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.