OURAY – When world-class mountaineers Ueli Steck and Adrian Ballinger travel to Ouray this week as presenters at the 19th Annual Ouray Ice Festival, they will have more in common than their indisputable achievements summiting the highest mountains on earth.
While it is not likely to be the primary topic of either of their presentations, both were on Mount Everest last April when a brawl broke out between Sherpa and Western climbers, and both have a painfully unique perspective on the searing and contentious episode that has breached the decades-long relationship of friendship and professionalism between Western climbers and Sherpas.
Steck, widely considered among the most versatile, extreme alpinists in the world today, is famed for his speed ascents and free solo climbs of the world’s most daunting peaks. Last October the Swiss climber astonished the mountaineering world with his conquest of the south face of 26,545’ Annapurna, which he summitted in a solo round-trip run from advanced base camp in 28 hours without using ropes or oxygen.
Ballinger’s most recent achievements include his 12th ascent of 22,493’ Ama Dablam (in November, he led a group of clients up the mountain in the first summit of the year). Earlier in the year, he summited Everest. He also led a group of clients to the summit of 26,096’ Cho Oyu. Then he skied off the other side with his Russian ski partner, Sergey Baranov.
Ballinger’s year was spent guiding clients and fixing ropes, while Steck mostly focused on speed ascents and free solo climbs, including last spring’s noncommercial Himalayan expedition NO(2) Limits, with fellow professional climbers Jonathan Griffith and Simone Moro (the expedition’s leader), that proposed linking Everest’s Hornbein Couloir and a new route on adjacent Lhotse without fixed ropes or supplemental oxygen.
The differences between the two men’s approaches to alpinism may help explain their roles in the controversial brawl on the world’s highest peak.
The fight started as Steck and his climbing partners free soloed up the Lhotse Face on their way from Camp 2 to Camp 3 on the south side of Mt. Everest, on the morning of April 27. They made their ascent well to the left of a small team of Sherpa who were fixing rope for a commercial expedition.
Eventually Steck and his party reached a point in their ascent where they needed to traverse over to the area where the Sherpa were working.
As the professional climbers gingerly crossed the fixed rope, the Sherpa accused Steck of knocking ice down onto one of them, and insisted they should have the Lhotse Face to themselves while they were at work fixing ropes – a condition which many of the commercial guides on the mountain had agreed to honor. Steck and his partners maintained that no ice had been knocked down, and that their free solo climbing did not interfere with the Sherpas’ efforts on behalf of commercially guided clients.
The confrontation escalated when Steck, in an effort to help mend matters, offered to help the Sherpas complete their task of setting rope to Camp 3. But the Sherpas took this offer as an insult, as one of them, Karma Sarki, later told Outside Senior Editor Grayson Schaffer.
Alpinist Magazine recounted the interview in its 2013 Everest Report: “The Sherpas were furious because the three climbers had overtaken us, and they did so in our country, on our mountain,” Sarki said. “We put our lives at risk for climbing Everest and helping the foreign climbers.”
Harsh words on the Lhotse Face escalated into violence later that day when both parties returned to Camp 2.
As Steck described the incident in an interview with Outside Online, a “very angry mob” of Sherpa stormed the camp and attacked Steck and his climbing partners with fists, feet, rocks, knives and even crampons. “They said that if we weren’t gone in an hour, they were going to kill all three of us,” he said.
Steck, who had been hit in the head with a rock, and his partners fled camp and aborted their expedition.
If the brawl’s context is straightforward, its subtext is anything but; it helped highlight the tension that had been roiling for years between commercial and independent climbing on Everest, and more broadly, between wealthy Westerners and the Sherpa who labor to help them summit earth’s most dangerous mountains.
Ballinger usually sets fixed lines with his sherpas – an unusual practice in the world of guiding. His sponsor, Marmot, says he “is one of the few elite guides who can physically hold his own with the indigenous Sherpa, who are physiologically adapted to climbing in the rarified altitudes.”
He helped fix the lines on his Ama Dablam summit, for example, and on Cho Oyu, where he worked with his friend, Lhakpa Rita Sherpa.
Ballinger did not see the fight on Everest – though he was on the mountain at the time – but he shared his opinion in a dispatch to adventurejournal.com. “To me, the bottom line is that multiple mistakes were made by both sides,” he wrote in a Solomonic post, and the response by some of the Sherpa that day with violence “was inexcusable.” Yet ultimately, and perhaps understandably, given that Ballinger says he is the only guide chosen by the Sherpa to fix ropes with them on Everest the past two out of three years, his empathies seemed to align with his professional partners.
“Everyone knew” about the rope fixing, and “other teams that would have liked to be climbing where the incident occurred respected the effort and stayed off the Lhotse Face,” he wrote. “Even if no rock or ice actually was knocked off by the professional climbers, and even if no rope-fixing Sherpa was injured, there still was a perception of disrespect of the effort.” As part of past rope-fixing efforts on Everest, Ballinger went on, “I can attest to the importance of not having other climbers pushing the team from below, or putting the team at risk from above.”
Steck’s take on the matter was decidedly different. “I don’t think it was a personal problem towards our team,” he told an interviewer from Swiss Info, “but a long-term problem that has been growing in Nepal recently. I guess we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” According to adventurejournal.com, which recounted the interview, “Steck went on to say that the Nepali climbers were jealous of their western clients. The Swiss Info interviewer pressed Steck, asking, ‘Are you sure you did not provoke them?’ but he replied, ‘The Sherpa have worked here for many years and they are the rich people in Nepal, and they have gained a lot of power. But on the other hand they see all the Westerners making all that money. And there is a huge gap between them and the Westerners. What happened up there is the display of anger that has been growing for years. It is the rift between two worlds and the jealousy has grown over years.’”
Ice Fest organizers were not thinking of the Everest conflict when they invited Ballinger, and later landed Steck, as featured presenters for the 19th Annual Ouray Ice Festival.
But Ouray Ice Park, Inc. President Mike MacLeod observed, “It is interesting that a couple of key players in the incident will be here.”
MacLeod added that he is not sure whether Steck and Ballinger will cross paths while in Ouray. Steck makes his much-anticipated presentation on Thursday night, and must leave early Friday morning, while Ballinger’s presentation is scheduled for Friday night.
ICE FEST PRESENTER LINE-UP SIDEBAR:
Ueli Steck’s presentation is Thursday, Jan. 9, at 7 p.m. at the Main Street Theater in Ouray. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and space is limited. The presentation will be simulcast at Cavallo’s Restaurant next door. (Steck was originally scheduled to present on Saturday night, but had to reschedule at the last minute due to a commitment in Switzerland.)
Adrian Ballinger’s presentation takes place Friday, Jan. 10, 8:30-10 p.m., at the Main Street Theater, with stories and photos from his recent Ama Dablam expedition in Nepal.
Kyle Dempster also presents on Friday, Jan. 10, 9-11 p.m., at the Wright Opera House, with an enhanced presentation of his film The Road from Karakol.
Budding alpinist Kristen Kelliher, presenting Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Ouray Community Center, is the youngest female to summit the 50 high points of the U.S., is brought to the Ice Fest by title sponsor Asolo. While in town, Kelliher will also be presenting to students at the Ouray School on Friday afternoon.
Aaron Mulkey (aka “Mr. Cody”) wraps things up with a multimedia presentation on Saturday, 9-10:30 p.m. at the Wright Opera House, with stories from his recent Rab-sponsored “Project Strata” in Norway.