April 27, 2013. A team of Sherpas was fixing ropes between Camps 2 and 3 on Mount Everest for clients who planned to use them the following day. In a meeting at Camp 2 the previous evening, the clients and Sherpas agreed that nobody would climb near the fixing team. “Fixing ropes is a sensitive and huge task,” Tashi Sherpa, one of the fixers, later told journalist Deepak Adhikari. “So we strictly alerted everyone not to go high up.”

At 6,700 metres, they noticed three people climbing toward them. They turned out to be Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck, Italian climber Simone Moro, and British climber and photographer Jonathan Griffith. The three famous climbers had an ambitious objective, the elusive Everest-Lhotse traverse, and they were on the Lhotse Face for an acclimatization round up to their tent at Camp 3. The Sherpas in Camp 2 had asked Steck not to climb that day, but he reassured them that they would not touch the lines and would be extra careful not to knock any ice onto the fixing team. The three sped up the face much faster than the Sherpas, since they were merely climbing, not working with the ropes. The optics weren’t good for the fixers. “I think the leader felt like he was losing face,” Steck later told writer Tim Neville. “They had been fixing ropes for four or five hours, and then we climb up on the side of them without using their ropes in one and a half hours.”

When they caught up to the Sherpas and crossed over the fixed line, the tension erupted. The details are murky, but Tashi maintained that when the Europeans traversed past Mingma Tenzing, the lead fixer, ice tumbled down, hitting one of the Sherpas below him. Steck denied the charge, insisting his group was being extremely careful. He pointed out that fixing lines without dislodging bits of ice is impossible, and he suggested that ice could easily have been loosened by the lead fixer, hitting one of the Sherpas below.

Regardless, Mingma was angry and decided to call off the job. He set up a belay and began rappelling down. Insults were lobbed back and forth. Then there was some physical contact, though nothing serious enough to knock anyone down.

Moro was a bit behind Steck, but when he arrived on the scene, the situation worsened. Furious, Moro yelled to Mingma in Nepali, “What are you doing, motherfucker?” The fixing team descended in disgust, and the three Europeans took over the job of fixing the lines, intent on making amends. They were fully aware of the dozens of clients in Camp 2 expecting the lines to be ready first thing the following morning; they would be blamed if the ropes weren’t in place.

Before the three climbers began descending, they informed Greg Vernovage, one of the foreign guides in Camp 2, that they wanted to discuss the incident with the Sherpas when they arrived in camp. “Greg knew it was not a good situation,” Steck says. “He said it’s really bad. . . . The Sherpas were really pissed about Simone swearing.” There were dozens of Sherpas standing around in the camp when Steck and his companions arrived, perhaps as many as 100. Many had face coverings, lending an ominous feeling to the situation, according to Steck. Tashi scoffs at that idea: “It was natural for Sherpas to wear scarves to protect from cold. I was also wearing a scarf.”

A serious brawl ensued on the slopes of Everest: flying rocks, shoving, kicking, and punching. American guide Melissa Arnot threw herself into the fray, positioning herself between the Sherpas and the Europeans. She calmed everyone down enough to prevent injuries, but the tension remained.

Steck’s team fled to their tents, and the Swiss alpinist was convinced his life was in danger. “That’s false,” Tashi says. “If Sherpas had really wanted to kill them, would they be alive now?” He has a point: the odds were a hundred to three, with only Arnot in the middle. Moro crawled out of his tent to apologize, but he managed to only antagonize the Sherpas even more. Eventually, the three Europeans slipped away and descended to base camp. Shortly after, they left the mountain entirely.

Steck was traumatized. “I lost something I really love in my life,” he later told Neville. “It’s done. I’m not saying I’m never coming back, but give me time. I need to figure it out.” Tashi was bitter about the subsequent media coverage of the event, claiming they talked to everyone but the Sherpas who were involved. “Not a single journalist or blogger approached us,” he says. “They were simply not interested [in] us. Even the government-appointed liaison officer didn’t bother to talk to us.” Although this was Tashi’s personal experience, staff from several outdoor publications had, in fact, been trying to contact some of the other Nepali eyewitnesses to the event, without immediate success.

