Fighting on Everest is just one more sign the golden age of mountaineering has passed

Overcrowding and culture clashes are the modern Himalayan climbing experience

Related Topics

No one who has read John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air – the American author’s epic tale of a Mount Everest expedition gone catastrophically wrong – will have been totally surprised by the story of the bust-up between a trio of Western climbers and a group of Sherpas as they converged on the flanks of the world’s highest mountain at the weekend.

Competing commercial interests and dangerously variable climbing ability were the big themes in Krakauer’s 1997 book, and those issues haven’t gone away in the years since. Mount Everest has turned into a playground that can barely accommodate all those who want to try to conquer it – from the most professional of experienced mountaineers doing their own thing to the amateur adventurers who have deep enough pockets to fund their dream and sign up in organised groups led by Sherpas. The consequences – not least environmental – can be unfortunate.

Since Hillary and Tensing planted the Union Jack atop the roof of the world nearly 60 years ago, some 3,000 people have climbed Everest – the vast majority of them in the past 10 years. The slickness of the guiding operation provided by local Sherpas combined with huge advances in equipment and technology have put the mountain summit within reach of most averagely fit mere mortals.

Not that the three mountaineers who say they were attacked by Sherpas – Ueli Steck from Switzerland, Simone Moro from Italy, and a Briton, Jon Griffith - fell into the amateur category, and according to the mountaineering authority Stephen Goodwin, that may have been the problem.

Precisely what happened 23,000 feet up isn’t clear. It’s been reported that the trio crossed a line of ropes that a group of Sherpas had set up for another expedition, triggering angry exchanges. The Sherpas are said to have claimed that one of their number was then struck by ice dislodged by the trio. It seems that tensions boiled over later in the day when the three men returned to their camp and were set upon by a much larger group of Sherpas. Griffth has been quoted as saying he “would like to think that anyone who has climbed with us knows that we are more than capable and would never interfere with the Sherpas’ work”.

“In my experience there’s generally no problem with the commercial groups,” says Goodwin, who in 1998 climbed to within 75 metres of the top of Everest. “They understand that they are dependent on the Sherpas and always treat them with respect. Maybe the Sherpas in this instance saw it as an affront to their dignity to be overtaken by westerners who were not even roped, and if ice was dislodged and landed on someone, that’s really dangerous.”

Goodwin says that overcrowding on the mountain made such a confrontation almost inevitable. “It’s what happens when you treat the mountain as a milch cow, and you get a collision of egos. The whole thing’s quite tawdry. You’d think that that attempts on Everest would be self-limiting because what pleasure is there in climbing the mountain with so many other people around. If you want a wilderness experience, go somewhere else. Then again if you’re hell-bent on reaching the highest point in the world, it’s the only place to go.”

For the Sherpa community, the resentment that may have been felt towards Steck, Moro and Griffith doesn’t generally go wider, says Goodwin, because visiting Westerners are their livelihood. “Sherpas don’t want limits on the mountain. In a rational world, the expedition organisers and the Sherpas would get together and decide on how many people should be on the mountain at any one time, but then you run into the time pressures.”

The Everest climbing season is limited to a few weeks in the spring, and still there are going to be days when progress isn’t possible. “You can’t say, ok you lot go on Tuesday and we’ll go on Wednesday because Tuesday might be fine and Wednesday might not be,” Goodwin says.

With their increased wealth, and a growing sense of their importance to the Everest industry, Sherpas are no longer prepared to defer to Western visitors, according to Professor Anthony Costello, a paediatrician who knows the country well having run a number of projects there. “I quite often meet Western mountaineers on my visits and I’m struck by how little interest they have in Sherpas and their traditions,” he told me. “They just obsess over Everest and the Himalaya.”

Whatever lay behind Saturday’s incident, it seems that Mount Everest is now the focus of a culture clash – one more example of how long gone is the innocent “Because it was there” era of Hillary and Tensing.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions