Everest Clash: Have Sherpas Had It?

A Nepalese porter hunches over under the weight of an extremely heavy load as he ascends slopes under Mount Everest.
Ed Darack/SuperStock/Corbis

Sixty years ago, Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first confirmed people to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

Ever since, Sherpas -- who live in the region and are renowned for their mountaineering skills -- have been helping Westerners on their quests to reach the mountain’s summit. But the relationship has not always been harmonious.

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The latest skirmish involved Italian, Swiss and British professional climbers and a group of Sherpas. Tensions escalated last weekend when the three Western climbers passed the Sherpas, stepping over the ropes the Sherpas were fixing for expeditions.

As climbing season on Everest swings into high gear, so, occasionally, do tempers. The clash of cultures mixed with the precipitous and volatile nature of the world’s tallest mountain can quickly turn already dangerous situations into life-threatening events.

“The purpose of having a fixed rope is to protect climbers from crevasses and falling on steep terrain,” explains blogger Alan Arnette, who has been to Everest four times and summited in 2011. “So by definition, those fixing the rope are in those dangerous situations with little protection.”

When ropes are being fixed, other climbers generally steer clear. Although the details are murky, violence eventually ensued when Sherpas said the climbers had dislodged ice above where they were working. As many as 100 Sherpas allegedly went after the trio, throwing stones at their tent. The three climbers -- Ueli Steck of Switzerland and Simone Moro of Italy, and British photographer Jonathan Griffith -- have left the mountain and abandoned their summit bids.

“I think that we were the tip of the iceberg," Moro told PlanetMountain.com at base camp. "We were the final straw that broke ... the Sherpa’s patience.”

Although it’s one of the few publicized accounts of violence on the mountain, experts say it’s not uncommon.

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