As shocking as the incident was, players on both sides later admitted that some kind of confrontation was probably inevitable. Resentment between foreign climbers and Nepalis had been building for decades. Nepali climbers had tended to swallow their pride, suppress their feelings, be thankful for the work, and sometimes take their frustrations out on the rakshi bottle once the work was done. But that day in 2013, the insolence reportedly shown to the line-fixing Sherpas outweighed their traditional sense of hospitality; the result was violence.

Despite his anger, Tashi remains hopeful about the future. “I think the relation between Sherpas and foreign climbers is still good,” he says. “It has been strong and cemented over the years working together for a goal. But this incident was waiting to happen, and it will happen again as long as Sherpas are humiliated.” Neville agrees.

“This is not over,” Steck says. “It will be a big problem for commercial expeditions in the future. . . . You can feel the tension.”

In the summer of 2014, Alpinist magazine published an article by Tashi Sherpa (not the same Tashi referenced above) that offered a nuanced reflection on stereotyping. “Much has been written about the infamous brawl between Sherpas and European climbers on Everest last spring, where, typical of the hyperbole of the Internet, those voices that spoke loudest and first got heard and believed,” he wrote. “And suddenly the pedestal that the Mikaru (‘Westerners’) had placed the Sherpa on started tumbling. The act of punching and kicking someone is inherently reprehensible to all Buddhists, but neither violence nor nonviolence is an attribute that belongs solely to any religious group or nationality. I’m not sure what a trigger-happy citizen of some other country might have done to me had I pushed my way into his backyard and accused his ancestors of sexual depravity. . . . We do not ask to be treated like someone’s immaculate knight, so it is not fair to condemn us because, on occasion, we are not confined to the comforting image you have built.”

Years later, most professional Nepali climbers are still reluctant to comment frankly about that day at Camp 2. Sareena Rai, who works with the Himalayan Database—the official record of Himalayan climbing—in Kathmandu, understands why. “These guys have way more to lose by talking about this incident honestly and openly than any Western climbers,” she rightly pointed out.

Pemba Sharwa Sherpa was at the scene that day. He comes from Phortse, the Khumbu village with the highest density of Mount Everest summiters: more than eighty of the current inhabitants have stood on the summit. And he comes from Everest royalty: his father, Lhakpa Dorje, reached the summit in 1987 and worked on a total of more than thirty expeditions; one of his grandfathers supplied yaks for the expedition that first summitted Everest, in 1953, and his other grandfather supported nearly twenty expeditions in the high Himalayas. Pemba has his own reflections on the Everest brawl. “There is an imbalance with the media,” he says. “The incident in 2013 was their [the Westerners’] wrongdoing. They were trying to go ahead without communicating properly. And then sharing a one-sided story in the media. What can I say—it is about mutual respect. The mountains are about mutual respect.”

Anthropologist Sherry Ortner made a similar observation more than twenty years ago. “Himalayan mountaineering was originally, and is still, for the most part, defined by the international mountaineers. It is their sport, their game, the enactment of their desires,” she wrote. But she added that, to understand the actions of Nepali climbers in any conflict situation, it’s important to remember that the one overriding desire is for respect.

Determining the truth from multiple viewpoints is difficult. Nevertheless, the years of suppressed resentment can’t be ignored. Nepali climbers living in impoverished or humble circumstances had watched Westerners travelling, climbing, spending money, making money, getting sponsors, becoming famous. Steck, a consummately professional alpinist during his brief yet spectacular career, summed it up nicely, although he needn’t have limited his observations to Everest: “Climbing Everest is so big now, with so much money involved, and the Sherpas are not stupid. They see this, and they want to take over the business and kick out the Westerners.”

Local climbers haven’t “kicked them out,” but the squeeze is on. Twenty to thirty years ago, foreign companies had a much greater say in expedition operational matters, with less influence from the Nepali side. Today the tables have not only turned, they have flipped over completely. At first, the surge of 100 percent Nepali owned and operated companies was driven by the benefits of local Nepali knowledge and access to the many bureaucratic doors that foreigners didn’t know existed, never mind had access to. Many of those early Nepali companies undercut the foreign operators, and clients responded in kind. Why spend $60,000 (US) to climb Everest when you could do it for $40,000?

