Everest - lawlessness and the expedition industry

Everest from the air

Climbers Ueli Steck, Simone Moro and Jonathan Griffith were attacked high on the slopes of Everest last month by a mob of Sherpas, following a minor dispute with a Sherpa team. They were beaten, threatened with death and run off the mountain.

Actor Brian Blessed tweeted in response: "Just one word to say on the Everest fiasco - SHERPA! Wonderful people who save a lot of lives."

But conflict in the Himalaya won't be solved with just one word. It really doesn't help to cage the word "Sherpa" in a gilded phrase that recalls a century of romanticism, colonialism and manipulation. Sherpas are not St Bernards.

Not a clash of civilisations, but a clash of cheque books

The violence wasn't just a clash between local people and foreign climbers. It was partly a deflected fight in a contest between two interest groups, both largely located outside Nepal. Not a clash of civilisations, but a clash of cheque books.

It is also a symptom of the culture of impunity that has grown up around atrocities committed by all sides in the civil war that engulfed Nepal between 1996 and 2006.

I don't know Nepal or Everest. But from here, the Everest climbing scene stinks. It has been stinking for a long time.

One ingredient in the stench is the system of royalties charged by the Government of Nepal for any attempt on the highest Himalayan peaks. At present, according to the Government website, the cost for an attempt on the normal route on Everest ranges from 25,000 US dollars (about £16,000) for a one-person expedition to 150,000 US dollars (about £96,000 ) for a 15-person expedition – said to be the maximum size permitted (though some expeditions are bigger).

These costs put an ascent far beyond the budget of almost all the world's climbers. Financial support from the mountaineering industries and other bodies may be available for climbers trying an innovative ascent of Everest, but isn't likely to be forthcoming for a trip up the normal route. A would-be Everest climber has to be wealthy, or else inventive enough to create profitable publicity out of a rather mundane climb.

In this apparently unpromising situation, a number of companies have managed to build businesses out of taking people up Everest for a fee. Jagged Globe, for example, advertises a 9-week expedition for a cost of $54,000 per person. The royalty – probably $10,000 per person, depending on the size of the expedition – accounts for only a modest slice of that cost. It's a big enough surcharge to stop most climbers dead in their tracks, but low enough that it won't stop the few people who can afford an Everest package. 

Mountain guiding doesn't come cheap. If you want to hire an individual guide for a day in Chamonix, in the European Alps, it will cost £400 - £800 (Tarif des Courses, pdf document) as long as the climb you have in mind isn't too serious. It could cost £2000 or more for a major climb. If you were to spend 9 weeks in the Alps hiring a guide every other day – an unheard of thing, as far as I know – it would be likely to cost you £30,000 - £60,000. Sharing the costs with another person would halve them. Adding a few big climbs would increase the price tag. You would also have to pay hut fees and pay the cost of cablecar rides into the mountains.

But a commercial ascent of Everest doesn't work the same way as a guided climb in the Alps. Many of the expedition staff have no role as guides. Staff who are working more or less in a guiding role may not have an internationally recognised guides' qualification. According to Victor Saunders1 – a British climber who has worked as an Everest guide – the ratio of guide to client is almost always much lower than in the Alps. A guide would generally be in charge of just two clients in the Alps. Five or more  - perhaps many more - clients are usual in the Himalaya. This is made possible by the extensive use of fixed ropes, which never play a comparable role in European mountaineering.

A poisonous bubble

So here are the ingredients of the Everest climbing industry. High peak fees, to keep most climbers away. Fixed ropes, to minimise the skills demanded of guides and clients and to keep guiding costs down. A third world economy, to keep costs down still further. Starry eyes and guilt trips, to keep criticism incoherent. The result is a poisonous bubble.

Inside the bubble there are a few elite guides – almost exclusively foreign – with immense experience across a range of climbing genres. Then there are the Sherpa guides and staff, mountain professionals isolated from mountain professionals elsewhere in the world by the oddity of the Everest game. And finally there are the clients. They are unusual people because of their access to serious money and their dedication to a mountaineering goal that carries little credit amongst mountaineers.

Of all the gaps that divide the bubble-dwellers from each other, the one referred to most often is the gap between local people and "westerners." The people called westerners come from locations dotted like measles across the globe.  The language strains against 21st century reality – individuals from Japan, South Korea, Iran, Qatar, Kazakhstan, Palestine and Pakistan all pay to climb mountains in Nepal. But most 21st century lives are circumscribed by economics to a degree that might be more recognisable to a typical Sherpa family than to someone who can spend $50000 on a holiday.

The beneficiaries of bubble-mountaineering are the Government of Nepal, the owners of the Everest climbing businesses – many of them foreign – and the various industries – almost exclusively foreign – that sell equipment and news to climbers.

