Conflicting reports over the assault by Sherpas on three prominent European mountaineers, during their recent ascent to Mount Everest, leave many questions unanswered.

The Everest story is incomplete without the Sherpa.

To the imagination of adventurers and armchair adventurers, they are the people of the world’s highest peak. Recently, an incident occurred at altitude, which in the way it was told and subsequently dissected by climbing enthusiasts has been one-sided. Internet chatter raised questions like — has the Everest economy changed the Sherpa character of yore? How does new Nepal, having passed through Maoist movements and nursing now a fragile democracy, view Everest’s brew of rich clientele and foreign climbing companies?

The incident that provoked these questions occurred in April. Ueli Steck, a Swiss rock climber and mountaineer rated to be among the finest climbers in the world, Italian alpinist Simone Moro and British photographer and climber, Jon Griffith, were on their way from Camp 2 to Camp 3 on Everest. They had to pass a group of Sherpas setting up fixed lines for the season’s clients brought by commercial mountaineering companies. Camp 2 is at roughly 23,000 ft. Skilled mountaineers, Steck, Moro and Griffith were climbing on their own. A meeting held earlier on the mountain had reportedly agreed that neither would the Sherpas be disturbed during their work nor would anyone climb higher than them. It is unclear if the trio knew of this. Climbing without using any ropes and then traversing sideways to reach the camp’s location, Griffith crossed the line the Sherpas were fixing. The three claim that no ice was dislodged, nothing was disturbed. As Steck approached to cross, the lead Sherpa climber rappelled down yelling angrily and landing nearly on top of him. The trio were accused of dislodging ice that injured a Sherpa below (they claim the Sherpa later said this wasn’t so). Steck who had put out his hand to shield himself from the lead climber was asked why he had touched him. Compounding matters, Moro uttered an insulting expletive. It was a mess.

In a reconciliatory gesture the Europeans claim they did some of the Sherpas’ work, fixing a length of rope although they were climbing separately, on their own. The mood remained ugly worrying the climbers enough to descend from Camp 3 to Camp 2, to settle the issue. On reaching Camp 2, friends cautioned that the situation was dangerous. A large number of angry Sherpas gathered (Steck claims, 100); their faces covered to avoid identification. Steck was punched. Rocks were hurled. Moro was asked to apologise and when he did so, he was physically assaulted.

The trio were told to quit Camp 2 and not return. Navigating in the light of their headlamps and deliberately avoiding the secure passage down the Khumbu Icefall so that they won’t be pursued, they fled un-roped along heavily crevassed sections to the mountain’s Base Camp.

Griffith spoke to The Guardian. Steck was interviewed by Outside magazine while National Geographic interviewed Moro. Minor discrepancies aside, overall what emerges is the story above. They said things could have been worse but for the intervention of some other climbers and a senior Sherpa. In the preface to its interview with Steck, Outside says that an army Major stood witness to the truce signed later by both the sides. Accounts giving the Sherpas’ perspective (as comprehensively as the publicised European perspective) don’t seem to be there on the Internet. Reports by people running commercial climbing companies have been described as indirectly sourced and guarding commercial interests.

On some websites, readers blamed the Europeans for their arrogance. Discussions also faulted Everest’s commercialisation. Access fee is high. It makes anyone who is climbing, with or without guides, summit-focussed. Why else did you pay all the money for? The Sherpas fix lines to maximise chances for clients, many of who aren’t skilled climbers. The role of Sherpa guides and fixed ropes become central. Purists sneer at this. Who should have right of say, mountaineering or client-mountaineering? This resonated in the climbing community’s reaction. For some, Steck, Moro and Griffith climbing up was the original sin as there was an agreement on the mountain that the Sherpas won’t be disturbed while setting up fixed ropes. Others felt agreements like the one above can’t apply to Steck and company who are expert mountaineers. If the weather was good and they felt good, why shouldn’t they move from Camp 2 to Camp 3?

Nepali participants in these Internet exchanges appeared few. One person – ostensibly from Nepal – pointed out that not only have many Sherpas lost their lives serving expeditions on Everest (the relief their families get cannot be compared to foreigners insured to the teeth) but all Sherpas are not on Everest and only some of those guiding on Everest are Sherpa. When publicised, stories like this affect Sherpas as a whole.

E-mails from this author requesting comments on the matter from a leading Kathmandu based trekking company (so that the local view can be understood), including whether we should put this incident behind us and move on, went unanswered. “The two sides have their own versions of the incident. The injured tourists said they got attacked for no apparent reason‚ whereas the workers claimed that they retaliated after Italian citizen Moro threatened them identifying himself as an international tourist guide. Moro and Griffith have sustained minor injuries‚ while Steck has received a deep cut on his face,’’ Kathmandu based-The Himalayan Times reported in April. It said investigations were on. AFP, in an April dispatch, also appearing in The Himalayan Times, quoted an official of the company that organised Steck’s climb. According to him, at some point his clients knocked down some ice. The same report quotes a policeman from Lukla saying that Steck had spent time at a local hospital but showed no sign of injury. That’s too many conflicting reports.

Before the Himalaya reduced to being climbing destination, it was the theatre of exploration. The legend of the Sherpa owes much to the expedition style mountaineering of the age of exploration. Over time, expedition style morphed to being preferred commercial model, particularly in South Asia, because it provided employment. On the other hand, small alpine style expeditions (self sustained expeditions with climbers doing all the work) put less stress on the environment and keep the climbing ethic purer.

With the days of exploration over, competitive climbing set in. If client-mountaineers pay money to be hauled up high mountains, competitive climbers push the limit to sustain sponsorships. Either way, it is money deciding mountaineering. In tune with how much competitive climbing has become its own addict living in technical details, there is the argument that the Sherpas are not technically skilled climbers. This observation surfaced in Internet chatter on the April incident.

The Sherpas’ records on Everest, they contest, are merely records on familiar terrain. Such observations even if true, are both a shift from what the Sherpa once meant for Himalayan expeditions and a measure of how, many modern climbers relate to the world around them. They see the world through climbing’s prism; like a series of technical moves and not mountain as a whole. Was this trend also to blame for the April incident which is basically a tussle with context?