Fight at Everest's Camp II (UPDATE)

From Everest Base Camp, professional climbing guide Garrett Madison has been following developments on the fight between Ueli Steck, Simone Moro, Jonathan Griffith, and a group of Sherpas. He gives us the insider perspective and what the media got wrong.

Climbers on Lhotse     Photo: Garrett Madison

On Saturday April 27, professional climbers Ueli Steck, Simone Moro, and their photographer, Jonathan Griffith, were attacked at Everest's Camp II (23,000 feet) by an angry group of Sherpas. The Sherpas, we were told, were upset that Steck, Moro, and Griffith had been on the route that day above Camp II, even though all of the teams in camp had agreed that only the Sherpas tasked with fixing the safety ropes should be on the mountain that day. Moro wrote in a press release that the "lead Sherpa was tired and cold and felt that his pride had been damaged as the three climbers were moving unroped and much faster to the side of him." Here, for the first time, we hear from Sherpas who were on the route that day and spoke to Alpine Ascents International leader Garrett Madison in Base Camp.

As this story has emerged in the media it has become clear that the Sherpas have not been given a voice. The press releases, the blogging, and reports from the European climbers have dominated the headlines. Meanwhile, the Sherpa are quietly continuing to fix the rope and continue their work at nearly 8,000 meters on Everest. These Sherpa help realize the dream of many western climbers and will continue to be honored and respected by the foreign climbers who climb with them on Everest.

I have pieced together an objective version of events different from what is currently in the media headlines. These details are directly from what I heard on the radio on April 27, my discussions with many people in base camp over the last two days including expedition leaders, western guides, and clients who were at Camp 2 during this incident, and Sirdars (head Sherpa) who directly supervise the fixing team.

April 18

All expedition leaders and Sherpa Sirdars were invited and attended a meeting in Everest Base Camp to discuss the rope fixing strategy for this season on Everest. At this meeting everyone had a chance to suggest the best strategy and route to safely climb the mountain. The meeting concluded with the nomination of fixing Sherpas (the best available) and the suitable dates to complete the work. It was also agreed at the meeting by all the expedition leaders that nobody would be climbing on the route on these dates except the fixing team. That while these young men were working to fix the route for all expeditions at base camp, no expedition would disrupt or create a distraction for them. Unfortunately, Simone Moro did not attend this meeting and might not have been aware that this protocol is an unwritten rule on Everest.

Over the next few days all the teams at base camp pitched in and Sherpas carried over 50 loads through the Khumbu Icefall to Camp II. The fixing started on April 26: For two days the Sherpa were scouting the best route on the Lhotse face, and by April 27 they were less than an hour from reaching Camp II. 

The three European climbers set out the morning of April 27 heading for the Lhotse Face. After suggestions from both guides and Sherpa at Camp II and below the Lhotse Face to turn around (because fixing the Lhotse Face demands strict concentration), the three climbers continued on to the Lhotse Face moving up and to the left of the fixing route. The three climbers moved alpine style up the Lhotse Face and were headed towards their camp (just below Camp III on the Lhotse Face).

At this time the Sherpa fixing team was working on the Lhotse Face and had reached one of the steeper and more exposed areas. The temperature was dropping and the winds were picking up. As the fixing team was moving through a steeper section of the Lhotse Face, the three European climbers met with the fixing team. The fixing team alerted the three climbers to not touch or cross the rope. This is a high intensity environment where people’s instincts are at a heightened state. The lead fixing Sherpa spoke with one of the three climbers, at which point physical contact was made. At that point Simone came in verbal contact with a number of the fixing team who had now congregated at one of the anchors to secure themselves from sliding down the face.

Simone began to shout, many of the words in Nepali language, and many of the words were inflammatory. At this point the fixing team made the correct decision to drop their loads of rope and hardware, attaching them to the installed line, and to descend without any further interaction or confrontation with the three climbers. The fixing team descended to Camp II and went to their respective camps as a number of expedition teams work together to fix the route on Everest. As the fixing team descended to Camp II, Simone radioed down requesting to know what the Sherpa were talking about. 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 II soon and “f---ing fight”.

As Simone returned back to Camp II he again spoke over the fixing frequency a demand to speak with the fixing team comprised of 16 Sherpa (of eight different teams) back at Camp II. He explained that he would meet them at one of the expedition camps. When he arrived in Camp II he went to his tent. At this pointm, some western guides went to Simone’s camp to explain that he should apologize for the situation his team created during a very dangerous workday.

As the western guides spoke to Simone, Sherpas from many different teams congregated as a result of his radio call from the Lhotse face and wanted to speak with Simone and get an apology, and to explain to him how difficult their job had been that day. The Sherpas who were together felt that Simone’s words and interactions were both hurtful to the individuals, as well as grave and serious insults to the entire Sherpa community. As the Sherpas approached Simone’s camp, tensions were high and they wanted to have a discussion with an already angered Simone. Then Simone came out to talk and both sides approached each other in loud discussion, at which point a careless western climber who had not been involved up on the Lhotse face arrived and entangled physically with a Sherpa. This was the ignition for what ensued next.

It is safe to say that the Sherpa thought this western climber was part of Simone’s team and had initiated a dangerous confrontation. At this point the Sherpas felt as if they needed to defend themselves as they had just seen one of their colleagues attacked. The tense situation ignited and a brawl ensued.

The brawl was stopped by a group of western climbers and Sherpas working together. Simone’s team was protected by both a Sherpa group and a few western climbers and guides. As the group separated, Simone asked to apologize for his actions. After things calmed down, Simone’s team descended to Base Camp. 

The following day, April 28, was peaceful.

April 29

To Simone’s credit, he did not want to leave Everest until he had a chance to make peace with the furious Sherpas. The Sherpas met in Base Camp and discussed peacefully the events of the fixing day (April 27), and both parties recognized the errors in what they said and did, and apologized to each other. Simone reiterated his respect for the Sherpas and for the work they do, and both sides agreed to work together in the future to make sure something like this never happens again.

The Sherpa community understands this unfortunate and avoidable situation was unacceptable.  The Sirdars have committed to educate these hard-working young men about handling the stresses of a very intense job.

In climbing the Nepalese side of Mt. Everest, all the teams collaborate in working together to ultimately achieve a mutual goal, to reach the top safely, and the Sherpa are a major part of this goal. The first summit of Everest in 1953 was made by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a foreigner and a Nepalese Sherpa. The first American ascent in 1963 was Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu Sherpa, also a foreigner and a Sherpa.

I sincerely hope that this incident does not damage how the Sherpas perceive the foreigners who come to climb on their mountain. We aim to uphold the spirit of climbing together to accomplish our common goals and to respect one another throughout our mountaineering endeavors.

UPDATE: Simone Moro reached out to us over email to offer this response, refuting Madison's version of his provocative radio call [Emphasis Moro's]:

It makes me crying to read that false, false, false and pure invented fact. I NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, did that radio call and provocation. (I have a lot of witness who can confirm.) Madison INVENTED those words to try to change the facts and give me responsabilities for the tension. I'm not so crazy, stupid and violent to provocate and challenge the Sherpas in C2 with that words.

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