Diverse kinds of mountaineering can co-exist easily. Sometimes. But the pursuit, sponsorship and promotion of hardcore alpinism does not sit comfortably with the promotion and glamorisation of guided ascents of big mountains by easy routes. Some people think otherwise. There has been a determined effort to create a marketing synergy in which each half of the mountaineering world reinforces the glamour of the other.  The golden Everest dust can then perhaps settle on all the main players. But it won't necessarily settle on the Sherpas.

Everest has a peculiarity. Its southern approach is protected by a barrier that is uniquely formidable for a well-trodden voie normale. Everyone bound for the South Col or the Southwest Face must pass through the Khumbu icefall, a huge, ever-changing labyrinth of ice cliffs and chasms.

Himalayan ghetto

Fixed ropes on the upper parts of the mountain are unnecessary and perhaps undesirable for a competent climber. But just about everyone agrees that repeated passage through the icefall, burdened with the equipment needed higher on the mountain, is impracticable unless the route is equipped with fixed ropes and aluminium ladders. This work is done by Sherpas, and generally begins before the first expeditions arrive.

It is dangerous, technically complex work that demands sure judgement. Mastery of the necessary skills is the key, for the Sherpa community, to unlocking the economic potential of their mountain. But it is peripheral to the set of skills possessed by international mountain guides. Fixed-rope expertise empowers Sherpas within the Himalayan ghetto, but it won't get them a place at the top table of mountaineering professionals.

Almost everyone reporting on the violence on Everest – including the three victims – has taken care to acknowledge the hard work done by Sherpas. Gratitude is a poor substitute for the tariffs that an alpine guide can command.

Ueli Steck on the Lhotse Face, with Sherpas on the right.
© Alpine Exposuers

On 27 April Steck, Moro and Griffith (the NO2 Oxygen team) were climbing unroped on the Lhotse Face – the face that gives access to the South Col on the normal Everest route. Their intention appears to have been to acclimatise in preparation for an attempt to climb the mountain by a new route and without supplementary oxygen.

Griffith is from Britain. He was along as a photographer, but he is also a mountaineer of a very high calibre, used to moving fast. Steck is Swiss. He has a formidable reputation for fast and apparently effortless movement on difficult ground. He has climbed the north wall of the Eiger in 2 hours and 47 minutes, solo, without aid and in winter. He has also made numerous fast ascents in the Himalaya, including a fast ascent of Everest in 2012 (with Sherpa Tenji). Simone Moro is Italian. He made the first winter ascents of Makau and Shishapangma, and made the first solo traverse from south to north of Everest.

While the three moved unroped up the Lhotse Face, a team of seventeen Sherpas was at work fixing ropes for the multiple commercial expeditions intending to climb the mountain. At one point the NO2 Oxygen team stepped across the fixed ropes. When Steck, coming last, crossed the ropes the lead climber in the Sherpa team noticed what was happening. NO2 Oxygen says that the Sherpa began shouting and banging his ice axe against the ice, and that he then abseiled "right on to" Steck.

Many of the words were inflammatory

The Sherpa complained that the European climbers had kicked ice down onto his team and injured one of them. The NO2 Oxygen climbers say that this seems unlikely, given the line they had taken on the face. No one from the Sherpa team has yet come forward to say he was injured in this way. Dennis Urubko, a distinguished Kazakh climber who is attempting a new route on Everest, says that the nature of the Lhotse face is such that nothing bigger than harmless ice splinters was likely to be knocked down.

Simone Moro then came over to the scene of the dispute. NO2 Oxygen says that the lead Sherpa turned on him, and that Moro then swore at the Sherpa, "as is the natural reaction when faced with this aggression." Garrett Madison, leader of one of the commercial expeditions on the mountain, says that according to the Sherpas:

"Simone began to shout, many of the words in Nepali language, and many of the words were inflammatory."

The dispute ended with the Sherpa team going down without completing their work. Steck then fixed about 260m of rope for them, "to smooth things over." Given the central importance of rope-fixing to the Sherpas' trade, this is more likely to have antagonised them than to have smoothed anything over.

Madison says:

"At one point Simone stated over open radio frequency (fixing frequency - tuned in by all the fixing teams and anyone listening on the mountain) that if the Sherpa had a problem he could come down to Camp 2 soon and 'f—ing fight'."2

Madison also says that, prior to the incident on the Lhotse Face, expedition leaders and Sherpa Sirdars had held a meeting at basecamp to discuss strategy. It was agreed that no-one would climb on the route on the days when the rope-fixing teams were at work. Madison says that:

"Unfortunately, Simone Moro did not attend this meeting, and might not have been aware that this protocol is an unwritten rule on Everest."

The NO2 Oxygen team, working to an entirely different strategy, probably saw little reason to attend the meeting arranged by the commercial expeditions. Madison's "unwritten rule" doesn't sound like the kind of thing that climbers outside the commercial expedition business will accept happily. Artur Hajzer, a vastly experienced Polish mountaineer, has already made it clear in a comment on a blog post that he finds the supposed unwritten rule unacceptable.

