Along with glaciers and crampons, drama has become a fixture on Mt. Everest.
This season, attention is focused on a deadly avalanche that sent Sherpas packing for the season. Last year, media reports zeroed in on a rock-throwing fistfight that began at about 23,000 feet after Swiss climber Ueli Steck and partners reportedly dislodged ice that fell onto a Sherpa setting ropes below them.
To help keep the peace, the Nepalese government announced that it would station up to nine police and army officers at Everest Base Camp this season. As debates continue about whether a police presence is necessary or could even make any difference in how climbers behave thousands of feet above, the move draws attention to a long history of tension on the mountain.
From historical questions about who owns Everest to logistical ones about who has a right to climb on which routes at what times, Everest brings out strong feelings. Now, with nearly 1,000 people at Base Camp and just a week or two each season when conditions are good enough for summit bids, said some Everest experts, it’s no wonder that tempers continue to flare.
“The more people you get there, the more chances you have for conflict,” said Maurice Isserman, a historian at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and author of “Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes.”
“The real problem with Everest is that it’s just way too crowded,” he said. “Climbing has this elaborate and evolving code of ethics. The really ethical thing would be to give the poor mountain a vacation.”
The first expeditions to Everest approached from the north in the 1920s, when Tibet finally agreed to allow access to British mountaineers.
So, while the Germans tackled Nanga Parbat and the Americans focused on K2 (though they were ultimately beaten to the summit by an Italian team), the British worked on Everest until Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay finally reached the summit in 1953.
A decade later, the first Americans topped Everest as part of a massive government-backed expedition. The Chinese had already climbed it. Putting an American flag on the highest peak in the world was viewed as an act of heroism and prestige at the height of the Cold War.
Large-scale nationalistic expeditions soon gave way to smaller teams that traveled lighter and more quickly. The modern era of commercial, guided treks began in the late 1980s.
As the nature of expeditions changed, so too did relationships between foreign climbers and local Sherpas, Isserman said. During early expeditions in the 1920s, Sherpas were first employed primarily as porters for British mountaineers, who referred to them as “coolies,” a denigrating term for common laborers or slaves from Asia.
Over the next couple of decades, Sherpas emerged as skilled and serious mountaineers. When Norgay summited with Hillary in 1953, he had already participated in 11 previous Everest expeditions. No one was more experienced.
Mutual respect gradually grew, and Sherpas have long welcomed foreign climbers, who make it possible for them to earn as much money in a two-month climbing season as a farmer could earn in 10 years, Isserman said.
But Sherpas have also become more aggressive at asserting their value to foreign expeditions, beginning as early as 1953, when Hillary’s team stayed in a hotel in Kathmandu while Sherpas had to sleep in a barn without bathrooms. Resentment brewed and the Sherpas almost went on strike.