Roy Exum: ‘Fist City’ At 24,000 Feet

Thursday, May 2, 2013
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There are certain things a man must never do, like give yourself a haircut or ask for directions when there is a woman in the car. There are some things that are obvious, like never licking your fingers when you are painting a picket fence, and some you have to learn, like never cheating on your taxes, your wife, or a golf scorecard.

But last Saturday on Mount Everest, a bunch of guys really knocked the Smarties out of the ol’ piñata when a wild fistfight between climbers and Sherpas erupted at 24,000 feet. You talk about crazy! You think the sawdust floor in a honky tonk is bad – try it on ice where the slope is not only quite severe but the fall is markedly worse than off a bar stool.

It has been sixty years since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first humans to stand at 29,029 feet above sea level and since then about 3,200 others have summited the highest mountain in the world. Actually the mountain has been bagged over 5,000 times, skilled climbers repeating by different routes, but it is the last place on earth where you want to go to “fist city” because for every 100 who conquer the dreaded “Death Zone,” four climbers die.

You see, at about 26,000 feet the sub-zero temperatures, the hurricane strength winds and the rock-hard ice are deadly but, because of low atmospheric pressure, there is about one-third of the oxygen at sea level. Instead of 20 or 30 breaths a minute, a conditioned athlete will take 80-to-90 gulps, which is why the last mile is a 12-hour nightmare.

So imagine the scene that unfolded on Saturday between Camp Two (21,300 feet) and Camp Three (24,500 feet) when a team of about 17 Sherpas blocked the trail so they could install ropes for what are now called “luxury climbers” who will try to climb the hallowed mountain within the next few weeks. Because the “window” until monsoon season is so very tight, the summit is increasingly crowded.

Get the picture: At the very top of Everest, between the South Summit and the “Hillary Step,” is what is called the "Cornice Traverse," a very narrow knife-like route where on the right is the Kangshung Face (amounting to a 10,000 foot fall) and on the left is the southwest face (an 8,000 foot fall). There is always snow and ice on the rock, too. Then there is the Step, a sheer 40-foot wall, before the true summit is reached. There is a definite urgency not to get squeezed out by other climbers.

That’s why the three European climbers went around the Sherpa work party and began to climb up a parallel route 150 yards away. The Sherpas claimed they were being hit with ice and one thing led to another. The Sherpa in charge of the work party rappelled with great speed and vigor into celebrated Swiss climber Ueli Steck and, when he and two companions returned to their tent, a “posse” of nearly 100 Sherpas started pelting the tent with rocks.

The men came out and what was described as an old-fashioned brawl broke out. It was finally buffered and stopped by “a small group of Westerners” (what they call Americans) but the European climbers said they were threatened with death by nightfall. That’s when the three Europeans aborted their climb and returned to base camp, where one spent overnight in the hospital.

For years the Sherpas have been treated with great respect and fondness – so much so that neither Hillary nor Tenzing would ever tell which one actually stepped on the summit first. But in recent years the “luxury climbers” have little regard for the Sherpas and, with mounting tensions fueled by big commercial outfitters, the insensitivity was a big factor in the fracas.

A copy of a “treaty” between the climbers still on the mountain and the Sherpas appeared on the Internet yesterday but a greater danger is thought to be that there are too many people on the mountain and in the next few weeks it is feared there will be more climbers than time.

According to the Adventure Journal website, four climbers were killed last year due to “traffic jams” in the “Death Zone” and, with quirky weather a constant, those who pay up to $65,000 in an effort to conquer Everest don’t like to wait. Further, the Nepalese government collected almost $3 million in license fees from 337 climbers last year.

Jonathan Griffin, a British alpinist/photographer, was one of the three Europeans attacked and he told The Telegraph he feels Americans with money are the real problem. “Everest attracts money. There are luxurious base camps, even at Camp Two, and people are paying a lot of money to be here. Then Sherpas are carrying up these huge tents and they are angry at the financial gap of their mountain.

“These commercial trips are based on a lot of luxury and getting you up the mountain, and a lot of these Westerners don’t even know the Sherpas’ names. Sherpas carry up their sleeping bags and by the time (the Westerner) gets there a cup of tea, sleeping bag and tent are already waiting.”

Griffin told the Telegraph the attack by the Sherpas was a misunderstanding. “They were tired and cold and young, all on edge and (expletive) off …. But whatever we did, even if we knocked a bit of ice off, it doesn’t warrant trying to kill three people.

“Before I left for Everest I said the danger was too many people on the mountain and accepted that as the main danger,” he said, “I didn’t think the main danger would be a mob of Sherpas throwing rocks!”

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