Simone Moro is one of the world's most experienced alpinists. He specializes in fast and light ascents and winter climbs of 8,000-meter peaks.
In his first extended interview, Moro gives NationalGeographic.com his take on what happened.
Can you tell me what happened on the Lhotse Face on Saturday?
Our aim was to reach Camp 3. We knew there was a team fixing rope on the Lhotse Face. I've climbed Everest four times and done ten expeditions here, and I know that on the day the ropes are fixed, nobody should hang on the fixed ropes. This doesn't mean that nobody is allowed to climb the mountain. Everest isn't just a mountain for clients and guides. Everest is for all who pay the permit.
When we arrived on the Lhotse Face, the Sherpas fixing rope there told us to turn back and go home. But we told them that we weren't going to disturb them or hang on the fixed ropes, as they probably assumed. Then we immediately climbed Alpine style, without a rope, 100 meters to the left of them. They threw a piece of ice at us to scare us. But we didn't react. We continued climbing to the left of them.
The fixing team threw ice at you?
Yes, yes, nobody has told that. But the fixing team, at the beginning, two Sherpas especially, used ice axes to cause pieces of ice to fall on Ueli Steck's head, who was the first of our group. We continued climbing. We were, of course, much, much faster than them. They were carrying rope and fixing.
After one hour, we saw our tent on the right. So we traveled horizontally toward our tent. And during this traverse, 50 meters from our tent, we crossed the line of the rope-fixing team, exactly at the same altitude where the leading Sherpa climber was. And when we arrived close to him, without touching the rope and without sending any piece of ice down onto the heads of the 15 Sherpas who were on the fixed line, the leader of the rope-fixing team started to scream, "What are you doing here? Why are you here? Blah, blah, blah, blah." And he was waving his ice ax. And you know as well as I do that an ice ax can kill a person. One hit on the head and you're done.
Who was he screaming at?
He was screaming at all of us. Because the first of us making the traverse was Jon Griffith. The second was Ueli Steck. And the third was me. He was screaming at all of us. When we got close to him, without saying, "Hello, ciao, how's it going? It's cold and windy," he immediately started to scream. Very nervously. Very angry. And, I repeat, waving an ice ax. So I also screamed myself, after 30 seconds, saying the exact words in Nepalese, "Mother******, what are you doing?" Because he was waving the ice ax close to us and we were not roped. If he touched me, I would fall down the whole face of Lhotse.
This is the only thing that I can say I'm sorry for. I said, "Mother******, what are you doing?" And he said, "We are fixing rope!" And we told him, "Okay, if you want, we can help you. Okay?" Because it was getting cold and windy. "If you want, we'll go and stop at our tent here, come back at 1:00, and if you want [us] to, we can also help you to do your job."
"No, no!" And he came very close to Ueli Steck. There was a physical contact between them because, when he was going toward him, waving the ice ax, at a certain moment, Ueli was retreating but also losing his balance. So Ueli touched, physically, the Sherpa, but just to keep himself from falling. And the Sherpa said, "Why you touch me? Why you touch me?" And Ueli said, "Listen, we are here all together for the same aim. If you want, we can help you to fix rope." And the Sherpa said, "No, I don't want that. Now we stop. We go down."
"Listen, we can work together."
"No, I go down."
So he told all the other Sherpas to descend. What we did immediately, not wanting to be the cause of the stopping of that work, was to fix the rope ourselves, Ueli and myself, all the remaining part of the fixing rope toward Camp 3. So we fixed 260 meters of rope. And after that, instead of sleeping in Camp 3 as we planned, we decided to return to Camp 2, just because we didn't want to have any misunderstanding with the rope-fixing team. It was late afternoon. And honestly, I immediately was on the radio to say that we had finished the work of the Sherpas. Then we went down to Camp 2.
What did you say on the radio?
I wanted to make it clear to everybody that the aim of the day, the fixing of rope for all the commercial expeditions, was done. I wanted to make it clear that we didn't cause any delay in the plan or the schedule for all of the commercial expeditions—even if it was not our job.
