Brawl On Everest: Ueli Steck’s Story

“I went out and this whole crowd was there, maybe 100 people. When I saw they had their faces covered, I knew this was going to be really bad.”

Ueli Steck Brawl Everest

Ueli Steck on Everest in April 2012.     Photo: Grayson Schaffer

Ueli Steck and Freddie Wilkinson discuss their climbing plans, April 2012.

Simone Moro at Everest Base Camp in 2012.

Simone Moro and Jake Norton go over the photos that David Breashears shot from a helicopter, hovering at above 27,000 feet, April 2012.

Chhiring Sherpa lighting The Swiss Machine, Ueli Steck, in Pheriche in April 2012.

Italian alpinist and ace helicopter pilot Simone Moro (right) and his sirdar Jagat Limbu at the Everest Base Camp helipad, April 2012.

Italian climber and helicopter pilot Simone Moro at Everest Base Camp, April 2012.

This past week, news circled the globe of a brawl on Everest, and the initial details were suitably dramatic. On April 27, roughly 100 Sherpas and a three-person European alpine team, including heavy hitters Ueli Steck, Simone Moro, and Jonathan Griffith, were involved in a violent confrontation at Camp 2, during which both punches and rocks where thrown.

The aftermath has been a bit murky. Climber Melissa Arnot acknowledged that she stepped between the western climbers and a large group of Sherpas, but declined to go into details. Guide Garrett Madison came forward and wrote that, before the altercation, expedition leaders had a meeting and agreed that no climbers would distract or disrupt the Sherpas as they fixed rope above camp 2, which sits at 23,000 feet. The Sherpas said Moro’s team took them by surprise by climbing above them that day, and claimed that members of the team insulted and threatened them. On Monday, a Nepal army major stood witness as both sides signed a peace agreement and agreed to move on.

After that, Steck left the mountain for the season and returned to Kathmandu, where he met on Wednesday with Everest record-keeper Elizabeth Hawley. TIM NEVILLE, who profiled Steck for Outside in 2012, reached him by phone to get his version of events. What Steck described makes it clear that the dispute was very serious. Steck believes he was lucky to come out of it alive and that another meltdown is bound to happen unless something is done to fix underlying tensions on the mountain.

OUTSIDE: We know many of the major points of this story, but we don’t know all the details about what really happened. Can you take us back to the day you climbed from Camp 2 to 3?
STECK: We were going up to sleep at Camp 3, where we already had a tent. There were lots of people going up to the face to walk a little bit. We met one guide—I forget his name—and he said the Sherpas were fixing ropes up there. I told him that we wanted to go up and sleep and we wouldn’t touch their lines. He said, OK, just make sure you don’t get in the way of them. I understand that, because it can be very dangerous if someone hangs on a rope while you’re fixing it. This has happened many times before. But we wouldn’t be touching their ropes or interfering in any way. That’s why we decided to go.

So someone at the base of the face said it was OK to go?
Maybe he wasn’t in a position to say OK, but this doesn’t matter at all. What matters is what happened afterward at Camp 2. There is no reason to try to kill people. What happened there is a much bigger problem. I think the leader felt like he was losing face. They had been fixing ropes for four or five hours, and then we climb up on the side of them without using their ropes in one-and-a-half hours.

How much responsibility do you think you and your team should accept for what happened? Looking back, what did you do wrong?
We were not wrong or right, and the Sherpas were not wrong or right. I mean, we pay a lot of money to be there, so why should I not be allowed to climb? And vice versa. The Sherpas are also allowed to climb. Can you say that people should wait until the Sherpas fix the ropes? Of course, and that could be a rule. People speak of an unwritten rule that you have to wait for the Sherpas who are up there, but if you don’t use their ropes, what’s the point? If there’s good weather?

I spoke today about it with Elizabeth Hawley. She said, you know, guys, you shamed that lead Sherpa, and in Asian culture this is the worst thing that can happen. 

You were climbing to the left of them, and then you went to traverse over to your camp, which was a little lower. That’s when things got heated, right? What happened?
There were maybe three Sherpas at the last belay and the leader was another 15 to 20 meters up, fixing rope. The rest of the Sherpas were down below and coming up. We traversed more or less at the belay, because it was in the snow and we would not be knocking any ice down. It was a delicate situation, because of course they would get angry if you knocked ice down.

