Brawling at Twenty Thousand Feet: The Everest Punchup

The high-altitude slopes of the world’s highest mountain–Mt. Everest–might seem like a strange place to indulge in fisticuffs but that’s precisely what happened on April 27:

It takes a lot to rattle Swiss climber Ueli Steck….on April 27, while attempting to climb Mount Everest, it wasn’t the mountain that nearly killed him but a mob of angry, stone-wielding Sherpas, who descended on Steck and his two climbing partners as they hid in their tent….Steck, Simone Moro, 45, of Italy, and Jon Griffith, 29, of the U.K., had gotten into an argument with the Sherpas earlier in the day while climbing above Camp 2 on the sheer Lhotse face. The Europeans were climbing independently and Alpine-style – fast, light, and unroped – while, 150 yards away, roughly 15 Sherpas were attaching ropes to the face to be used by the commercial guiding companies….Steck and his crew eventually had to step over the Sherpas’ ropes to reach their tent, at which point the lead Sherpa started shouting and hitting the ice with his axe. “Motherfucker!” Moro exclaimed in broken Nepali. “What are you doing?” The Sherpas claimed ice had been dislodged onto them. Griffith thinks it was all about pride. “We believe that we hurt his honor by climbing so fast,” he says.

The fight between the Sherpas and the climbers has now been adequately documented, and ample analysis offered of all the things that have gone wrong on Mt. Everest: the overcrowding, the increasing number of unskilled climbers being led up the slopes by guides from commercial companies, the dangerous waits for fixed ropes, the increased risk-taking to get to the top at any cost.

Much, if not all of this, is old hat, and has been part of the established narrative on Everest for a while, especially since the 1996 disaster that claimed the lives of nine climbers: Everest’s camps and slopes are crowded places, theaters for fatal conflict and confusion. The views and the air are pristine but little else. And neither is discord on a mountain new: read Galen Rowell‘s In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods for a description of the endless bickering on a 1975 American expedition to K2 in the Karakoram.  

What is new about this latest story is the physical conflict between Sherpas and climbers (Sherpa porters have occasionally gone on strike for better wages; unsurprisingly, this has always been portrayed in Western narratives as blackmail) . Sherpas have been faithful servants, guides and indispensable aides to their clients: they fix ropes, cook food, conduct rescue missions, support climbers in every way possible. A simple way to comprehend their value is to imagine a hot cup of tea thrust through the flaps of a tent early in the morning: waking up for a day’s climbing in sub-zero temperatures suddenly becomes much easier.

In return, they are paid, respected by some climbers and condescended to by a great many others who insist on treating them like children, like the usual grinning natives of exotic adventure tales. To most external observers of the Himalayan mountaineering world, it is clear it is one of the last colonial domains still existent: the dominant vision that emerges is that of the gora saheb, accompanied by his faithful Man Friday, moving up the slope.

This endless condescension, this treatment of the Sherpas as simple-minded illiterates that might do the grunt work, but lack the nous of Western climbers, is visible even in the report above: the European climbers were climbing ‘Alpine’ style, thus possessed of all the skill and dexterity possible, while the Sherpas were merely plodding away, grimly fixing ropes. Classic dichotomy on display: skill vs. brute force. The writer of the article imagines it is only Europeans who can climb Alpine-style; perhaps the Sherpas don’t climb Alpine-style because they are always taking care of someone or something on those slopes?

Then, the cause for the fight: the natives ‘pride’, that old problem whenever you deal with brown or black folk–just like ‘face’, which they seem inordinately worried about losing. Sherpas, sadly, appear incapable of comprehending and appreciating the sophistication of their Western counterparts. (The mentally-challenged Griffith appears to not know the difference between fixing ropes for clients and climbing solo.)

Was ice dislodged on them? We won’t know. The story is never, ever, theirs. It’s always about the non-Sherpas:

“If the Sherpas had been as media savvy as the Euros, the story hitting the news would have been ‘Euro climbers insult, threaten, and endanger Sherpas,’ instead of ‘Sherpas attack climbers,’ ” says IMG co-owner Eric Simonson.

