Drama At 21,000 Feet: Chad Kellogg Reports On The Everest Brawl

Note: Outdoor Research Athlete Chad Kellogg is on Mount Everest, acclimatizing for his 2013 speed attempt from Base Camp to the summit. Chad reported from Base Camp following a violent incident between a group of European climbers and a group of Sherpas at Camp 2 on April 27.

I want to say that there were four or five men responsible for this unfortunate incident at Camp 2. Since I do not know their names I have used the name “Sherpas” to represent the mob of men rallied against Ueli Steck, Simone Moro and Jonathan Griffith. However, I do not want to misrepresent the Sherpa community that I have grown to love over the past 15 years of traveling to Nepal and sharing in adventures with the Sherpa people. This is the one exception to what I have found to be a very happy and caring people, full of generosity and kindness. I will work harder to reestablish connections with my Sherpa friends and work to repair whatever sense of connection has been lost between those who call Nepal home and those of us who have just come to experience the Himalayas.

At 5:15 am on April 26th, we collected at the IMG camp at 21,500 feet and added two Sherpas and 400 meters of rope. The plan was to fix ropes all the way up to Camp 3, via the 1953 route.

We set out up to the base of the Lhotse Face, reaching the technical terrain after 2 1/2 hours. I stripped off my down suit as the sun was approaching, then donned my ice screws and tied into the static 10mm rope. I fixed the first 40 meters and set off with 60 meters of rope. Damian Benegas and I were sure that the route would “go,” so Damian called up the rest of the Sherpas to bring more rope.

After 4 hours of climbing and fixing 300 meters I reached an impasse. There was a huge crevasse looming in front of the route. The crack was 60 feet across and 150 feet deep. The route had come to a dead end. I called back to Rory Stark and Damian that the route was a dead end. We would have to send every one back down and clean the ropes and ice screws. We had just wasted a day in our efforts. As the realization set in we were more than a bit disappointed. Rory and I removed the screws and rappelled the face meeting Damian below. The Sherpas just ran down and left us to fend for ourselves and so we coiled 400 meters of rope, collected the equipment and filled our packs with 50 pounds of gear and rope to bring back down. We took a short break to eat and drink and rejuvenate ourselves.

The reason we had chosen this line for the route was due to the multiple injuries on the “regular” route up the Lhotse Face last year. After several injuries last year, Damian, seven others and I found this safer route last May 2012 and we hoped to use the same line again. It was unfortunately not to be.

When we arrived to Camp 2 there was a lot of grumbling from the Sherpa crew that we had wasted a day. They had wanted to fix the lines to Camp 3 themselves without the “white eyes,” or mikaru, as the foreigners are known. We came to find out that the fixing of the lines is a matter of national pride for the Sherpas. We stopped in at IMG for a few cups of juice and to talk with the guides and staff. We explained what we had tried and the insurmountable obstacles that we had run into. They congratulated us on our effort and we resigned to take a rest day and let the 18 Sherpa crew fix the lines up to Camp 3. I observed that tensions amongst the Sherpas line fixing crew were high.

We all were tired as we rolled back into the Benegas Brothers Camp. We had put in 9 ½ hours of effort resulting in no progress on the route and disgruntled Sherpa staff in other camps. We discussed the days’ events over dinner and confirmed our plans to rest a day and then carry a load up to Camp 3 on the 28th. I did not have the pleasure of seeing the full moon, but we were all feeling the effects I believe.

The next morning dawned clear and a bit windy. Rory, Damian and I rested while the two members took a walk with Horacio to the base of the Lhotse Face. I watched the fixing teams begin stringing two lines up the face. One was the “up” line and the other the “down” line for traffic. I laid inside the dome tent protecting my face from the harsh glare of the sun at 21,500 feet. We spent the morning laughing and hydrating. Two hours later I noticed a team out on the snow to the left of the fixing team. “Who is that?” I wondered. It turned out to be Ueli Steck, Simone Moro and Jonathan Griffith, the cameraman. They were climbing up to establish Camp 3 without disturbing the fixing team.

I went and met with Ueli, Simone, Melissa Arnot and Jonathan to get the facts correct:

Just below Camp 3, they returned to the original line and crossed the fixed ropes carefully. Ueli made certain that Jon did not dislodge any ice and that none of the team touched the fixed lines. Apparently a confrontation began at that moment. The fixing team accused them of knocking ice down on the fixing team of Sherpas below. One Sherpa began to wave an ice ax at Simone and Simone cursed at the Sherpa offending him further. The fixing team abandoned the fixing effort for the day and all 18 of them descended to Camp 2.

