Following up on Kayleigh’s excellent post about the conflict on Everest (“Altercation on Everest,” March 9, 2014), I wanted to offer a few additional thoughts on that incident. First, a caveat: I am neither a climber nor particularly knowledgeable about climbing. Indeed, prior to Kayleigh’s post, the entirety of my knowledge about the Everest incident stemmed from two sources: Nick Paumgarten’s article in the New Yorker entitled “The Manic Mountain” (June 3, 2013) and the short film “High Tension” from the Reel Rock 8 short film-compliation (2013). That said, I found both sources to be very informative, and I think a number of broader, law-related themes may be teased out from this particular episode. Let me mention three such themes, and I will then conclude with a thought on one aspect related to the incident.
Theme #1: Environmental Justice
Perhaps the most interesting theme on the surface of this incident was a question about access to Everest. The current conflict arose out of a clashing set of goals (and schedules) between professional guiding companies (represented by the Sherpas fixing rope) and Ueli Steck’s group. Aside from a permit requirement, it seems that there is a relatively more open access to Everest, for those who can afford to travel and stay there. There is something appealing about this, as Melissa Arnot has noted. At the same time, there is undoubtedly an environmental cost to the crush of activity on Everest every climbing season, and with a more diverse set of parties there, it is surprising such a conflict had not happened before.
Theme #2: Conflict Resolution
Traditionally, we might expect some kind of state entity to be establishing norms and procedures to adjudicate between conflicting interests. However, aside from permit requirements, it appears that the Nepalese government had relatively little presence on the mountain, at least as reflected by what happened in this incident. In the absence of greater state involvement, it seems that what had evolved was a strong set of informal social norms shaped by the most influential repeat-players on the mountain: the guiding companies. It was also the guiding companies, it seems, who took the lead in the process of reconciliation afterward. On the one hand, there is something laudable about this; informal norms of governance are better than no norms. Further, because they are repeat-players, the guiding companies possess useful local knowledge and possess real incentives to craft sustainable, workable rules. At the same time, guiding companies are no substitute for a public entity; they have very real selfish monetary incentives, and one might question how well they represent the interests of other repeat-players such as the Sherpas, or other climbers whose may interests may not align with those of the guiding companies.
Theme #3: Individual vs. Structural Justice
This is a common theme in a number of different areas of the law, and the theme that stood out most to me in learning about this episode. Whatever may have happened in the initial altercation between Steck’s group and the Sherpas, there is no doubt about the injustice that happened at Camp 2. The footage of violent acts by some Sherpas in the “High Tension” film is chilling; it is quite easy to believe that had a few minor things played out differently—and without certain individuals like Melissa Arnot intervening—even more serious violence could have occurred. Evaluated as a discrete incident, it seems clear which parties were at relatively greater fault.
Yet, both the Paumgarten article and “High Tensions” discuss a long history of the wrongs suffered by the Sherpas—a more structural injustice. Though climbing tourism has been an economic benefit for many of them, it comes with costs in the form of job-related death or injury; lesser pay than their Western counterparts; and various social indignities suffered at the hands of less-than-courteous climbing tourists. Ironically, much of this history was usefully brought to light by the guiding companies in the incident’s aftermath who, in my opinion, also had an economic incentive in portraying Steck and his companions as arrogant and insensitive Western climbers. (Melissa Arnot, one of the few people who emerged from this incident looking quite admirable, is quoted in the Paumgarten article for saying that Steck and his companions “were treated like criminals for doing nothing. . . . They were forced to leave, ostracized, and their reputations were battered. The commercial expeditions owe them an apology.”)
The larger point, however, is that this background context carries two implications for this incident. First, it is invaluable in helping to situate this episode within a longer time-span and broader social structure. Second, it underscores some underlying complexities that rightfully do challenge us to rethink and reexamine discrete incidents of conflict.
Environmental justice, conflict resolution, and structural injustice themes aside, this incident perhaps also prompts some of us less-knowledgeable folk to rethink the meaning of “summiting Everest.” Because guiding companies make great use of supplemental oxygen and fixed ropes to aid many of their amateur-climber clients to the summit, achieving this goal potentially means something quite different than it did decades ago. As such, we might and should still think of an Everest summit by amateur-climbing clients as an expensive, difficult, and undoubtedly dangerous undertaking. But we should not assume that in the present day, such an accomplishment required anything like sustained dedication and commitment to climbing, and a prolonged cultivation of skill and craft.