Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Everest Brawl

Catching up on some reading recently, I came across an article highlighting an incident from 3 months ago that had slipped past without my noticing: Nick Paumgarten's The Manic Mountain: Ueli Steck and the clash on Everest..

Steck is a very famous, but rather independent-minded and isolated climber. Paumgartens notes that

He'd kept his plans secret. He has long disdained revealing the details of expeditions in advance. He doesn't indulge in what he calls "tasty talking" -- boasting of feats he has not yet accomplished. Also, a climber must generally be discreet about a bold route, to prevent other climbers from going there first. He was not displeased when climbing blogs reported, incorrectly, that he was going up the South Face. He had something else in mind.

I'm not quite sure what that "something else" was, but it apparently involved (a) speed climbing, (b) "alpine style" mountaineering, with no fixed protection and no porters, and (c) minimal use of supplemental oxygen. Blogger Peter Shelton reports that

Their goal was an unprecedented enchainment linking the Hornbein Couloir, the summit of Everest, and the summit of Lhotse in one fast-and-light push, once their camps were set and they had acclimatized.

Regardless, what clearly happened is that Steck and his two companions embarked on the fairly standard climb of the Lhotse Face, which involves ascending from Camp 2, at 21,300 feet, to Camp 3, at 24,500 feet.

Unfortunately, they chose to make this ascent on the day that the main climbing teams had chosen for establishing the "fixed ropes" on the Lhotse Face.

April 27th was the day that a team of Sherpas were installing the fixed rope. It is an essential and difficult job, involving heavy gear and extreme working conditions on an ice cliff riddled with crevasses.

It's hard to get the concept of this without some visuals, so try this nifty QuickTime VR panorama, or the pictures on this great blog entry.

So, that sets the scene. But then what happened?

In an interview with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, Steck describes it as follows:

We know they were fixing the lines and we were not touching their lines and we did not interfere. They were fixing the ropes for the commercial expeditions and not for us because we don’t need it. Of course, we have to leave space for everyone on the mountain. So we went 50m to the left so we would not disturb them and we were really careful not to knock any ice down. We did not disturb them at all.

In an interview with National Geographic, Steck's climbing companion Simone Moro describes it as follows:

When we arrived on the Lhotse Face, the Sherpas fixing rope there told us to turn back and go home. But we told them that we weren't going to disturb them or hang on the fixed ropes, as they probably assumed. Then we immediately climbed Alpine style, without a rope, 100 meters to the left of them. They threw a piece of ice at us to scare us. But we didn't react. We continued climbing to the left of them.

50 meters, 100 meters, who knows? I don't think they stepped it off. Clearly they are roughly telling the same story.

But then there arises the critical incident, which Paumgarten does his best to describe very clearly:

After an hour, Steck and the others reached the level of Camp 3, where they would have to traverse the face to get to their tent, which meant they needed to cross over the fixed line. They chose a spot where four Sherpas were at the belay, below the lead fixer, and moved slowly past them, taking care, Steck says, not to touch the rope with their crampons or to kick chunks of ice onto the Sherpas working below. After Steck crossed the line, the leader of the fixing crew, Mingma Tenzing Sherpa, who was working fifty feet or so up the face, began yelling at Steck and banging on the ice with his axe. Mingma, a young man from the village of Phortse, then rappelled down toward Steck. Anticipating a collision, Steck raised his arms to cushion the blow and prevent himself from being knocked off the phase. According to Steck, Mingma rappelled into him, then began yelling at him for having touched him. He accused Steck and his team of kicking ice chunks loose and injuring a member of his crew.

"After an hour"? Wow! To appreciate this, you have to understand that the normal climbers, who are climbing using the fixed ropes, take an entire day to make this ascent.

At any rate, at this point, I think it's important to pause for a moment and observe that not only was 2012 one of the deadliest years ever on Mount Everest, but just 2 weeks earlier one of the top Sherpa guides had died in a climbing accident

So perhaps the Sherpa team was a little bit tense.

But undeniably things go downhill very quickly at this point. Simone Moro's recollection of the events continues:

He was screaming at all of us. Because the first of us making the traverse was Jon Griffith. The second was Ueli Steck. And the third was me. He was screaming at all of us. When we got close to him, without saying, "Hello, ciao, how's it going? It's cold and windy," he immediately started to scream. Very nervously. Very angry. And, I repeat, waving an ice ax. So I also screamed myself, after 30 seconds, saying the exact words in Nepalese, "Mother******, what are you doing?" Because he was waving the ice ax close to us and we were not roped. If he touched me, I would fall down the whole face of Lhotse.

