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.