ON APRIL 27, 2013, A CURSE RANG THROUGH the thin, cold air. In the sunlight, the Lhotse Face, on the Nepal side of Mt. Everest, shimmered like a tilted glass. Swells of ice turned to white fire. Two groups of men converged near 7100 meters. Early that morning, a team of Sherpas had started fixing ropes for guided expeditions. Three independent European alpinists soloed up behind them, about fifty meters to the side. As Jonathan Griffith, Simone Moro and Ueli Steck tried to cross the ropes to reach their camp, Mingma Tenzing Sherpa shouted down at them to stop, and he rappelled in Steck’s direction. Steck put his hand up (he later said) to try to keep Mingma Tenzing Sherpa from colliding with him. The argument escalated: Mingma Tenzing Sherpa accused them of knocking ice on a Sherpa below. The Europeans insisted that they hadn’t. According to Griffith, Mingma Tenzing Sherpa appeared to be threatening Moro with his ice axe. And then Moro shouted the Nepali word, Machikne.
At first it might have seemed as though the insult glanced off the slope and vanished in the rising winds. The Sherpas headed down. Later that day, after both groups were back in Camp II, a fight broke out. Struck with fists, boots and rocks–and threatened with death if they remained on the mountain–Griffith, Moro and Steck left the normal route and down climbed, without a rope, amid a jumble of crevasses. When Griffith looked back, he saw a line of people standing along the ridges, watching. The three men continued to the Khumbu Icefall. The sunlight finally faded. Dusk drifted across the shadows of the blue chasms, muting the bright tents, prayer flags, laptops and satellite phones of the base camp that lay like a teeming, microcosmic city, waiting below.
BY APRIL 28, REFLECTIONS of the violence spread throughout the Web, starting (for many international readers) with a single press release from Moro’s team, then multiplying and refracting across thousands of forum posts, online news reports, comment sections, interviews, blogs and op-eds, thickening into a sharp, dense flurry of contradictory views. Even now, most of the “facts,” (including those in the paragraphs above) are debated. To date, none of the Sherpas directly involved in the fight has agreed to speak publically.* The effects of altitude and intense emotions may well have blurred other witnesses’ recollections. It’s possible to view the conflict merely as a momentary flare of anger between a few tired, hypoxic and strong-willed people.
And yet the event still reverberates, unsettling the usual seasonal reportage of fixed-rope traffic jams, commercial excess and Everest “firsts” with a sense of some deeper unease–some tremor rippling beneath the surface of that surreal, dystopian image of a peak that has long since become, to much of the public, as the British climbing journalist Ed Douglas once wrote, “a distorting mirror in which the world saw the whole point of mountaineering” (Chomolungma Sings the Blues, 1997). It was as if the outburst had shattered that same mirror into countless fragments.
AMONG THE RESPONSES to the incident, one of the most prevalent themes was what the author Amanda Padoan calls a “nostalgia for something that never fully existed.” Old photographs of classic Everest expeditions show men who seem, today, almost incandescent, ablaze with resplendent smiles and pale light, on the edge of terrain that still appeared as remote and unknown as the moon. Behind what looks like transcendent solidarity, those iconic images also conceal memories of quieter struggles. The initial attempts on the mountain took place at a time when Britain ruled India. Although Nepal never became a colony, foreign explorers often approached the high peaks as a kind of vertical empire, a world with seemingly immutable divisions between sahibs and porters.
“Soon enough,” the Indian climber M.S. Kohli narrrates, “the Sherpas began to assert themselves. Most of them had not grown up in the ‘colonial’ atmosphere of India to consider the British sahibs as their ‘masters'” (Sherpas: The Himalayan Legends, 2003). During the 1930s, Sherpas carried out strikes that increased their pay and helped define their role as skilled high-altitude staff. In 1953, as Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary descended from the first ascent of Everest, the expedition leader Colonel John Hunt ran through deep snow to embrace both the Sherpa and the New Zealander. “Anyone who had seen us then,” Tenzing Norgay declared, “could never have thought about distinctions between sahibs and Sherpas. We were all mountaineers together, who had climbed our mountain.” In that bright instant, it seemed as if the remnants of the imperial age had entirely disappeared.
Yet fragments of the old categories still lingered, fading in and out of view. Tenzing Norgay later noted that he was made to seem like a lesser character in Hillary’s story (Tiger of the Snows, 1955). In the years since the first ascent, Sherpa mountaineers have found themselves navigating ambiguous terrain in which their status slips back and forth between that of high-altitude porters and that of climbers or guides. Even today, many Western accounts portray Sherpas as almost-fantastical beings, willing to drag the most inexperienced clients to the summit, to sacrifice themselves without complaint and to efface themselves from view. As the American climber Pete Athans says, “There is a Romanticization of [Sherpa] culture that borders and tiptoes around myth.”
