Everest Fight Reveals Cultural Chasm Between Climbers, Sherpas
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Every April, mountaineers ascend to base camp on Mount Everest to prepare for climbing season. They acclimate to the altitude, ferry supplies, and set up ropes and ladders to make the approach to the upper regions easier. It's often a group effort. Elite climbers and less-skilled paying clients of expedition groups work together with the local sherpas to establish the safest and fastest routes to the top.
CORNISH: Now, this past weekend, that harmony was shattered by a mountainside fight between a large group of sherpas and a team of elite climbers, Ueli Steck of Switzerland and Simone Moro of Italy.
Jonathan Griffith is a photographer and climber who was working with Steck and Moro at the time of the fight. He's left the mountain and joins me now from Lukla in Nepal. Hi there, Jonathan.
JONATHAN GRIFFITH: Hi, there. Thanks a lot for having me.
CORNISH: So take us back to what happened this weekend. What is it that appeared to have angered this group of sherpas?
GRIFFITH: Well, the situation was really complex. And on the outset it seems that we were very much just the tip of the iceberg of a much deeper problem, really, within the community on Everest. Myself and my two teammates, Ueli Steck and Simone Moro, were up on the Lhotse Face which is a part of Everest on the normal route. And, essentially, some sherpas had gone ahead that day to fix lines, which is putting down these ropes which you attach to the mountain which allows clients later on not only to secure themselves to the ropes, but also helps them at times pull themselves up the mountain on these ropes.
And we came to a bit of a conflict high up on the face where we were trying to not get in their way or interfere at all with their work in any way. But somehow, we came to a bit of an altercation higher up where everyone met together.
CORNISH: The climbers who climb alpine style, I guess which would mean they don't use sherpas, ended up crossing some of the lines that the sherpas we're putting up on the face and some ice rained down on the sherpas. And that was sort of the crux of the initial issue?
GRIFFITH: Well, not really. These are the things that have been reported. And we both heard from reporters that we were told not to climb on the same day, just completely untrue. We were told at the bottom to not clip into the ropes, which for us is absolutely fine because we're quite happy soloing up the face. It's not too hard for us.
We had a tent high up on the face, which we wanted to access, which involved quite literally stepping over these lines they were fixing. It doesn't involve touching them at all or anything else. And the initial allegations that we dropped some ice on a sherpa, no sherpa has ever come forward - even though there's been a proper and official investigation, there's no sherpa has come forward to say that he was injured.
And even if this was the case, you know, you're in on a mountain on an ice face, you get hit by ice all the time.
CORNISH: And once this group got physical, I've read that there was another group of Westerners who interfered and who helped you guys out.
GRIFFITH: Yeah, well, absolutely. So then we came back down to Camp 2 probably about an hour after the sherpas and we were confronted, you know, within about five minutes of getting back to our tent by a really angry mob of 100 or 150 sherpas. So they somehow to rallied together a huge amount of other sherpas who were basically, you know, out for blood and gave, you know, told us that they wanted to kill us for sure.
And when they attacked us, basically, yes, it was down to five or so Westerners - very, very brave Westerners - who effectively saved our lives and tried to put a buffer between us and them, and try and calm the situation down. And we absolutely owe our lives to those people.
CORNISH: One issue raised in a blog post by the Everest guide Adrienne Ballenger, he writes: 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 face. Why didn't you?
GRIFFITH: Well, this is true. And we were told about this when we came back down. But you have to understand, we're not part of a commercial expedition. And these commercial teams, they will get together and have meetings and, you know, discuss which commercial expedition - I believe anyway this is how it works - will organize, you know, certain parts of fixing on different parts of the mountain.
But, you know, we're not a commercial team. We're very small team of independent climbers who are not really relying on these fixed ropes. You know, we had absolutely no idea about the lines are going to be fixed the following day when we headed up.
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, is a very controversial thing to be able to say in the first place.
CORNISH: And at the same time, you said that the reasons behind the attack are complicated and deep-rooted, and have to do with the relationship between Westerners and Nepalese on the mountain over many years.
GRIFFITH: You know, we were really shocked at the attack; mainly shocked because we didn't understand why on Earth that it escalated to this level. And it's not until we got back down to base camp and discussed with some of the leaders of the sherpa community, as well as, you know, the big commercial expedition teams out here that, you know, it's basically a bit of a breakdown of not of trust but of respect that the sherpas feel has happened in the last decade towards them. You know, they feel like they are being used.
And if you look at the mountain you can understand - I can fully understand how they might feel this, of course, because you have a lot of very rich Westerners out here. And there's a lot of luxuries at base camp nowadays. You know, we have all the modicums really. And yet these sherpas are doing a huge amount of work to get everyone up the mountain. They establish the camps. They put the fixed lines up. They help clients up the mountains. They carry the oxygen.
You know, and I'm sure they must look occasionally back on their clients and everything around them and think they're being used. And I think us being on the mountain next to them and climbing up so fast, and not using the fixed lines they're establishing was, you know, is a bit of an extension of that. And they might have seen as trying to make them look bad, which of course, is not at all the case.
CORNISH: In the meantime, what does this mean for the expedition that you've been on? And are you ever going to go back?
GRIFFITH: A lot of people have been asking this question. Well, for the moment our expedition is over for sure. There's absolutely no way that we're going back this year. I would like to think that I would go back to Everest but its left me with a very bitter taste, this experience, obviously. And it's not just because of what happened at Camp 2, which is obviously, you know, going to be with all three of us the rest of our lives.
But the mountains are meant to be a really free and wonderful place, and that's why I love climbing so much. And, you know, my experience of Everest so far has really been very, very far from that. And I'm not sure that it's a place that I'm particularly happy to come back to. But I'm not, you know, I can't say for sure and I hope one day that I will change my mind and I will be back.
CORNISH: Well, Jonathan, thank you for using the last of your battery life.
GRIFFITH: And thank you so much for your time.
CORNISH: That's climber and photographer Jonathan Griffith, recounting an altercation he and his team had with a group of sherpas while climbing Mount Everest this past weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.