Unsurprisingly, the title of the Men’s Journal story, the one that ironically enough, is the source for the quote that I have excerpted above reads: ‘Attack on Mount Everest: A mob of Sherpas assault three Western climbers…’

Attack, assault, mob. Its pretty clear who is at fault for the Men’s Journal writers.

What is clear to this writer is that Steck, Moro, and Griffith needed an ass-whipping and that the Sherpas’ cause would have been considerably helped if more such beat-downs had been administered in the past.

Forget about respecting mountains. Those who climb in the Himalayas need to begin by respecting its peoples.

8 comments on “Brawling at Twenty Thousand Feet: The Everest Punchup

  1. seanv2 says:

    Great post, Samir. Awhile back I watched this ridiculous reality TV show called “Everest: Beyond the Limit” which unintentionally highlighted a lot of these issues. One of the most interesting segments involved the interaction between a British mountaineer, David Tait, and his guide, Phurba Tashi. Tait was going for a record double ascent, but when he realized that Tashi was the stronger climber, who would have had to let Tait get the record simply because Tait was the paying client, Tait abandoned the attempt and went back to England… leaving Tashi (and the other Sherpas) to clean up after him. It was a strange mixture of respect and condescension.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Sean,

      Thanks for the comment – great to see you here. I watched that show myself – there were so many things wrong on the slopes in its episodes. I remember the Tait episode quite well – I remember being struck by it. What it showed was that many of the so-called ‘feats’ are within the capacities of the Sherpas but they just don’t bother because they don’t quite see the point of treating the mountains as venues for proving something about yourself – they are just their homes!

  2. keithnoback says:

    This looks a bit different from a climber’s perspective (than Men’s Journal or your own), which is not surprising. It seems the particular incident in question was more about workplace dynamics than colonialism, and as usual, the people in need of a beating were those least at risk of one.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Keithnoback: Thanks for the comment.

      I’m sure it looks different from a climber’s perspective. Perhaps its important that climbers realize what their activities look like to the rest of us.

      I’d be curious to hear what you think were the ‘workplace dynamics’ were in this incident. And, who do you think was in need of a beating?

      • keithnoback says:

        Which answer would you prefer, ranty or reasonable?

      • Samir Chopra says:

        I generally prefer reasonable. I’ve read your letter to Steck on your blog so I have some idea of your perspective but would like to hear more.

        Also, since I presume your post will be made under the premise of a domain–climbing–of which you have superior knowledge, may I ask if you have ever climbed in India or Nepal, with our without Sherpas, or have observed at first-hand, Western climbers and hikers’ experiences with Sherpas and other ‘locals’?

        Thanks.

    • keithnoback says:

      I have travelled and “climbed” (Everest-style snow slogging) in Kashmir and Lahdak. I have seen some really obnoxious behavior and language directed at local workers, by Western tourists, Hindu pilgrims, and the national authorities. It often reminded me of the treatment which my Mexican co-workers (and myself to a lesser extent by association) sometimes got in the landscaping biz.
      In Kashmir, I was by myself and on a budget, so I did not employ any local assistance. I wouldn’t anyway. I think that the sort of tourism which directly employs local labor in relatively impoverished areas, creates a service industry in an economy which has nothing of its own to serve. I know that some optimists always hope to parlay the resulting income into something locally owned, but it never seems to pan out. Without such local ownership, the end is stagnation and dependency. A similar dilemma exists in the sphere of “medical assistance” to the third world. I suppose I side with the people who say that third world nations need medical schools, not missionary doctors.
      I think the Sherpas may have things a bit better. They have cornered the market for high altitude technical assistance in Nepal. I think the actions and attitude which the Sherpas displayed in response to independent teams climbing through their work zone is very similar to the response that unionized workers might display towards scabs. And of course, though the scabs may get the beating, the boys at corporate are the ones that really deserve it.
      I don’t want to take the analogy too far, though. The independent climbers are not engaged in the same activity as the adventure tourists on the fixed lines or the Sherpas. This is part of the problem. The environment which adventure tourism demands, precludes the pursuit of the difficulties of the route, technical puzzles, movement, etc. Something has to give. I believe the Sherpas’ actions towards Steck and Co. reflected that dynamic as well

  3. Tom Gething says:

    Great observation, Samir.

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