Worried that they might be to blame for the ropes not reaching Camp 3 that day, Ueli decided to fix all of the cached rope up to Camp 3 another 250 meters above. Afterward, the team of three descended back to Camp 2.

Melissa told me that she came out of her tent and saw a large group of Sherpas, between 35 and 75 men, headed for the encampment of Simone, Jonathan and Ueli. She was closer than the mob so she ran to the tent and told them to make a run for the glacier and hide. Simone and Jonathan made it out to the glacier while Ueli stayed behind.

Ueli said that he was confronted by the mob and was immediately hit in the head by a fist followed by a rock to the head. Melissa pushed Ueli into the kitchen tent to protect him from the mob. The Sherpa men would not hit a woman so she was the buffer of protection from the very angry mob. Since it was too hard to figure out what was happening to Simone and Jonathan, Melissa sent a Sherpa from Simone’s camp to get he and Jonathan from the glacier. They were secretly ushered into the same kitchen tent as Ueli and buffered from the mob by Melissa and the head of Camp 2 for IMG. The men promised that if Simone came out on his knees and begged for forgiveness he would not be hurt. Simone tried to get out of the tent on his knees when he was beaten and forced back inside. A while later Melissa asked Simone to get back on his knees outside the tent and ask for forgiveness again. She had been assured by the instigators that he would not be hurt. So Simone got on his knees to ask for forgiveness and was kicked under the chin, someone tried to stab him with a pen knife, but fortunately the knife hit him in the padded belt of his backpack.

Simone retreated inside the tent again. Marty Schmidt recalled when I talked with him at Camp 2 that he saw a man getting ready to bring a large rock down on Simone’s head to kill him. Marty grabbed the rock and the man’s arm and shouted “no, no violence.” For his intervention he received a rock to the head himself. Marty was still wearing the bandage on his head when I spoke with him.

Eventually, the crowd of angry men dispersed. Swearing that if Simone, Jonathan and Ueli were still there in an hour they would come back and kill the three of them. Simone, Jonathan and Ueli left by the main glacier behind camp and hidden from view. They did not even have a rope to protect them from the crevasses that lurk there as an ever-present danger. Beat up but mobile, the trio made their way down from Camp 2 to 1 and through the ice-fall back to Base Camp.

It is hard to believe that this whole incident appeared to have started from ice supposedly being knocked down on some Sherpas below by three European climbers. Simone and Ueli were accused of climbing above Camp 1 without a permit. In fact, Jonathan had a permit for the regular route, Simone and Ueli had a permit for the West Ridge and a Lhotse permit so all were within their rights to go to Camp 3. Things get very volatile when so many people are upset.

Rory, Damian and I were sitting in the group tent as the rumors began to filter into our camp. We heard every possible distortion of the tale. When we tried to go up to the IMG camp and talk to Greg we were dissuaded by a large group of Sherpa men standing outside the camp. So we went over and talked with Dave Hahn and Seth Waterfall of RMI. The tone was one of sadness about the assault that had occurred on our friends and the division that seemed to have transpired between the Sherpas and the climbers.

After a couple of hours, about 5 p.m., Rory and I went up to talk with Greg again and take the pulse of the situation. We asked Greg his opinion about going up to Camp 3 the next day. He said that given the current situation, it would be better to go down to Base Camp and let things get sorted out and cool down for a few days.

Plans are subject to change for all sorts of reasons. So we decided that Greg’s assessment of the situation was the most accurate and that we would cut our progress a bit in order to accommodate the situation. All the folks in the group tent talked the situation out until it was time for bed, but we were all a bit uneasy. The tension in the air was palpable.

The next morning everyone woke up early, packed their tents and bags and headed down. Rory and I were respectful to all the Sherpa men and groups we encountered. We made our way back to Base Camp in 2 ½ hours and were glad to be received by our friendly crew. Now we would lay low and see how the drama played out.

We were all anxious to see if justice would be served to the handful of folks that had instigated the assault of at least four Westerners and one Sherpa. I felt that the companies that employed the men responsible should at the very least fire the men and get them off the mountain so the situation could not repeat itself.

I am not going to comment on why I think this happened. That would be just opinion and promote sensationalism instead of the facts. The fallout is as of yet still occurring. I am here to climb and that is what I still intend to do. On May 2nd, Rory and I will head up to Camp 2 for our second rotation. We intend to stay on the mountain for four nights and touch the top of the Yellow Band at 25,300 feet. I am sure things will still continue to evolve, and I hope it is for the better.

Alan Arnette has published an account of the events from the Sherpas’ side here: http://www.alanarnette.com/blog/2013/04/30/everest-2013-the-sherpas-viewpoint/