Over the past weekend the climbing world was afire with reports of a high-altitude confrontation between three elite Western mountaineers and a group of native Nepali climbers (I am no longer certain that "Sherpa" is appropriate usage) high on the Lhotse Face of Everest. There are literally dozens of accounts of the incident but the best are probably from UKClimbing and Planet Mountain. The apparent underlying cause of the incident, which involved verbal and physical assault as well as death threats, was a perceived encroachment on the terrain and tasks that the Nepali group was involved with as they were fixing ropes for the spring season on the regular route. I won't relate or try to reconcile the varying accounts of what happened, and I am sure that the final word has not been said (nor may ever be said) about what actually happened. Certainly the incident was serious enough to cause Ueli Steck to state publicly "My trust is gone. I could not go back to this mountain."
One of the issues that is lying just below the surface in many of these accounts is the uneasy relationship between the native economy, native labor, and Western capital. I am not sure how much it is a matter of public record the degree to which Nepal depends on a regular infusion of money via the single destination of Everest's summit. There is no question that Nepal is not a rich country by Western standards and that tourist and mountaineering traffic is a crucial economic benefit. Even for an American or European of means, Everest is a substantial investment of time and money, an investment that, by the way, sees no reciprocity from Nepalese citizens in terms of their ability to travel to America or Europe to climb. Nor is it clear to me exactly how the entire country of Nepal benefits from this kind of activity. I am not sure that the interested parties would be entirely enthusiastic about this question being explored more deeply. There is no question in my mind that the lack of clarity regarding even terminology for "Sherpas" and what they do and how they are paid reflects the problems with a relationship that has its roots in an oppressive colonial past, a past that reverberates into the present.
This brings me back to the deeper problem, one that the climbing world seems reluctant to face, that climbing is, at its heart, a pursuit of the economically privileged often in areas of the world where such privilege might be viewed with suspicion and hostility. I think climbers like to believe that somehow by expending time and capital (which in the West are pretty much the same thing) in a pursuit that is basically useless, that somehow it's innocent or at least innocuous. Climbing narratives return time and again to freedom and appeal to the notion that in the mountains you are somehow free of the structures of society. In the eyes of one author, "Everest is not for climbers" because of "the dues—not dollars—I believe one should pay in order to be granted access to earth’s most rarified places." To me, this sentiment illustrates perfectly the myopia in the climbing world, the failure to see that dues paid in the mountains, any mountains, (I can't help but think of them a bit as country clubs here) are intimately linked with dollars and their relatively easy availability. I agree with the thesis that Everest is now a site dominated by commercialism. But ultimately so is every other major climbing area, to some degree or another. I look at the price of climbing equipment, tickets for flights to far-off places, opportunity costs for not working and I ask, "Who can afford this?" The myth of "dirtbag" freedom and the realities of economics rudely collide in our culture, which bestows, with documented increasing regularity, its economic blessings on an ever-narrowing caste, a caste which defines itself in no small part by rituals of recreational consumption, whether on the slopes of Everest or elsewhere. The freedom of the hills requires fairly high start-up costs for most of us.
I don't expect too much analysis of the 2013 Everest season to dwell on these deeper issues. So much media energy is spent on creating images (verbal and pictorial) for consumption by sponsors and consumers alike that it is inevitable, indeed even essential, that the tensions highlighted by this tragic episode be papered over and the parties involved agree to an uneasy truce. The show must go on. But responsible writers on this episode, in my view, will have to return to this fundamental contradiction at the heart of the sport, that our pursuit of freedom and personal fulfillment will ultimately have a cost to someone or something, somewhere.