path with real hazard and inflicts a real or perceived hazard on others.

That's via Alan Arnette, who also links this appreciation yesterday of "My Friend and Sherpa, Mingma Chhring," by Dave Mauro, who's now climbing Everest with Chhring:

Mingma has successfully led an IMG Everest client to the world’s highest summit each year for an incredible record of 10 out of 10 attempts.

Mingma likes Guiding but knows it is a dangerous job. He says his wife and two sons understand the risks he takes, but also realize this is the best way for him to make money for the family. His sons talk about following in his footsteps and becoming climbing Guides one day, but Mingma has forbid it. “This is a danger job,” he tells them, “and I want you to become a Doctor or Engineer.” He hopes they will go to America to start their careers. “They can be comfortable there, have a car and some money and same freedoms as here in Nepal,” he says. Mingma and his wife, who runs their small vegetable farm in Phortse, pay a yearly tuition of $1,500 U.S. for each boy to attend a boarding school in Kathmandu where they are learning English, Nepali, Tibetan, Math, History, and Science. The School is called Mount Kailash. It is difficult for Mingma and his wife to raise the funds for tuition each year and he has asked me to mention in this article that they would welcome any sponsorship the Readers of this blog might be willing to offer. You can contact the Mount Kailash school directly at if you wish to do so.

posted by mediareport at 8:31 PM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

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