Now I am seeing in some blogs that I was saying that I would come down and kick the s*** out of them, and so on. That I used the radio to say these bad things. I strongly accuse them of being liars. I have many witnesses. It was never in my mind to provoke anyone. So don't believe these things.
You didn't want to get blamed for stopping the day's work.
Exactly. So we came down, and I won't say that I was expecting a thank you. But, more or less, I was hoping the Sherpas understood what we were doing. But what I wasn't expecting was a completely different reaction, really a tragic reaction. Because we went right to our tent and I radioed on the frequency of the expedition that was leading the fixing of the rope mainly and said, "We are here in Camp 2, and I want to come to your camp and talk with you."
It was my intention to have everything aired out, to solve the problem like normal people do. But after this radio call, after maybe five minutes, there was around a hundred people, mainly Sherpas, around our tent, and one group of Sherpas started a real attack. A real disaster. They came to us with the aim to kill us. Because they told us, "Now we kill you. Now we kill you." One of them threw a big stone into Ueli Steck's face, and he started to bleed. Then they were punching my face, and then kicks and punches and kicks and punches. And stones and so on.
At that moment, there was one person who helped to avoid the tragedy: Melissa Arnot, the famous alpinist from the United States. She knew, probably, that in the culture of the Sherpa, they would never beat a woman. So she was physically like a shield around us. She tried to embrace us, but facing toward the Sherpas, so we were behind her. And the Sherpas were screaming to her to move out and let them do their job. There was also another Sherpa, a good man named Pan Nuru, who tried to convince his colleagues to avoid any kind of violence.
And they also had a knife, a penknife, that someone tried to throw at me. But thank God I was wearing the belt from my rucksack and it got hit instead of my hip. So the violence was really and clearly to kill us.
And on our side, we spoke only a single word: "Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry!" Honestly, I didn't know why I needed to say I was sorry. For what? But you can imagine at that moment, when you have a hundred people in front of you, you just want to save your life.
Did you recognize any of the Sherpas who were attacking you?
Yeah, sure. Some of them I recognized. Some not. Because this year so many Sherpas are different. Young Sherpas also. Not the typical older, experienced Sherpas. Because this year there are many, many expeditions here. There are maybe 450 Sherpas in Base Camp. I think many commercial expeditions have hired as many as they could, and maybe they don't know them or their experience. I think this is especially a problem this year.
So the attack continued for 50 minutes. And I repeated for a thousand times, sorry, sorry, sorry. I apologized, sorry, even though I had done nothing to be sorry about-or just for a few words, okay? And they told us, "Okay, we give you one hour. In one hour, you have to fetch your tent and run away from here. And if you're here after one hour, we will kill you." So we took everything and climbed down the mountain to Base Camp, avoiding the usual route, because Sherpas were standing along the route with stones. So we took a new path going down, trying to hide behind the seracs and the crevasses.
So that night we arrived exhausted in Base Camp. You can imagine how we were feeling. There's no reason to use violence, in any country of the world, in any corner of the world, including Everest. Now there are idiots on the websites defending the Sherpas. And I am the first person who would normally defend the Sherpas.
But here we can't defend such violence against a person—all for one word. It was just an excuse. It was just a demonstration of power of a kind of mafia that is now in the hands of a few bad apples. Ninety-nine percent of all Sherpas are wonderful, peaceful, strong persons. But a few bad apples cause those tragic events.
Listen, I've been coming here 21 years. I built with my own money a school for 396 Sherpa children. I paid for the education of three different Sherpa kids. I brought my own helicopter here to do rescues for free for all Sherpas. The foreigners have to pay. So I am the last person who should be accused of not having a love for Sherpas.
Now that you've had some time to think about it, why do you think the leader of the rope-fixing team got so mad at you three?