There are tangible differences between a $40,000 climb and a $60,000 one, regardless of who owns the company: the amount of bottled oxygen, the quality of the tents, even the training and experience of the guides. Guided clients on an 8,000-metre peak should want the best, most experienced guides and the highest guide-to-client ratio they can possibly find, because their lives depend on it. And it’s important to have the equipment required in worst-case scenarios: specialized rescue gear, medicines, reliable communication devices—and people who know how to use them.

With more than 2,000 expedition agencies operating in Nepal, however, the choices today can be mind boggling. Some Nepali guides with an astute business sense have evolved from porters to icefall doctors (who install the fixed ropes and ladders) to high-altitude guides to expedition company owners. The availability of first-class infrastructure, equipment, helicopters, and qualified guides has given the Nepali agencies the edge over Western operators. Rodolphe Popier, a member of the Himalayan Database team, has watched the transition. “Nowadays, Sherpas perfectly know that they are the key craftsmen on the high peaks,” he says. They are turning the business of guiding in Nepal on its ears. Few are still offering the $40,000 (US) budget alternative, and many are exceptionally qualified to cater to today’s clients.

It’s likely that, at this point, neither foreign nor Nepali companies could fully function without the other; the foreign agencies generally assemble the clients while the Nepali operators provide all other services. However, even this scenario is changing. Nepali operators are increasingly able to do it all, including finding clients without the intervention of a third party. It’s likely that all aspects of the expedition industry in Nepal will soon be delivered by Nepalis.

On April 16, 2021, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita posted a photo resembling a conga line of climbers, buried in down and oxygen tanks, plodding their way to a summit. It was a scene common on Everest, but this peak didn’t look like Everest. In fact, it was Annapurna—the deadliest of all the 8,000ers in Nepal. What was going on?

The story behind the photo revealed that a total of sixty-eight guided customers summitted Annapurna just two weeks after they were brought to base camp via helicopter. Virtually everyone used bottled oxygen. Fixed lines were in place from bottom to top. When the fixing team ran out of ropes at 7,400 metres, both clients and fixers descended to Camp 4 to await more ropes. But how to get them up there? Another helicopter appeared out of the sky with plenty of ropes, plus extra oxygen for the stranded clients. The fixing team continued their work while the clients waited, hoping that a storm wouldn’t arrive. It didn’t, and a couple of days later, everyone reached the top.

Welcome to “Mass Market Climbing”—quite a contrast to that historic first ascent by the French in 1950, when the summit climbers paid the cost of adventure with their fingers and toes. The 2021 climb, on the other hand, had no intention of writing Himalayan history. This was strictly a business venture, where risk was exactly what the organizers and clients hoped to avoid.

Climbing agencies like Seven Summits Treks (SST), based in Kathmandu, are increasingly offering an “industrial version” of the high Himalayas. Calling it Himalayan “climbing” might be a stretch; a more accurate term might be a Himalayan “experience.”

Foreign mountaineers of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s had required support from local Sherpas, but in those early days, it was the Westerners who explored the possibilities of summiting the high mountains and who pushed out the routes. Most modern clients look much different. Some wait to receive the most elementary instruction at base camp from Nepali guides, practising with their crampons and ascenders and ice axes. These clients don’t have months at their disposal to trek to a mountain and acclimatize to the altitude. They have weeks, at most. But they have money, and they have ambition. Flying to base camp, breathing bottled oxygen, and clipping into lines from bottom to top works for them. As well as a holdover from earlier times—being accompanied by their personal Sherpa.

For alpinists still trying to climb independently, the scene can be shocking: air traffic jams, equipment drops, tents full of oxygen cylinders—and the equivalent of introductory climbing classes taking place at the foot of the mountain.

It’s easy to be cynical about this approach; many climbers are. But SST, and other agencies, are merely responding to the market. They know what clients want: a stress-free summit delivered within the time constraints of their vacation, with the least amount of danger and discomfort. As Angela Benavides of Explorersweb observed, “The strategy doesn’t take a miracle, just hard work, a huge Sherpa staff, kilometers of rope, and enough oxygen to colonize Mars.”

