Peter Shelton

The Fight on Everest

Posted in At the Movies, More Sport, Watch columns by pshelton on June 6, 2013

I wish I could have been there for the Everest 50th anniversary show at Mountainfilm, with Jim Whittaker, Tom Hornbein and Conrad Anker.

The first two, of course, climbed the world’s highest mountain in May 1963 as part of the first successful American expedition, one that put four climbers, three Americans and one Sherpa, on the summit via two different routes.

Anker, a Mountainfilm regular and a much younger man, has summited three times and secured an unusual fame as the man who discovered the body of George Mallory, the British adventurer who disappeared high on the mountain in 1924. It was Mallory who uttered the iconic “Because it’s there” response to the question: Why try to climb Mount Everest?

I was working that night and couldn’t attend, but I’ve wondered ever since if the now-infamous April 2013 incident came up in the Telluride conversation.

The altercation, if that’s the right word, between Sherpas and three Western professional climbers at Camp II (at 21,000 feet) was unprecedented in its scale and its fury. A large group of Sherpas, perhaps as many as 100, punched and kicked and stoned the Western climbers, at least one of whom cowered, bloodied, in his tent convinced he was about to die.

Was the “fight” a result of cultural insensitivity? Or disrespect? A dangerous abuse of climbing etiquette? An overspilling of resentment toward the colonizers by the colonized? Or an inevitable clash on a mountain transformed by crowds of paying customers and their guides into something unrecognizable to men of Whittaker and Hornbein’s generation?

(An estimated 600 people reached the summit during the two-week “climbing window” this May. Nine climbers died, fewer than the average. Close to 1,000 souls populated Base Camp on the Nepali side. With high-altitude helicopters coming and going, one climber likened it to “camping at an airport.”)

Before the hordes could make their way to Camp III and the South Col, ropes needed to be fixed up the 40-degree ice of the Lhotse Face. A crack team of Sherpas was doing just that on April 26, when three professional climbers, unconnected to any commercial group, paralleled the Sherpas’ line, and eventually stepped over the Sherpas’ ropes to reach their own Camp III, already established at the top of the face.

The day before at Base Camp all climbers had agreed to stay off the Lhotse Face while the ropes were being fixed. But the three pros didn’t feel bound by the edict.

They were Simone Moro, an Italian with prodigious Himalayan credentials, the Swiss speed-climbing machine Ueli Steck, and their photographer Jon Griffin, a Brit. They were not interested in the conga line to the summit. 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.

The Sherpas asked them not to climb while they worked. The Westerners ignored the entreaty. Then they stepped over the rope in their razor-sharp cramponed boots, a breach of an unwritten rule, though a move Moro and company insisted was perfectly safe. Sharp words flew back and forth. Moro may have called the lead Sherpa “motherfucker,” a more serious insult in Nepali.

Moro is well known to Mountainfilm audiences as the raspy-voiced protagonist in Cold, a 2011 Mountainfilm award winner, by Cory Richards and Anson Fogel, in which Boulder-ite Richards, Moro and Kazakh Denis Urubko climbed Gasherbrum II in winter, at 51 degrees below zero.

Steck has also been featured at Mountainfilm, in Ueli Steck: The Swiss Machine, a 2010 profile of the 36-year-old speed demon’s astonishing records. (Eiger North Face in 2 hours and 47 minutes, a climb that took the first successful team three days.)

Things just got worse once the climbers retreated back down at Camp II. A “mob” of Sherpas demanded the Westerners apologize, on their knees. The three pros insisted they had done nothing to provoke the Sherpas. Steck was punched in the eye and hit in the head with a rock. Melissa Arnot, an American who had been sharing camp with the professional climbers, intervened and most likely saved their lives. All four escaped, in the dark, down to Base Camp.

As Nick Paumgarten wrote in The New Yorker (“The Manic Mountain”), it’s not unheard of for climbers to “get into testy exchanges at high altitudes, where big egos meet thin air.” But this was something else entirely. And the climbing blogosphere lit up with recrimination on all sides.

(Interestingly, Melissa Arnot said, “I don’t think this is a rift between Westerner and Sherpa, or part of an underlying racial and cultural divide. This is a fight between boys on the slope.”)

Back home in Switzerland, having abandoned the enchainment, Steck felt wounded psychologically as well as physically. A much-admired, 50-year-old Russian, Alexey Bolotov, had fallen to his death, his rope cut on sharp rocks, the week after Steck left the mountain. He felt uncharacteristically haunted. He talked with Paumgarten about Walter Bonatti, the legendary alpinist who quit climbing professionally at age 35. (Bonatti was dogged most of his life by a scandal on K2.) There is a part of Steck, Paumgarten wrote, “that wonders if the incident at Camp II wasn’t in some respects a blessing.”

“Maybe there might have been a big accident,” Steck said. “There are a lot of things in climbing that you can’t control.”

I would have loved to hear the three Everest veterans in Telluride talk about that.

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