2013 Everest Report: A Curse, a Fight and the Aftermath


 

Mt. Everest showing (1) South Col/Southeast Ridge original route (Hillary-Tenzing Norgay, 1953). (2) Modern variation of the 1953 route favored by some for its decreased exposure to rockfall compared with the direct variation. (3) Modern direct variation fixed by commercial teams in 2013, favored by others for its efficiency and decreased exposure to serac fall. (4) Griffith/Steck/Moro's line of descent from Camp II. [A] (Not shown.) Everest summit (8848m). [B] Lhotse (8516m). [C] Nuptse (7864m). [D] South Col (7906m). [E] Geneva Spur. [F] Lhotse Face. [G] Western Cwm. [H] Khumbu Icefall. [I] 2013 Camp I (6100m). [J] 2013 Camp II (6500m). [K] Location of argument with fixing team (7100m). [L] 2013 Camp III (ca. 7500m). [M] 2013 Camp IV (7906m). CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE. [Photo] Dick and Pip Smith/Hedgehoghouse.com

Outside of the alpine-climbing community, many people forget the Swiss alpinists Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet's 1986 "night-naked" speed ascent of the Supercouloir. Without any ropes, oxygen bottles, high-altitude porters or even tents, they blitzed up the mountain and back down in a mere forty-three hours.

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And in 1988, two Americans, one Canadian and one Brit—Ed Webster, Robert Anderson, Paul Teare and Stephen Venables—climbed the steep ice and rock walls of the untouched Neverest Buttress in relatively light style, fixing only the lower sections. "On Everest," Webster later wrote in Alpinist 27, "the landscape you experience may be the one you create within you. By forgoing oxygen and by climbing in a small, unsupported group, we encountered both the mountain's unmitigated force and its wildest beauty."

Adventure climbing dwindled with the rise of commercial expeditions in the 1990s, and by the 2000s, the mountain had been swallowed by the hordes of peak baggers and the flurry of mainstream media reports recounting their scandals, disasters and Everest "firsts." In 2008, Chris Bonington, leader of the 1975 first ascent of the Southwest Face, told Ives that it seemed as if few people still recalled the richness of the adventure heritage of the mountain.

The goals announced for 2013 hinted at the beginning of a partial renaissance—if successful. Alexey Bolotov and Denis Urubko planned a bold, and wholly new route on the Southwest Face in lightweight style. Most closely followed by climbing media were the efforts of sponsored climbers Moro, Steck and Griffith, who planned to link the Hornbein Couloir with a new route on Lhotse. The Everest-Lhotse linkup could represent one section of a long-dreamed-of traverse of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse. Neither climb would be in pure alpine style: they would pay to use the ladders in the Khumbu Icefall, which are placed each season by the "Icefall Doctors," a group of Sherpas who work for the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), a local NGO. But, otherwise, they intended to climb without hired high-altitude assistance or fixed ropes. First, however, both groups decided to acclimatize on the south side's normal route, thus crossing deeper into terrain that had long become the realm of siege-style expeditions and commercial teams.

A Curse, a Fight and the Aftermath

ON APRIL 27, AFTER THE FAILED DAY of rope fixing, Kellogg, Damian Benegas and Rory Stark stepped down from the fixing team, and the Sherpa crew of sixteen started up the Lhotse Face to fix the direct line. The same morning, Jonathan Griffith, Simone Moro and Ueli Steck departed Camp II for their tents at Camp III. Despite later rumors that Moro's team didn't have the requisite permit, Griffith confirms that they had the three permits necessary to acclimatize and to attempt their linkup of the Hornbein Couloir and Lhotse—a $70,000 Everest permit split among seven climbers, a permit for the West Ridge and one for Lhotse. On their way to the face, the three European climbers met a Western guide, Griffith said in a letter to UKClimbing.com. Steck explained their intention: to free solo up the Lhotse Face to Camp III. The guide told them, "OK," but warned them not to touch the fixed lines or get in the way of the working Sherpas. The trio agreed.

In a National Geographic interview, Moro said he assumed that the Sherpas thought they planned to hang on the fixed ropes, and that as long as he and his partners didn't do so, there would be no problem. As the three climbers soloed, they kept a distance of 50 meters from the fixing team and their ropes, Griffith wrote in an April 29 press release. Moro reported a distance of 100 meters. He also said two Sherpas knocked ice down on Steck's head, but they continued upward.

After sixty to ninety minutes, the trio said they reached a point just above their tent at Camp III. They traversed right to a stance where three or four Sherpas had gathered. The lead Sherpa was fixing ropes fifteen to twenty meters above. Griffith crossed the ropes first and continued traversing on a snow ramp. When Steck arrived at the stance, the head of the rope-fixing team, Mingma Tenzing Sherpa of IMG, shouted and rappelled down to confront the climbers.

"As Ueli was soloing and therefore not attached to a rope it was natural that he should hold his hands up to take the impact of the force arriving on him from the lead climber abseiling right on to him," Griffith wrote in the release. "This prompted the lead climber to accuse Ueli Steck of 'touching him.' In between hitting the ice with all his force and screaming at Ueli Steck 'why you touch me' he said that they had kicked ice down on them and injured a Sherpa." (Later that day, a Sherpa reportedly explained to his sirdar that he bled from his nose because he slipped while jumaring and hit his face on the ice.) Steck offered to help fix the rope up to Camp III, a suggestion that some of the Sherpas perceived to be an insult. One of them, Karma Sarki, later told Outside Senior Editor Grayson Schaffer, "The Sherpas were furious because the three climbers had overtaken us, and they did so in our country, on our mountain. We put our lives at risk for climbing Everest and helping the foreign climbers. Everest is everything for us."

During the heated back-and-forth, Moro, who had traversed over to join them, called one of the Sherpa men machikne, a Nepali insult similar to, but carrying even greater weight than, "motherfucker." Mingma Tenzing Sherpa ordered the fixing crew back to Camp II. Steck fixed the final 260 meters to Camp III, and Moro spoke with Greg Vernovage of IMG in Camp II. During the conversation Moro cursed again. His harsh words transmitted across Camp II through the open radio frequency and into the ears of Westerners and Sherpas alike.

"Moro's casual use of profanity in his non-native language rubbed both the Sherpas and the Western guides the wrong way at the time," One Mountain Thousand Summits author Freddie Wilkinson recently wrote in Men's Journal. Himalayan Ascent co-owner and Nepali guide Sumit Joshi told Wilkinson, "Simone is a funny guy. But he's always cutting jokes and swearing, and that wasn't well received."

The trio descended to Camp II, and Vernovage joined them at their tent when they arrived. "He said that the Sherpas were really pissed about Simone swearing," Steck told Outside. Moro says he radioed to the Sherpa fixing team, saying, "We are here in Camp II, and I want to come to your camp and talk with you."

Meanwhile, the Sherpa fixing team had grown into a larger group (various reports number the crowd from dozen people to upward of 100), some outwardly angry, others curious bystanders. A sponsored American climber, Melissa Arnot, ran ahead to warn Griffith, Steck and Moro. They came out of their tent to meet the crowd of Sherpas, some of whom covered their faces and carried rocks.

Simone Moro, far left, speaks with a group of Sherpas in Camp II, while others observe. Phunuru Sherpa, Melissa Arnot and Greg Vernovage separate the impassioned men. [Photo] Sumit Joshi
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