You were aware of what you might knock loose.
Of course. If you pass someone and start knocking ice down on them, then it’s fair to get angry because they were there first. So we were really careful. And I can promise you there was not a single piece of ice falling down and hitting a Sherpa. They just created that story. There was one Sherpa who was bleeding from his face, but he had slipped on his jumars and hit his face. He has now officially said in public that he was not hit by any ice. Besides, they were knocking ice down on each other the whole day. Even the leader was sending down ice. It’s unbelievable.

Now we’re at the belay with the leader above and a few Sherpas still coming up. What happened next?
Jonathan crossed over the rope first, and I was really watching him to make sure that he didn’t knock down any ice. He traversed about 15 meters beyond the belay and then I came up. In the time it took for me to get there, the leader fixed his rope, got on rappel, and just came down yelling at me. I hadn’t even stepped over the rope yet.

At that point, as I understand it, you reached up to keep him from lowering into you?
I was standing at the belay. Simone wasn’t there yet. The Sherpa comes down really fast above me, and I put my hand to stop him. If he hits me, I fall off the face. He’s screaming the whole way down and then starts yelling about why am I touching him. I was talking in a normal voice, asking what was the problem, but it was impossible to talk. I said we weren’t touching your ropes at all and there’s enough space for everybody to climb this mountain. But he just kept yelling.

It was cold and they had to be tired. They had spent the whole day the day before fixing ropes up the face via the route used last year. But at the top they hit a big crevasse, which meant they had to pull the whole line and set a new route all over again. I said, “It’s OK, it’s one o’clock in the afternoon and we still have a lot of time. I can help you fix the ropes.” But this made it even worse. I think he thought we were trying to shame him, and that was a big problem.

So the Sherpas just decided to pack up and leave?
No, no. They did not leave right away. I was talking with them for a while when Simone came across. He was close to the belay and hadn’t said anything yet when the Sherpa leader starts shouting and waving his ice axe at him, trying to hit him. Simone said to him in Nepali, “What are you doing motherfucker?!” Maybe that wasn’t the best word to use, but I can understand in this moment that Simone would be pissed off. If you are on a 50-degree face and someone is swinging an axe at you, you might get at a little, you know, loud.

It went back and forth and I was out of this discussion. Then the leader said they were done fixing ropes. I tried to convince them to stay and finish the job, but they packed up and left. We were like, shit, what do we do now? The commercial expeditions wanted to go up the next day. So we waited until they left and then we started fixing the rope to Camp 3 for them.

What did you guys talk about when you went back to your tent after fixing the ropes? Did Simone really get on the radio and talk about a fight?
He never said I’m going to come down there and fight. That’s bullshit. People are starting to lie now. I don’t remember how long we were at Camp 3, but we decided that maybe we should go down to Camp 2 to discuss what happened. We couldn’t leave it like that. It’s not good. You should talk about that. So we rappelled down.

Could you immediately tell things were amiss when you arrived there?
On the way down, Simone was radioing to Greg [Vernovage, leader of IMG’s Everest expedition] that, yes, we are coming down, and we want to discuss this. Greg knew it was not a good situation. He said it’s really bad. So when we got there, we sat down in our tent to discuss it with him. He said the Sherpas were really pissed about Simone swearing. Then Melissa Arnot [an American climber with four Everest summits] comes to our tent and says the Sherpas will be here in 30 seconds. I said, OK, I’ll go out and talk to them. We all three went out and this whole crowd was there, maybe 100 people. When I saw they had their faces covered, I knew this was going to be really bad. 

They’d covered their faces?
Yes, and when a mob does that you know what’s going to happen.

What did happen?
They had big rocks and I think the leader was in front. I went to say something but couldn’t because I got punched in the face and hit in the head with a rock. By this time, Simone and Jonathan were already running away. After I got hit by the rock, Melissa stepped in between me and them—which was good for me, because otherwise they would have killed me for sure.

What did she say to them?
There was no discussion. It was just, No! No! No!

What was your reaction?
When I got punched, I was like, fuck, do I fight back? But with 100 people, if you fight back it will make it worse. I just hoped they wouldn’t punch too hard. But when you get hit with a rock, you know they’re just trying to kill you.