There is also an unwritten rule in mountaineering that skill should be respected. Steck, Moro and Griffiths, moving fast up the Lhotse Face, should have been a pleasure to watch.

Garrett Madison's account has been headlined as the "Sherpa's viewpoint." Whether or not Sherpas now endorse it, it cannot be described that way. It is simply a report from a senior representative of a business (Alpine Ascents International) that employs Sherpas.

If you take a snapshot of all the world's mountain faces today, you will probably find someone, somewhere, gesticulating and swearing at somebody else. The cause will very likely be a disagreement about some point of mountaineering etiquette, obscure to everyone but mountaineers. The incident on the Lhotse Face was unpleasant, nothing more. What happened next was quite different.

Threatened with death

The press statement from NO2 Oxygen, written by Jonathan Griffith, says that after the climbers descended to Camp 2, "some 100 Sherpas" attacked them. They punched and kicked the climbers, threw rocks at them, and threatened them with death. "A small group of Westerners" acted as a buffer between the Sherpas and the three climbers, and so saved their lives.

Simone Moro told Planet Mountain:

"Ueli’s mouth bled due to having received a punch and having been hit by a stone, I was kicked and punched and slapped for a long time, we risked being stoned to death at Camp 2

We owe our lives mainly to 4 people. The first and most important is American climber Melissa Arnot. Then a Sherpa named Pan Nuru. Then an American guide named Greg who belongs to the IMG [International Mountain Guides] expedition."

Ueli Steck told the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation:

"…all I could hear was them shouting 'Give us the guy. We will kill him first and then the other two'. 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."

Climber Chad Kellogg spoke to Ueli Steck, Simone Moro, Jonathan Griffith, and American guide Melissa Arnot shortly after the incident and has provided a report on his blog.

Steck told Kellogg that when the Sherpa mob arrived at his encampment he was immediately hit in the head by a fist and then by a rock to the head.

Moro and Griffiths were hiding on the glacier, having been forewarned by Melissa Arnott after she noticed "between 35 and 75" Sherpas heading for the NO2 Oxygen camp. Steck hadn't escaped in time. Arnot then sent a messenger to ask Moro and Griffiths to return. They did so.

The three were now inside a kitchen tent, shielded by Melissa Arnot and a man who isn't named, but is said to be "the head of Camp 2 for IMG." The Sherpas said that if Moro came out on his knees and begged for forgiveness, he would not be hurt. He came out on his knees and was beaten and forced back into the tent. He tried again later. Someone tried to stab him with a penknife.

New Zealand guide Marty Schmidt told Kellogg that he had seen a man getting ready to bring a large rock down on Moro's head and kill him. Schmidt grabbed the rock and the man's arm and received a rock to the head himself. He was wearing a bandage when he spoke to Kellogg.

Moro, Steck and Griffith were told that if they didn't leave the camp within an hour, they would be killed. They left, escaping unroped over dangerously crevassed terrrain.

According to the account provided by Madison, based on conversations with people he doesn't name,  the episode began with the Sherpas approaching Moro's camp to "have a discussion." Simone came out to talk, a "careless Western climber" who was not part of Moro's team "entangled physically with a Sherpa," and this ignited "what ensued next." But there is no description of what actually ensued next.

Melissa Arnot has declined, on her blog, to give an account of these events. She says: "I cannot recount the events of this past week on Everest, nor do I want to."

Pressed further, she says "both Ueli and Simone provided a first-hand account of what occurred, both to media and on their respective blog." That suggests that she doesn't dispute the essentials of their account.

No fight, no brawl. Just exemplary, punitive violence, overwhelming and shocking

In the absence of other evidence, the most plausible conclusion is that the accounts from Moro, Steck and Griffith and the second-hand account from Kellogg are accurate.

In other words there was no fight, no brawl. Just exemplary, punitive violence, overwhelming and shocking. It was very nearly murder.

The elements of theatre and humiliation in the attack invite comparison with punishments meted out during Nepal's civil war.

Democracy was forced upon Nepal's absolute monarchy  in 1991 by a multi-party people's movement  (Jana Andolan ). But serious change was slow in coming and in 1996 the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) launched its People's War.
Figures for the number of casualties in the war are unreliable, but most estimates indicate that by the time the war ended in 2006 it had killed about 13000 people out of Nepal's total population of perhaps 27 million. The UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights says that violations and abuses by both sides were widespread throughout the conflict.

The fighting was at first concentrated in the west of Nepal. But in 2001 the Maoists attacked government facilities in Salleri, headquarters of the Solukhumbu district in which Everest is situated. The war subsequently expanded to virtually all of rural Nepal.

