Renowned Swiss climber Ueli Steck - speaking to swissinfo.ch at Everest Base Camp - says he will not return to Everest, after Sherpas attacked him and his two climbing companions.
“My trust is gone. I could not go back to this mountain,” an emotionally shaken Steck said at Base Camp on Tuesday. In the interview, the Swiss mountaineer, best known for his speed climbing in the Alps and Himalaya, explains that the incident high on the world’s tallest mountain on Sunday was an expression of anger that had been growing for years. A “rift between two worlds”, as he describes it.
Steck also admits that his team’s actions after the first altercation with the rope-fixing Sherpas above Camp 2 may have provoked the local guides.
swissinfo: What exactly happened up there? Why did you get attacked?
Ueli Steck: Well, this is an answer I am still looking for. I don’t think it was a personal problem towards our team but a long-term problem that has been growing in Nepal recently. I guess we were just at the wrong place at the wrong time. It started off as a verbal fight on the mountain, just below Camp 3 and when we came back to Camp 2 there were about 100 Sherpas trying to attack us.
swissinfo: According to the media and the Sherpas, you were also inconsiderate having climbed ahead of them while they were fixing the ropes. Do you think this was a problem?
U.S.: No, I don’t think it was a problem up there. We know they were fixing the lines and we were not touching their lines and we did not interfere. They were fixing the ropes for the commercial expeditions and not for us because we don’t need it. Of course, we have to leave space for everyone on the mountain. So we went 50m to the left so we would not disturb them and we were really careful not to knock any ice down. We did not disturb them at all. I think the fact that we were going up there made them angry because they were thinking that if they [the Sherpas] are on the mountain, nobody else can be on the mountain and that was the big problem.
On April 28, Swiss climber Ueli Steck, together with Italian mountaineer Simone Moro and British photographer John Griffith, were attacked by dozens of Sherpas at Camp 2 at 6,400m on Mount Everest.
The assault happened a few hours after the three climbers had overtaken the rope fixing Sherpas who were on their way up to Camp 3 at 7,300m to prepare the route for commercial expeditions.
The three European climbers have now called off their attempt to scale Mount Everest.
swissinfo: Did you communicate with them while you were on the mountain? Or did you even overtake them on the Lhotse Face? Maybe they didn't like that.
U.S.: They had been fixing the whole morning and we overtook them in about one hour. I can understand that this creates some problems or jealousy. But we certainly had no effect on their work at all.
swissinfo: What happened when you got back down to Camp 2?
U.S.: First of all, at Camp 3 we had to traverse to our tent at around 7,100m and at that moment we had to cross them, however, we did so very carefully. As soon as we reached the fixing point (belay) they were just shouting at us and there was no point in having a discussion. They were very upset. They dropped the loads and said they were done with fixing and went down. So we felt very bad for the commercial expeditions as these guys were working for them and they should finish the job and fix all the way to Camp 3. So we decided to finish the job and fix the rest of the way.
Even though we wanted to stay at Camp 3 to acclimatise that night we decided to go to Camp 2 to solve this problem and speak to them.
swissinfo: How did the Sherpas feel about you finishing their job? Maybe that upset them?
U.S.: In hindsight I think it probably upset them but at the moment we felt guilty for being responsible for them having stopped their work for commercial expeditions. That is why we finished their work. But maybe it made things worse. So we went down to Camp 2 and whatever happened there was unacceptable. There was no reason to try and kill three people – never anywhere in life or anywhere on the mountain.
swissinfo: Did they seriously threaten to kill you?
U.S.: This is what they said. The situation got out of control and nobody had any power to stop them. It was just a mob of 100 people hitting us with rocks and they threatened to kill us.
swissinfo: How did you protect yourself?
U.S.: The female American climber, Melissa Arnot, saved my life. She intervened when I got hit because there is no point in fighting back if you have 100 people against you. The only thing you can do is take the beating. Simone and Jonathan managed to run away but I was not fast enough (I am getting slow and old). I was in a tent and I was alone. The discussion outside the tent went on for about one hour and Melissa and Greg of IMG [International Mountain Guides] tried to calm them down but all I could hear was them shouting “Give us the guy. We will kill him first and then the other two”. Somehow they managed to calm them down. Simone had to apologise on his knees for his bad words on the mountain. So they gave us one hour to leave the mountain and told us never to come back again.
swissinfo: Did you abandon your expedition because the Sherpas told you to leave or was this whole incident reason enough for you to leave?