We still continue to talk—Ueli, Jon, and me—to find a reason why he reacted so badly. And I think, you know, the world doesn't happen in one day. Usually there are multiple factors. Months, years, of tensions.
When Hillary and Tensing climbed Everest in 1953, the relationship between Sherpas and foreigners was completely different. Today everything is business. Jealousy. Anger. Competition. High tension. If you come here today, you will find that, behind many smiles, there are many economic issues. And especially this year, when many Sherpas have been hired, there is also the question of who will be the first to summit, who will bring the most clients successfully to the summit. There are many Sherpa outfits now that would like to have the business in their hands. It's a kind of cultural process that is taking place, okay?
So, coming to the point. Probably, on a cold, windy day, the leader of the rope-fixing team who saw three foreigners, who climbed in one hour what they climbed in half a day, without a rope, coming to them and offering to help them, probably it provoked jealousy or a kind of envy. Not everybody likes admitting that there is someone faster than you or better than you, okay?
Sometimes people like us, who are not clients, are considered not good for business. Because we don't need Sherpas. We don't need fixers. We are out of the groove of the commercial part of Everest. The person leading the rope-fixing team was young. Probably not that experienced. Probably not culturally open to accept that someone could climb without their help, as we were doing. So this is the only thing that I can tell you why he reacted so.
Later, you tried to work things out?
Yes, the next day at Base Camp I met the leader of the expedition that had hired some of the Sherpas on the rope-fixing team, especially the bad apples. I explained to him what happened, exactly as I told you. I decided to show them that, on my side, there was no anger toward the Sherpas. So the day after the attack, all the Sherpas from Camp 2 came down and they gave all the facts.
There was also this story, a false story, that when we traversed and went to our tent we caused some piece of ice to fall down and hit one Sherpa on the face. But that day, the Sherpa who was bleeding from the nose went officially to his leader and said, "Listen, nobody hit me. It was my mistake. I was jumaring on and I slipped on my crampons and hit my nose on the ice. There was no piece of ice falling from above."
I also decided to go to the camp of the Sherpas who provoked the aggression and meet with them. I went to the leader of the rope-fixing team, the worst of the Sherpas. He was sitting in his tent because he was getting a hard time from their leader, who said he was wrong and he was violent and so on. I went to him, I shook his hand, and I embraced him-the same person who 24 hours before wanted to kill me. And I told him, we are lucky, because you didn't kill me, and I didn't react. I have nothing against you. I hope it was a bad day for you. But I don't want to make any legal action. I could send a lot of people to prison. But I decided to show to everybody that I don't hate anybody, and I don't want to destroy the life of any young stupid Sherpa.
So I shake his hand, I embrace him, and I say now we must organize a meeting with all the different expeditions, all the sirdars, which means all the chiefs of the Sherpas, and everybody. So we meet the same day in the afternoon, and in front of everybody I'm holding the hands of the Sherpas, and I told everybody that I was sorry for the words that I said, that the reaction was unacceptable, because the reaction was to kill me, okay, but that I decided not to take any official legal action. I was ready to apologize, and I was ready to accept the apology of the Sherpas. And all the Sherpas were apologizing with me.
So we signed a kind of agreement where we said, okay, probably there was a misunderstanding, let's close things in this way. I knew it was important to change the relation between Sherpas and foreigners. Without Sherpas, nobody climbs Everest. Without foreigners, there are no jobs for Sherpas. This concept is too often forgotten.
Given the tensions that have built up over the years, do think a fight like this was inevitable?
Yes, it was boiling in the pot for at least a year. Clearly something was changing. I think it was the tip of the iceberg. And what I'm afraid is, it could happen again to someone else if relations don't change.
Are you going back?
No, Ueli, Jon, and I decided to leave Base Camp because we wanted to send a strong signal. We need time to regain our trust in Everest and the Sherpas. But I will remain in Nepal with my helicopter, and I am sure that I will have to do some rescues, probably of the same persons who were trying to kill me.
What questions do you have about what happened on Everest?