Mount Everest Brawl: Why Did A Mob Of Angry Sherpas With Axes Attack Climbers?

By Philip Ross on April 30, 2013 1:08 PM EDT

mount everest brawl
Tensions between Sherpas and foreign climbers reached their fever pitch over the weekend when three European climbers got into a brawl with an angry mob of Sherpas. What sparked the fight that sent the climbers packing? (Photo: Flickr/SamHawleywood)

Over the weekend, three European climbers - one from Britain, one from Italy and a third from Switzerland - were mobbed by angry Sherpa guides on the slopes of Mount Everest  after a confrontation between the two groups broke out.

Brawl At 24,000 Feet

ABC News reports that Jon Griffith, Simone Moro and Ueli Steck were on their way up the mountain when, around 24,500 feet, they were approached in their tent by close to 100 angry Sherpas who threw rocks, kicked and punched them. One even began waving banging his ice ax around "erratically," according to one of the climbers.

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The brawl between climbers and Sherpas on Mount Everest was sparked after the guide accused the European climbers of knocking ice onto one of the mountain guides below and injuring him. Voice of America reports that the Sherpas had asked the climbers to hold back for a moment while they fixed some ropes. The Europeans, however, continued climbing.

Sherpa are an ethnic group from Nepal that has occupied the mountainous regions of the Himalayas since sometime in the 17th and 18th centuries. They're considered incredible mountaineers, and have worked as guides for foreign explorers for decades, especially on Mount Everest. The term Sherpa is used by travelers today to refer to mountain guides as a whole.

When Edmund Hillary made headlines in 1953 for being the first European to scale Mount Everest, he was accompanied by Tenzing Norgay, a Nepalese Indian Sherpa who was only 20-years-old when he was selected to join the expedition. Norgay completed a number of subsequent ascents, even leading the first American tourists up Mount Everest.

"The history of mountaineering on Everest started with a partnership between a Sherpa and a foreigner. 60 years later this partnership has changed considerably," Moro said in an interview with Planet Mountain. "I think that we were the tip of the iceberg. We were the final straw that broke... the Sherpa's patience."

He said that the business and money involved with Everest expeditions has caused tensions between climbers and Sherpas, the latter often feeling left out of the profits reaped from foreign adventure seekers - some of who spend up to $70,000 for a single trip up.

He told the publication that if it wasn't for the other climbers who intervened in the brawl, Moro and his friends would probably have been seriously injured.

Must Be This Tough To Climb

More than 3,000 people have scaled the 29,029-tall Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak, since the first successful ascent was recorded in 1953. The Age reports that about 150 people reach the summit of Everest each year; five people die along the way. More than 185 people have died on Everest since 1922. Outside Magazine reports that ten climbers perished on the slopes of Everest in April and May of 2012. It's the third deadliest spring season on record, behind 2006's 11 deaths and 1996's 12 deaths.

The dangers of climbing Everest are numerous: Avalanches, falling rocks, hurricanes, whiteouts, pneumonia, frost nip, falling into a crevasse and severe exhaustion have all been cited as mishaps that can occur while ascending the tallest mountain in the world. Most deaths are caused by avalanches; falls are second. The region above 26,000 feet is called the "death zone," because anyone in trouble above that altitude.

According to National Geographic, the starting point of an Everest climb is base camp at 18,000 feet - higher than any of the peaks in Europe.

Amicable Farewell

The three European backpackers were so distraught over the encounter with the Sherpas that they decided to abandon the expedition and leave the mountain. AFP reports that a Nepalese government official confirms that a mediation meeting between the European climbers and the Sherpas concluded successfully on Monday afternoon.

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