This is the only thing that I can say I'm sorry for. I said, "Mother******, what are you doing?" And he said, "We are fixing rope!" And we told him, "Okay, if you want, we can help you. Okay?" Because it was getting cold and windy. "If you want, we'll go and stop at our tent here, come back at 1:00, and if you want [us] to, we can also help you to do your job."

"No, no!" And he came very close to Ueli Steck. There was a physical contact between them because, when he was going toward him, waving the ice ax, at a certain moment, Ueli was retreating but also losing his balance. So Ueli touched, physically, the Sherpa, but just to keep himself from falling. And the Sherpa said, "Why you touch me? Why you touch me?" And Ueli said, "Listen, we are here all together for the same aim. If you want, we can help you to fix rope." And the Sherpa said, "No, I don't want that. Now we stop. We go down."

As Paumgarten notes, this is an amazing and complicated story already, but we haven't even reached the real incident:

When the European climbers got back to their tents, at the upper edge of Camp 2, they were greeted by an American named Melissa Arnot, who'd been sharing their camp and who was attempting a fifth conquest of the summit, more than any other woman. She warned them that the Sherpas were very angry about the incident on the Lhotse Face and that the mood in camp was volatile. She left, but after a few moments she ran back to their tent to say that a large group of Sherpas had set out from the main part of camp. She said, "I think you should run."

"I think you should run" ? My mind boggles. You're at Camp 2 on Everest, in the evening, after a day of climbing. Run where? Run how? Steck says only that

there is no point in fighting back if you have 100 people against you. The only thing you can do is take the beating. Simone and Jonathan managed to run away but I was not fast enough (I am getting slow and old). I was in a tent and I was alone. The discussion outside the tent went on for about one hour and Melissa and Greg of IMG [International Mountain Guides] tried to calm them down but all I could hear was them shouting “Give us the guy. We will kill him first and then the other two”

Happily, nobody is killed, and nobody dies.

Somehow they managed to calm them down. Simone had to apologise on his knees for his bad words on the mountain. So they gave us one hour to leave the mountain and told us never to come back again.

All in all, it's an amazing story.

In the intervening months, a number of commentators have attempted to make sense of it all.

The Telegraph is one of many to suggest that simmering resentment bubbled over: What drove 100 Sherpas to attack Western climbers on Everest?

You see rudeness towards them all the time, and it greatly upsets me – people are dismissive, or expect their food and clothing to be carried for them. Some of it is unintentional cultural offences, but other times it is blatant rudeness.

Moro, who after all was there, and who perhaps provoked it all by swearing at the Sherpas in Nepali, suggests that they were jealous of Steck's skill and ease on the mountain, and felt that it embarassed them:

Probably, on a cold, windy day, the leader of the rope-fixing team who saw three foreigners, who climbed in one hour what they climbed in half a day, without a rope, coming to them and offering to help them, probably it provoked jealousy or a kind of envy. Not everybody likes admitting that there is someone faster than you or better than you, okay?
Moro also suggests that people like himself threaten the Sherpa livelihood, financially:
people like us, who are not clients, are considered not good for business. Because we don't need Sherpas. We don't need fixers. We are out of the groove of the commercial part of Everest.

Paumgarten, more emotionally detached, agrees that money has poisoned the atmosphere badly:

Everest has evolved into a seasonal society dominated by the interests of the commercial guiding companies, which for the most part are owned and operated by foreigners. Clients pay as much as a hundred and ten thousand dollars apiece to be led up Everest. The companies in turn contract with the Sherpas, as porters, cooks, and mountain guides. A large portion of the clients' fees goes to bureaucrats in Kathmandu rather than to the Sherpas. They observe the foreigners with their luxury accommodations at base camp, their satellite phones and computers, and they know enough to wonder whether they're being gulled. If it's their house, how come they're not the ones who get to run it? The younger generation, in particular, may be less inured than their forbears to the paternalism inherent in the relationship with the mikarus, or "white eyes". Walter Bonatti, the great Italian alpinist, suggested that the early conquest of the Himalayas was a kind of colonialism; if so, this may be the era of postcolonial blowback.

So has inequality and class resentment reached the Himalayas, in some sort of modern Mount Everest version of Nat Turner's slave rebellion?

Or, although in this case we have a Swiss, an Italian, and an Englishman, is this more the story of The Ugly American at 24,000 feet?

Or, as Moro suggests, is this mostly a story of hotheads on the mountain, a clash of egos, a Himalayan example of Machismo is Violence?

Whatever it is, it's an important story, and worth thinking about and reflecting on, and hoping that something, somehow, happens to change the trends and start the process of healing.

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