Treading on thin ice: Three European climbers get into fight with Sherpas near Everest summit

The team of three Europeans claim a misunderstanding between themselves and a group of Sherpas deteriorated into an ugly scene

Police in Nepal are investigating a fight between Sherpas and three European climbers – one of them British – more than 4.5 miles up the side of Mount Everest. The fight may have broken out over an alleged breach of climbing etiquette.

The team of three Europeans claim a misunderstanding between themselves and a group of Sherpas deteriorated into an ugly scene when they were surrounded by a 100 sherpas who hit and attacked them. The men’s climbing team said the trio were then threatened and were forced to flee to base camp.

Speaking from Kathmandu, Beni Hyoju of  the Cho-Oyu trekking company which helped organise the expedition, said: “It happened on Saturday morning. There was a fight involving the team and the Sherpas located between camps two and three.”

Sitaram Karki, the chief district officer in Solukhumbu, the region where Everest stands, said the police were conducting an investigation but said at this point he did not have all the details. “There are communication issues high on the mountain, but we have received the reports of a fight and deployed our team to investigate the incident,” he told the AFP.

The disagreement apparently broke out at a height of around 7,200m (4.47 miles) on the Lhotse face of Everest where the Europeans were attempting the summit without the assistance of bottled oxygen. The three Europeans – British climber and photographer Jonathan Griffith and celebrated Alpinists Simone Moro of Italy and Ueli Steck of Switzerland - had reportedly come into contact with a team of sherpas who were setting up fixed ropes for an another expedition.

According to an account of what happened posted on the Europeans’ expedition website, the sherpas asked the three men to ensure they did not interfere with the fixed ropes. As they made their way to camp three where their tents were they stepped over the ropes but say they did not touch them.

The account claims the lead sherpa then shouted at the three men and accused them of dislodging ice that hit a sherpa. The three Europeans said they offered to try and make amends by helping the sherpas set up the fixed lines they were working on.

“By the time the climbers descended back to camp two some 100 Sherpas had grouped together and attacked the three climbers. They became instantly aggressive and not only punched and kicked the climbers, but threw many rocks as well,” claims the website of the expedition.

The account claims that a group of other climbers intervened and tried to calm the situation but that the sherpas returned and threatened the climbers again. It says the men were told that if they did not leave in one hour they would be killed.

There has been no comment yet from the sherpas allegedly involved in the incident and it is unclear what opportunity they will have to explain their side of events. Dipendra Poudel, an official with Nepal’s mountaineering department, told the Associated Press that both sides accused the other of starting the fight. He said officials at base camp were trying to investigate what happened.

Meanwhile, an American eye-witness who saw what happened but who did not want to be identified, told the AFP that the Europeans may have climbed above the sherpas. “The sherpas told the team not to climb above them while they were fixing the ropes but they did it anyway. Then some ice fell and hit the sherpas, which made them angry," said the American.

Mountaineering provides the Nepali economy with much needed foreign currency and the authorities will be anxious to prevent such incidents from damaging the country’s reputation for friendliness and warmth. They will be particularly concerned that the incident has taken place just weeks away from the 60th anniversary of the first confirmed ascent of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.

Yet the incident may provide evidence of the over-crowding that has happened on the world’s highest mountain in recent years. Since 1953, at least 3,000 people have scaled the peak which straddles Nepal and China. Last spring, more than 50 climbers scaled the summit on the same day, such are the numbers of climbers attached to guided “commercial” expeditions.

Although some reports suggested that at least one of the three Europeans have been injured and was intending to leave Nepal, Mr Hyoju said all three had been convinced to stay by the authorities. He said: “They are all at Base Camp. The authorities have persuaded him not to go.”

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