The chairman of SST is Mingma David Sherpa, the first Nepali to claim all fourteen of the 8,000ers. His brother, Chhang Dawa Sherpa, was the second Nepali to do the same. And the third partner, their brother Tashi Lakpa Sherpa, has climbed Everest eight times as well as several of the other 8,000ers. Perhaps most significantly, he is associated with Nepal’s ministry of culture, tourism, and civil aviation as a mountaineering expert.

SST has been in business since 2006, but its name didn’t resonate outside of Nepal until the winter of 2020/21. After a financially devastating year in Nepal, during which no expeditions took place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, SST was keen to make up for lost time. Part of its strategy was to offer “doubleheaders,” an attractive option for 8,000-metre-peak collectors. In the spring of 2021, for clients willing to pay a large sum, SST offered the chance to summit both Annapurna and Dhaulagiri in quick succession.

To save time, SST flew them to Annapurna base camp in company helicopters. The short flight eliminated days of porter costs, and because of the shorter time frame, fewer supplies were required. The strategy was not without risk, however. The clients were not acclimatized; two weeks isn’t enough. But the guides and clients were lucky with the weather and avalanches, and by utilizing the helicopter for the last-minute rope and oxygen drop, the fixing team was able to lace up the route. Clients—each guided by a personal Sherpa—needed only to follow the fixing team, clip into the fixed ropes, adjust their oxygen, plod to the top, and take their selfies. The 2021 Annapurna season lasted only two weeks, and all those who reached the summit did so within a couple of hours.

With all that helicopter activity, it’s tempting to dismiss the season as some kind of high-altitude circus. But one of those helicopters ended up saving at least three lives, possibly four. When three Russian climbers were stranded high on the mountain, unable to descend on their own, a rescue helicopter carried Gesman Tamang (nicknamed Dr. Annapurna) up to execute a series of high-altitude longline rescues—where the rescuer swung in at the end of a cable—and saved both digits and lives. Gesman had already worked as a fixer on the mountain and had summitted without supplemental oxygen earlier that season.

A helicopter also plucked Taiwanese client Lu Chung-han from Camp 3 because he was worried about descending on foot through the avalanches that occurred several times a day on the route between Camps 3 and 2. He flew to Kathmandu to rest and treat his mild frostbite, and then heli-shuttled on to his next 8,000er—Dhaulagiri.

A few weeks after Dhaulagiri, the SST teams moved over to Everest and Lhotse for another doubleheader. For expedition agencies, Everest offers endless opportunities. For a period of time, SST offered a VVIP (very, very important person) Everest experience for the heady sum of $130,000 (US). The service included a private, internationally qualified guide, a private chef, side-trip helicopter flights to Namche Bazaar and Dingboche, and fresh fruits and vegetables flown in on a regular basis. Their website described it thus: “If you want to experience what it feels like to be on the highest point on the planet and have a strong economic background to compensate for your old age and your fear of risks, you can sign up for the VVIP Mount Everest Expedition Service.”

Nepali guide Prakash Gurung sees several issues with the current guiding situation in Nepal. “Nowadays, anyone can climb Everest,” he says. “Whoever has money—even if they can’t climb—summits. And the credit doesn’t go to the ones working hard. Only those at the top get it.” But the problem is more complicated than that. As a freelancer, Prakash works for a number of guiding companies. “The pay scale is all over the place,” he says. “We need a standard.” And not only a standard pay scale but standards in safety, hiring, and ethics.

Ang Tshering Lama, a veteran guide who accomplished one of the most spectacular rescues in Everest history from the South Summit in 2017, understands why companies like SST operate the way they do. “It’s the clients who want that fast turnaround time, so the companies respond,” he says. Big mountains and fast summits are good business.

Adapted and excerpted from Alpine Rising: Sherpas, Baltis, and the Triumph of Local Climbers in the Greater Ranges by Bernadette McDonald. Published by Mountaineers Books in March 2024. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Bernadette McDonald
Bernadette McDonald is the author of more than a dozen books about mountaineering and mountain culture. She lives in Banff, Alberta.