In the international media, past discussions about the ethics of Himalayan alpinism have rarely included many voices from indigenous people. Much of the profit from commercial climbing goes to the Nepal government and to foreign-owned guiding businesses. Although Sherpas are well paid by Nepal’s standards, most earn far less money than top Western guides do. Nonetheless, on commercial Everest climbs, Sherpas now fix ropes and shepherd clients from base to summit, even if, as Ngawang Nima Sherpa points out, they are often still portrayed as mere “helpers” and “assistants.” Increasing numbers of Sherpas have training from the Khumbu Climbing School or even IFMGA guide certification. For the younger, more professional generation, the Nepali outfitter Sumit Joshi believes, “There was a frustration that was a long time coming, held inside for many years, until finally something happened that was too much to tolerate.”
Since the April 2013 incident, Sherpa climbers have posted comments across social media sites protesting a lack of “credit” and “respect” for their work. Their words have echoed what Ang Tharkay Sherpa, the sirdar on the 1950 first ascent of Annapurna, stated nearly six decades ago: “Sherpas are born alpinists… Since the first explorations of Everest…. It is they who have, one might say, made these expeditions possible” (Memoires d’un Sherpa, 1954).
SINCE THE APRIL INCIDENT, Griffith has woken up every night sweating and shaking. “The closest I can come to explaining it,” he says, “is being stuck on a belay about twenty meters beneath the biggest serac you’ve ever seen, and it’s starting to crack and groan; you can’t run, your heart races, your mouth goes dry, you’re certain these are your last few moments.” Much of the ensuing media and Internet commentary has either tried to pass summary judgments on a faceless “Sherpa mob” or else to reduce Griffith and his partners to mere stereotypes of “Western arrogance”–as if it’s all too easy to forget that these events impacted real human lives. In this sense, both groups seem trapped in one of the recurring nightmares of Everest’s modern history, the dehumanization that happens on the mountain each season.
Published in Outside Magazine last year, Ralf Dujmovits’ famous photo depicts hundreds of human dots lined up along the Lhotse Face like nearly identical beads on a string. Everest has become like a factory, with its mass-production of summiters and future motivational speakers. Oxygen masks, fixed ropes and mountainside social media all combine to form barriers between people and the actual features of rock, ice and snow. The representation of the “mountain experience” detaches itself, increasingly, from its grounding in a particular place and perspective. Even the deaths of the overcrowded or the underprepared begin to appear like just another part of a gigantic business.
“Everest will be Everest and climbers will always come,” says Luis Benitez, an American guide. “We do however have the power to change the questions that are being asked. How will we define success?” By the numbers of people capable of jugging fixed ropes to the top? By the fees obtained, slideshows given and book deals signed? By such dubious records as the world’s highest bank transactions, made this year from the peak? If Everest guiding must continue, might it be possible for a more ethical form to develop, one that tries to provide more equitable opportunities for local people and to spread more of the values shared by both Buddhism and the traditional spirit of alpinism–such as self-denial and compassion–rather than the notion of “the bottom line above all else”?
FIFTY YEARS AGO, nine hundred and nine porters marched toward Everest with the 1963 American expedition, sixty-five-pound loads strapped to their backs in clunky boxes. Many porters were dressed in rags. Some of the women had babies attached to the top of their packs. By day, their laughter formed a melodic background. At night, the air cracked with the rhythm of tubercular coughs. The road turned north, toward steep riverbanks and sharp ravines. Rickety bridges stretched across the cloudy blue waters of the Dudh Kosi. One American climber, Dan Doody, noticed an eleven-year-old porter frozen with fear at the exposed, mud-slick slope ahead. He reached his hand out to the boy. “And he with his sixty-pound load and I with my thirty pounds proceeded down the hill,” Doody recalled. If either of them had slipped, “we’d both go sliding off into nothing” (James Ramsey Ullman, Americans on Everest, 1964).
Across the Greater Ranges, a vast infrastructure of labor has supported the legends and myths of mountaineering history: the unnamed assistants who carried Godwin-Austen’s survey poles in the 1850s; the Balti guide, Wali, who led Sir Francis Younghusband down the Muztagh Pass in 1887, using a pickaxe to chop steps in ice; the low-altitude porters who have ferried supplies to base camps for nearly all expeditions, past and modern, commercial and independent alike. Each of these people is a protagonist in his or her own life, one that may, at times, have little to do with the kinds of narratives recognizable to adventure media, but instead with the more fundamental human struggles and heroisms of daily survival.
Had the events of this season gone as planned, Moro, Steck and Griffith might have successfully linked Everest’s Hornbein Couloir to a route on Lhotse–a light-style enchainment that could have helped shatter assumptions that Everest no longer has room for visionary climbs. There are other paradigms that should also be broken. True mountaineering, the Polish alpinist Voytek Kurtyka wrote in 1988, requires “mystery” (Mountain 121). And so does true humanity. Long before the world’s highest mountain became “Everest,” local Tibetans knew the peak as Chomolungma, the dwelling of the goddess Miyolangsama, the Inexhaustible Giver. Perhaps the beginning of change lies in restoring a sense of that sanctity and specificity of place. In the mirror of these hills, we can all see much greater things than profit or self-image. Their beauty and their wonder might reflect in us. As the Nepali mountaineer Dawa Steven Sherpa once declared, “We are all what the mountains shape us into.”