The Government of Nepal seems to have hoped that India and the US would underwrite the defeat of the Maoists. The US obliged with military hardware but, mindful no doubt of the view that China would take of any escalation, also encouraged dialogue. China did not want a revolutionary state on its doorstep, but did not want a US outpost either.

The war didn't go well for the government and in 2005 the King re-imposed absolute monarchy in an attempt to strengthen the government side. A wave of demonstrations created by a renewed people's movement forced the reversal of this move. The Government and the Maoists signed a Comprehensive Peace Accord in November 2006. Elections in 2008 propelled the Maoists into the Constituent Assembly as the single biggest party. Solukhumbu returned a Maoist representatiive to the Assembly. 

Nepal was declared a republic but the next steps in the peace process brought stalemate. The country has been ruled since 13 March this year by an interim government headed by Khilraj Regmi, the Chief Judge of Nepal's Supreme Court.

Truth is inconvenient and reconciliation is a political currency

The agreement that ended the civil war included a commitment to  the impartial investigation of human rights abuses and an agreement to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But Nepal's political stalemate has produced a culture of horse-trading. Truth is inconvenient and reconciliation is a political currency.

No one has yet been held accountable for crimes committed during the war. An ordinance to create the long-delayed Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave the Commission power to grant amnesty for serious crimes, potentially putting the Commission in breach of international law. The ordinance has been suspended by Nepal's Supreme Court.

UN Human Rights Commisioner Navi Pillay has warned that "such amnesties would not only violate core principles under international law but would also weaken the foundation for a genuine and lasting peace in Nepal."

Nepal is the second poorest country in South Asia, after Afghanistan, and the third most corrupt, after Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The monarchy is over but there has otherwise been no revolution. Political power still grows out of networks of patronage, complicated by the increasing assertiveness of the country's multitude of minorities, including its 0.5% Sherpa minority. These facts of life make it hard for victims of the war to hold their abusers to account. They may make it just as hard for the victims of gang violence on Everest to obtain justice.

Credible allegations of assault, attempted murder and threatened murder

There was probably never much prospect of a serious police investigation. Whatever chance there was has been sabotaged by the wish to "just move on" that a number of climbers have expressed.

On 29 April the victims, inevitably still traumatised, signed a bizarre document that states that "both parties have realized their errors and apologized to each other" and that "this issue will not be raised again."

It's a disgracefully inadequate response to credible allegations of assault, attempted murder and threatened murder. And of course it means absolutely nothing.

The document was signed by Moro, Steck and Griffith, by a considerable number of Sherpas, and by several people who should have known better. They include Russell Brice (owner of Mountain Experience and founder of Himalayan Experience) and Garrett Madison (expedition leader, Alpine Ascents International).

How could senior staff from substantial businesses possibly believe that they could sign a document like that, or allow others to do so?

Two of the world's best-known mountaineers and an acclaimed mountaineering photographer have been marginalised and humiliated by a combination of crude violence and the silence and inaction of people from whom they might have expected support. What chance would anyone else – foreigner or local - stand in a similar situation?

The episode may lead to new regulations in Nepal that increase the dominance that commercial expeditions already enjoy on Everest. In that case, the expedition industry will have benefited from the criminal violence of its employees. And the Sherpas, lashing out against their marginalisation, will have strengthened the hand of those who control their livelihoods.

But this ain't the time for your tears.

It might be a good idea for people who are influential in the mountaineering community to stop pondering how they can defuse the situation and to start asking instead how they can support Ueli, Simone and Jon.

And it might be a good idea for the governments of Switzerland, Italy and Britain to ask the government of Nepal what it intends to do about the apparent attack on their citizens, and what it intends to do to meet its obligations under international law to Nepali victims of the civil war.

Updated Statement from Steck, Moro and Griffith

Please see the latest statement from Jonathan Griffith, Simone Moro and Ueli Steck. It came to my attention after this blog post was published. Some points from the new statement are referred to in footnotes added after publication.

Also see Outside's interview with Ueli Steck.

Correction: The cost of climbing Everest via the South Col with Jagged Globe was initially given incorrectly in this blog post as £54000. It is in fact $54,000. More details on the Jagged Globe website.

  • 1. Guiding at High Altitude, by Victor Saunders, The Himalayan Journal, Vol 67, 2011
  • 2. A statement published by NO2 Oxygen on 5 May says: "Allegations that Simone Moro shouted on the radio that he would fight the Sherpas at Camp 2 surprised both Ueli Steck and Jonathan Griffith when they heard about it. When this allegation came out both Ueli and Jonathan had split from Simone for a day on their travels back to Kahtmandu. It took the two climbers a while to corroborate with people at Camp 2, who had been on the radios, to make sure that this was not true. Indeed those who were listening to the climbing frequency on the day deny that Simone said anything of the sort (as does he)"