How did this go from 17 Sherpas to 100? Were they all at Camp 2?
Yes, and this is exactly the point that is really scary. There was absolutely no control. Imagine 17 people, talking some bullshit, I don’t know what they told them, but in two hours there are 100 people trying to kill three people. This is insane and totally unacceptable.

What happened next?
It went back and forth, and then someone was pushing me into the tent and saying for me to hide. From inside, I could just see Melissa and Greg standing in front of the tent with all these people who were saying to get me out and that they were going to kill me first. In the meantime, they were throwing huge rocks into the tent, the kind that, if they hit you in the head, you’d be dead immediately.

Where are the others by now?
Somebody went to go get Simone and brought him back to the tent, because the Sherpas wanted him to apologize. Jonathan was hiding behind a rock. When Simone got there, they immediately punched him, and then someone pushed him back into the tent. They then wanted him to come out on his knees, which he did, saying, “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” Then they started kicking his face and someone tried to stab him with a pen knife. They used rocks to hit us, crampons even. I tell you, they tried to kill us.

Simone got back into the tent again and you could hear them saying that we weren’t supposed to be up there, that we didn’t have a permit for Lhotse. But we did. They tried to find a lot of small things to cause us trouble. They said we had one hour to pack up and leave, and that we should not come back to the West Face, West Ridge, or Lhotse. They said that if we weren’t gone in an hour, they were going to kill all three of us. That was the worst thing.

Did you know some of the attackers?
There were people in the mob who climbed summits with me last year. You can imagine how I feel now.

Have you spoken with them?
I have spoken with some leaders and that is it.

So you pack up and head down a different way, right? What went through your mind as you’re going down?
We had this chance to retreat, and we were thinking, how do we get out of here as fast as possible? We tried to find a way down where no one could see us. We were on a mission, going into deep valleys and crevasses and checking over our shoulders to see if they were coming after us. We crawled on our knees so they couldn’t see us. Then we snuck down the route as far as possible to a big ladder, because if they chased us, I knew we could cross that ladder and then cut it loose so they couldn’t follow. That was the plan.

What do you think should come out of this whole experience?
If this had happened on the north side in China, those people would be in jail, no question. But here in Nepal? We made an agreement, and the companies with the Sherpas said they would take action. You just have to trust that they will, but it’s not my problem. I don’t need to come back to Everest.

Are you done with Nepal?
No, I’m not done with Nepal. It’s the wrong moment to ask me that. I lost something I really love in my life. It’s done. I’m not saying I’m never coming back, but give me time. I need to figure it out. There are many other mountains I can climb. Everest is Everest, and Everest lost a lot, but it’s still the highest mountain in the world.

It sounds like this tension between Sherpas and westerners has been building for a while. Does this peace agreement settle anything?
This is not over. It will be a big problem for commercial expeditions in the future, and maybe next time someone will get killed. You can feel the tension. Climbing Everest is so big now, with so much money involved, and the Sherpas are not stupid. They see this, and they want to take over the business and kick out the westerners. This is a big fight.

In other words, you don’t think it could happen again, but rather that it will happen again?
If they don’t take action now, it will happen again and again. People will be coming to Everest no matter what. This time it was close, but I’m pretty sure next time people will get killed if they don’t change the system.

How do you do that?
These guys make a lot of money. Of course it’s hard and dangerous work, but Sherpas are the rich people in Nepal. If you make so much money you can somehow lose reality. But it’s not just about money, and I can’t give you the answer. You have to look at how the whole system works. It’s money and fame, and there is so much bullshit that creates so many problems.

There is no control, either. Greg from IMG had no power. He couldn’t say anything. And why is a sirdar not able to stop a mob like that? There’s one Sherpa we know who was already a troublemaker and got fired last year. But then he just goes to the next company and gets hired again. You will always have problems, but as long as you don’t have power to calm them down, this will happen again.

What’s your plan now? Are you heading back to Switzerland?
As fast as possible. I’m really feeling a lot of emotions right now. I need some time to sort things out, understand how this happened, why it happened. You know, not all Sherpas are bad. There are a few who are crazy, but the rest are good people. I just lost a lot of trust.

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