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World's highest fight? Sherpas, Westerners come to blows on Everest

Sabina Bhattrai / EPA

A fight between Sherpas and three Western climbers broke out on Mount Everest on Saturday, with an argument beginning within a few thousand feet of the top escalating at a lower camp. The Westerners said they were attacked by about 100 Sherpas who punched and kicked them and threw rocks at them.

Editor's note: This article includes a correction.

A fight broke out high on the slopes of Mount Everest between a group of European climbers and local guides, officials and one of those involved have said.

The three Europeans, from Italy, Switzerland and the U.K., were headed for Camp 3 at about 23,600 feet on the 29,035-foot mountain on Saturday, when they crossed a fixed line being put in place by the Sherpa climbers and an angry altercation ensued, according to a statement issued by Italian climber Simone Moro’s team.

One Sherpa claimed the Westerners had injured another local climber by knocking ice down onto him and about 100 Sherpas later attacked the three Westerners at Camp 2, lower down the mountain.

They were punched and kicked, stones were thrown, and they were told they would be killed, Moro's statement said. However, another group of Westerners intervened and the three men headed down to Base Camp by a “circuitous route.”

“The climbers believe that the lead Sherpa was tired and cold and felt that his pride had been damaged as the three climbers were moving unroped and much faster to the side of him," the statement said.

“Whatever the reason may be, there is no reason to instigate vigilante rule and to try and kill three visiting climbers,” it added.

The statement said the incident began when Briton Jonathan Griffith crossed the line of rope being fixed by the Sherpas and then Swiss climber Ueli Steck did the same.

“At the point where Ueli Steck stepped over the rope the lead [Sherpa] climber noticed the climbers below and began shouting and banging the ice with his axe erratically,” Moro’s statement said.

“Still shouting down at the climbers, he fixed his rope and abseiled [rappelled] down … As Ueli was soloing and therefore not attached to a rope it was natural that he should hold his hands up to take the impact of the force arriving on him from the lead climber abseiling right on to him. This prompted the lead climber to accuse Ueli Steck of 'touching him,'” the statement said.

“In between hitting the ice with all his force and screaming at Ueli Steck 'why you touch me' he said that they had kicked ice down on them and injured a Sherpa. Seeing as the trio were climbing a completely independent line and entirely on snow this is highly unlikely,” it added.

Later, at Camp 2, the three men were attacked by “some 100 Sherpas,” the statement said.

“They became instantly aggressive and not only punched and kicked the climbers, but threw many rocks as well,” it said. “A small group of Westerners acted as a buffer between the out of control mob and the climbers, and they owe their lives to these brave and selfless people.”

The Sherpas are an ethnic group who live in the Everest region, and many of them work as climbing guides.

Beni Hyoju, an official of the Cho-Oyu Trekking agency that organized the expedition, told Reuters that the three Europeans had failed to comply with a request from their Sherpa guides to stay at a location while the guides fixed the route.

Hyoju said this made the Sherpas unhappy and they attacked the climbers. No one was critically wounded.

"Sherpas who were responsible for the fight will offer (an) apology," he added.

Tourism Ministry official Dipendra Paudel told Reuters that the government would ensure the safety and security of the climbers.

"There was a slight misunderstanding and communication gap between them," Paudel added in Kathmandu after contacting the base camp. "This has been sorted out and the climbers are at the base camp."

He told Reuters the European climbers would resume their bid to climb Everest.

Historian Elizabeth Hawley, who has been tracking foreign expeditions to Mount Everest for more than five decades, said she had "not heard of any such incident before."

Reuters contributed to this report

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