U.S.: If there are 100 people telling you that they are going to kill you and if among these 100 people there are a few you summited Everest together with last year and they were friends, it is hard to stay. I am so disappointed and my trust is gone. I could not go back to this mountain, even though everyone says that this would not happen again. I could not go back. Who can assure me that the angry mob is not cutting my rope or burning my tent?
Every year, more than 800 climbers attempt to reach the top of Everest, with an average of around 500 to 600 having reached the top every season for the past few years.
Spring is the main climbing season and more than 60 expeditions usually settle on the south side in Nepal and the north side in Tibet at the foot of the mountain.
Most climbers use Sherpa guides and porters, oxygen and the rope, which is fixed by the Sherpas.
In total, Everest has seen around 6,000 successful ascents (this number includes multiple ascents) and about 15,000 people have attempted to reach the summit since 1953.
Since Everest was first climbed in 1953, only about 150 people have reached the top without supplementary oxygen, three of which were Switzerland’s Erhard Loretan, Jean Troillet and Ueli Steck. Loretan and Troillet achieved a speed record on the North Face in 39 hours in 1986.
swissinfo: You have been coming to Nepal for many years and you have built up a good relationship with the Sherpas. Is all the trust gone?
U.S.: No, I still have good friends. There are a lot of emotions inside me and I cannot put them all inside the same pot. But a lot is happening in this pot and there are a lot of people in there who I can no longer trust.
swissinfo: It always takes two to tango! Are you sure you did not provoke them?
U.S.: It is a problem. The Sherpas have worked here for many years and they are the rich people in Nepal, and they have gained a lot of power. But on the other hand they see all these Westerners making all that money. And there is a huge gap between them and the Westerners. What happened up there is the display of anger that has been growing for years. It is the rift between two worlds and the jealousy has grown over years.
swissinfo: You had a good project together with Simone Moro. Maybe even a dream. How are you feeling about leaving the mountain without fulfilling this dream?
U.S.: There are a lot of feelings right now going on inside me. First of all, I am really happy to be alive. But of course, I feel bad. They took away our dream. We are a strong team; the conditions on the mountain are perfect and I am 99 per cent sure that we would have been successful and that hurts me a lot. But I simply cannot go back to the mountain, so the whole Sherpa community has just destroyed my dream.
swissinfo: On Monday, there was a ceremony, or maybe even a peace deal, between your team and the Sherpas. Do you believe that the hatchet has been buried?
U.S.: To be completely honest, I think this ‘ceremony’ calmed down the situation but it certainly did not solve the problem. This ‘peace deal’ was just a pretext for everyone to get out of the situation but for me it was just sweet talk. I don’t think it solved any problems. We are in Nepal and we have to play by their rules but if you think about how they tried to solve something like this, it is actually unbelievable.
swissinfo: Has this destroyed your faith in Himalayan climbing?
U.S.: Definitely. For me this is an experience that I will never forget. I have changed my opinion about Mount Everest and about the Everest region, the Khumbu valley. I really loved the Khumbu valley. I have come here ten times but now I don’t feel like coming back. In life it is really easy and you can choose what you want to do. So I don’t have to come back here. There are so many other mountains around and I don’t have to play their game. I think there are a lot of good people around and there are a lot of good mountains around. Luckily, I have summited Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen and now for me it is not really necessary to come back. It is a waste of time to do things you are not 100 percent satisfied with.
swissinfo: What do your sponsors say about this situation? Have they shown understanding?
U.S.: Of course they understand but on the other hand we are living in the Western world and we don’t get anything for free. The sponsors want to benefit from me. And now, all three of us have to deal with financial disaster. We spent a lot of money and even if we got it from our sponsors, they want something in return and now we have to deal with this. On the one hand I have to get over my bad feelings and disappointment, but on the other hand the world keeps on spinning and I have to keep going.
swissinfo: Yes, you have to keep going. So what’s next?
U.S.: I think I will spend some time in the Alps, where I can climb freely and don’t have to be worried that someone might hit me with a rock. I think that I need to calm down, figure out what is happening here in Nepal and make decisions about what I want to do. But all this takes time.