Photograph by Cory Richards, National Geographic

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Climber Peter Athans in Mustang, Nepal.

Photograph by Cory Richards, National Geographic

Pete Athans: Everest is a “Powder Keg”

Pressures on climbers and Sherpas are greater than ever, he says.

Peter Athans has stood on the summit of Mount Everest seven times, participated in 15 expeditions there, and been an active supporter of Sherpa culture, helping to bring health care and literacy to Everest region villages.

As various accounts (here and here) have been given of last week’s attack by a group of Sherpas on a team of professional climbers, he warns of dangerous pressures on everyone on the mountain. (Read an account by one of the climbers involved, Simone Moro.)

What do you make of the recent scuffle on Everest between Simone Moro, Ueli Steck, Jon Griffith, and a crowd of Sherpas?

It’s symptomatic of the overcrowded, commercialized powder keg situation that exists on Everest now. You have so many climbers from so many different nations, so many different teams, there is all this pent-up ambition.

There’s a demand on self and a demand on people who live there, whose homeland it is. And obviously there’s competition for space on the mountain. It creates this edgy, competitive atmosphere.

We saw the same thing when it killed a bunch of people in 1996. There are just very high stakes on certain days when people are in the death zone.

The fact that Simone was in the middle of it was a bit of a surprise, and also not. It was a surprise in that he’s obviously lived, worked, spent so much time there that I find it hard to believe that he was being insensitive to those guys.

But by the same token, I could also see him feeling like there was plenty of room for them to do what they wanted to do and not be in the way of the guys who were fixing the lines.

How about for the Sherpas? Have things gotten pressurized for them too?

Absolutely. I think that with greater sophistication and more willingness on their part to accept the responsibility to do the route that the level of their job, the expectations on them have significantly escalated.

The Sherpas are expected to do more, to do it faster, and to do it better. Obviously they’re well compensated and well cared for during that time.

But by the same token, they’re the people taking on a disproportionate amount of the risk. They’re in harm’s way more frequently. They’re fixing the route to make safe passage for all the commercial teams, they’re building up the camps, and they’re the ones who clean the mountain after everyone else has finished climbing. They’re doing the heavy lifting.

In general, has there been more tension between the Sherpas and Westerners?

Truthfully, there may be some sense of competitiveness. I think there’s definitely a sense among some of them that, why should these commercial operators from the West—who don’t have the same type of stake in the community that Sherpas do, who hire Sherpas to do the lion’s share of the work there—why should they have this disproportionate amount of profit?

In the last decade, we’re seeing much greater professionalism in the Sherpas themselves. Some have international certifications. Some own their own companies. Some have Western clientele that go climbing with them.

And they’re just saying, hey, you know, this is our mountain. This is our country. Why shouldn’t we be doing this? Why are we letting these foreign commercial teams come in, use the benefits of our labor, pay us well, but as far as the overall net of the expedition, the profits are really going to the foreign teams and the company owners. And it’s not fair.

But I also feel that, for all their sophistication and their ability to have this cultural plasticity—to be able to travel back and forth between the West and Khumbu—that Sherpas can still have, let’s say, a rigid respect for autocracy, or bureaucracy, or leadership. They’re not willing to step outside the orders or requests of the sirdars.

And ultimately they have a real tribal streak, as well. Sherpas are known as a remarkably patient people, and generally that’s true. But if they somehow suspect or feel like they’re being abused, or being really discriminated against, then they have a tendency to react as a group in a very strong way.

It goes beyond the personal safety of an individual. It’s like a cultural affront, and they feel like they can’t let it stand.

Throw a bunch of young Sherpa guys in the equation, and Western people who aren’t willing to give any ground whatsoever, and sometimes that doesn’t always come out so well.

It sounds like Simone and the Sherpas eventually worked things out.

Sherpas may be quick to anger in certain situations, especially if they feel like they’re losing face, but if both parties admit to some culpability, they can also be really contrite.

They have a process where they buy beer and put some prayer scarves, kata, around them, and offer that. It’s highly ritualistic.

And if someone does that, especially with the assistance of one of the lamas, it’s expected that the other person would also forgive and show contrition. Sherpas will get mad. But they won’t stay mad.

Do you think we’ll see more drama on Everest in 2013?

I would never say there’s going to be less. It just seems that the closer you get to summit day, the more of a powder keg the situation is. The mountain’s always going to be a dangerous place.

So will you be holding your breath until the season’s over?

I always hold my breath this time of year.