The Everest brawl: what really happened

'High Tension' offers an inside view on the biggest mountaineering story of the year.
Ueli Steck right before the confrontation that turned violent
Ueli Steck before the violent confrontation © Jon Griffith
By Brendan Leonard

It was the climbing story that made headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons — a brawl on Everest between star climbers Ueli Steck, Simone Moro and Jonathan Griffith, and a group of Sherpas. Zachary Barr, a public radio reporter on his first assignment for Sender Films planned to make a film about their attempt to put up a new route on Everest and Lhotse. Things turned out quite differently.

The film High Tension documents what happened, the aftermath, and its ramifications for the future of Everest climbing. The film premiered September 19 in the Reel Rock 8 Film Festival, and is currently showing at Reel Rock tour stops. We asked Barr a few questions about the film.

Zachary Barr middle © Courtesy Sender Films

You went to Everest to film one story, and came back with a completely different one.
I could not have been more surprised. The morning after the brawl, Jonathan, Ueli and Simone contacted me from Base Camp over Skype. We spoke for an hour and I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was still in Boulder. I was literally packing up to go to Nepal and meet them at Base Camp when they called. They told me not to come. The expedition was over and they were going home. But I knew this was going to be a huge news story, and a great opportunity for a movie. And the movie wasn't going to happen if I didn't go.

So Pete Mortimer, Nick Rosen and I decided I should still go and we'd give it a shot. Honestly, the thought was, “Well, the plane ticket is non-refundable so maybe we should just try.” I remember thinking maybe I'd fly over there, find the prospects for a movie hopeless, and fly back.

But this story was too interesting to pass up. We had to try. So, yeah, originally I thought I was meeting some of the best alpine climbers in the world at Everest Base Camp to start making a movie about climbing. Instead I found myself alone at Base Camp trying to make a movie about a fight between revered Sherpas and revered alpine climbers. It was beyond totally unexpected and weird.

The climbers on the way up using leddars
Climbers on the way up © Jon Griffith

Was it a challenge to tell the Sherpas' side of the story?
Getting both sides of the story was an obvious concern from the get-go. I spent a month in Nepal reporting the story. I did dozens of interviews. Those interviews—on and off the record—gave me a good sense of the story.

The story was on its surface a fight over climbing etiquette. Who has the right-of-way on mountains? Can one group claim ownership of a route? But, pretty quickly, it became clear that this story was about a lot more than etiquette and what transpired that day on the Lhotse Face. Etiquette and that day's events could not explain what happened at Camp 2.

Looking down on camp 2 on Everest's majestic Western Cwm.
Looking down on camp 2 © Jon Griffith

The footage of the confrontation looks intense. How did you get it?
I actually wasn't on Mt Everest for the fight. I was still in Boulder preparing to travel there. Our photographer Jonathan Griffith didn't take any pictures of the fight as he had other things to worry about. But watching the film you wouldn't know that. The footage you see of the Camp 2 confrontation comes from a number of witnesses to the fight.

Everyone on Mt Everest has a camera, or a smartphone—or both. Of course people took videos and photos of what was happening in front of them. There were a lot of witnesses. It was my job to find those people and secure permission to use their footage in the film.

The three climbers posing for a groupshot in their tent at the Mount Everest
The three climbers after the attack © Jon Griffith

Ueli Steck is a pretty private, mellow guy, and Simone Moro is fiery—what was it like working with them?

Both those guys are great, great guys. They could not have been more welcoming and friendly. But for obvious reasons, at first they weren't totally psyched to make a movie about being attacked by Sherpas and not completing their dream climb. But I applaud them for trusting us with the story.

What’s response been like so far?
We've had a lot of positive feedback. A large number of people have told us it's the best piece Sender Films has ever made. I think that's because, in the second half of the film we set climbing aside and get into some pretty complex, controversial stuff: issues of inequity, how profits can trump safety, how Sherpas die more often than westerners.

But if you come to REEL ROCK just to be inspired and see some sick sends, it's probably not your favorite movie ever. But hopefully you'll learn something about Everest and the people who work there—and at REEL ROCK you can still other films showing Hazel Findlay, Daniel Woods, and Yuji Hirayama crush some insanely difficult rock climbs.

What do you want people to take away from the film?
I hope people continue the conversation after they leave the movie. I hope people ask themselves how they would have responded to the situation Ueli and Simone faced. Would they have made the same decisions? How should the Sherpas who instigated the fight have been disciplined by their employers? What share of the responsibility for the fight do the western climbers have? But all that would be icing on the cake. Mostly I hope they enjoy watching it.

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