Foreign climbers blamed for Everest brawl in new account

KATHMANDU (AFP) - A new account of a brawl on Mount Everest that emerged on Wednesday said one of the foreign climbers involved had sworn at a group of Nepalese guides and challenged them to a fight.

Climbers Ueli Steck of Switzerland and Simone Moro of Italy, accompanied by British alpine photographer Jonathan Griffith, were involved on Saturday in a bust-up with the Sherpas which has shocked the mountaineering community. The events have overshadowed the climbing season in a year when Nepal is preparing to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of the world's highest peak.

Eyewitnesses said the European climbers ignored a request to wait while the Nepalese Sherpas rigged up ropes on the upper reaches of the mountain, sparking an argument between climbers on the Lhotse ice face.

"Simone began to shout, many of the words in Nepali language, and many of the words were inflammatory," wrote American climber Garrett Madison in an e-mail sent to Outside Magazine.

After this first clash - when the European climbers said they faced an aggressive Nepalese Sherpa who threatened them with an ice pick - both sides descended to Camp Two at an altitude of 6,500m.

"At one point Simone stated over open radio frequency... that if the Sherpa had a problem he could come down to Camp Two soon and 'fucking fight'," wrote Mr Madison.

Mr Steck and Mr Moro claimed they were then attacked by an "out-of-control mob" of Sherpas who threatened to kill them and threw stones at their tents.

Mr Madison and a witness speaking to AFP said another Western climber not involved in the original argument actually sparked the fight after he "entangled physically with a Sherpa" during efforts to mediate the argument.

"The events at Camp Two can only be described as sad and unacceptable," said Ms Melissa Arnot, an American mountaineer who told AFP she helped separate the two sides.

"I think the foreign climbers made the mistakes and the Sherpas made some mistakes in communication," she later told American television channel ABC.

Photographer Griffith, in an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper, also said Mr Moro had sworn at the Sherpas. He praised Ms Arnot for helping save them from a potentially life-threatening situation.

"It's not that we pissed them off and there was a fight. This is 10 or 20 years of frustration spilling out. Mob rule shouldn't happen anywhere, let alone Everest, but something needs to change," Mr Griffith told The Guardian.

Nepal is set to celebrate the anniversary of the first ascent of Everest by New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary and his Nepalese guide Tenzing Norgay in May 1953.

Among other events, there will be a commemorative flight around the peak featuring their sons Jamling Norgay and Peter Hillary.

Mr Steck and Mr Griffith returned to Kathmandu on Wednesday morning after aborting plans to summit Everest by a new "undisclosed" route.

They declined to speak to media at their hotel, saying only that "we want to tell this story the right way", and that they had a meeting with Nepalese Prime Minister Khilraj Regmi to work on a joint public statement.

Mr Moro, who is a rescue helicopter pilot, has remained on the mountain.

Mr Jake Norton, an American who has climbed Everest three times, told AFP the friction may stem from over-commercialisation of the mountain.

"The proliferation of commercial climbs means people are going up Everest for many different reasons, and not necessarily with the traditional mountaineering mindset, which changes the game," he said.

"I hope an incident like this gives the mountaineering community pause to think about what we are doing, who we are working with, and how we are treating them - be they Sherpas in Nepal or Quechuas in Peru," he said.

While the details of Saturday's drama remain murky, the increased crowding on the peak, including 150 people reaching the summit in a single weekend last year, has caused widespread concern for the safety of expeditions.