Have Sherpas Had It?

A fight on Mount Everest may have been a long time coming, as cultures clash.

Sixty years ago, Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first confirmed people to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

Ever since, Sherpas -- who live in the region and are renowned for their mountaineering skills -- have been helping Westerners on their quests to reach the mountain's summit. But the relationship has not always been harmonious.

The latest skirmish involved Italian, Swiss and British professional climbers and a group of Sherpas. Tensions escalated last weekend when the three Western climbers passed the Sherpas, stepping over the ropes the Sherpas were fixing for expeditions.

As climbing season on Everest swings into high gear, so, occasionally, do tempers. The clash of cultures mixed with the precipitous and volatile nature of the world's tallest mountain can quickly turn already dangerous situations into life-threatening events.

"The purpose of having a fixed rope is to protect climbers from crevasses and falling on steep terrain," explains blogger Alan Arnette, who has been to Everest four times and summited in 2011. "So by definition, those fixing the rope are in those dangerous situations with little protection."

When ropes are being fixed, other climbers generally steer clear. Although the details are murky, violence eventually ensued when Sherpas said the climbers had dislodged ice above where they were working. As many as 100 Sherpas allegedly went after the trio, throwing stones at their tent. The three climbers -- Ueli Steck of Switzerland and Simone Moro of Italy, and British photographer Jonathan Griffith -- have left the mountain and abandoned their summit bids.

"I think that we were the tip of the iceberg," Moro told PlanetMountain.com at base camp. "We were the final straw that broke ... the Sherpa's patience."

Although it's one of the few publicized accounts of violence on the mountain, experts say it's not uncommon.

"Sadly, there have been many fights up there," Arnette said. "This one would have probably gone away except for the fact that Moro put out a press release. That said, the level of violence in this one seems unprecedented."

Peter Hansen, author of "The Summits of Modern Man" and Associate Professor of Humanities and Arts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, agrees that the incident is emblematic of long-simmering tension.

"It raises a lot of bigger issues," he said, many of which stem from a very basic difference in the way Sherpas and Westerners approach climbing the mountain.

Whereas Westerners tend to approach the summit as a solitary endeavor -- in philosophy, if not in fact -- Sherpas recognize the achievement as a result of a collective endeavor, Hansen said. When Hillary and Norgay reached the summit, Norgay gave thanks to the mountain and all the people who had helped him along the way, Hansen said, whereas Westerners tend to view themselves as alone on top of the world.

Western climbers "may think of themselves as separate from the Sherpas, but climbing Everest requires collaboration even when you're seemingly on your own," Hansen said. "The point of my book is that we are all on the same belay. Even the climbers who were off rope, and who thought they were stepping over it, were still tangled up with it."

With the increase in climbers attempting to summit Everest, Sherpas may be becoming more and more frustration by the lack of control they have over the region they call home -- and resentful of being endangered by Western climbers.

"Sherpas may be trying to reassert some control over Mount Everest," Hansen said. "To reassert sovereignty. In Nepal there are discussions about a federal Nepali state called Sherpaland in the territory around Everest. They believe it's theirs, and they want some rights to the region."

A peace agreement signed after the incident should help cool tensions, at least temporarily, experts said.

"I do think it is safe to say there was a clash between culture, ego, pride, jobs and methods," Arnette said. "There is a lot of blame to go around and I am glad that all the parties at least met at Base Camp, expressed public regret."