Jonathan Griffith Photography Blog
Last year I got to organize and shoot one of the classics of the massif, the Supercouloir Direct, for Adidas Outdoor. The climb was bitterly cold, read in the -20 degree range, and there was near constant heavy spindrift. But it's one of those cool winter shoots that I love doing- a strong team and a hard objective. Everything has to move right, and everything has to move fast; otherwise you don't get the shots you want, and you don't get to the top as everyone freezes. The results are great when this all happens, and now that Adidas has released the images and video in their marketing I can put some up for you.
Steph pulling through the crux snow plug of the Direct
Spindrift city...and in to the shady couloir above
Max leads in to the Couloir with the Jorasses in the background
Max leads in to the Couloir with the Jorasses in the background
Max in the Couloir
Max in the Couloir
The spindrift at the top was the most painful I've ever experienced
I learnt alot on Everest. I learnt alot about people, who your friends are, and most of all about the media. I've also had time to reflect on that horrible day, and I've also had time to read all the comments people have written about us. It has been a huge relief to see that on the whole climbers understand the problems of Everest- because at the end of the day that is the most important thing to me. Climbing is part of my career, I live in a climbing town, and I meet climbers from around the world all the time. It is my community and it is incredibly important to me that my community understands.
Nevertheless even if for every 100 nice comments there is only one bad one it still stings. Coming from a climbing and professional background that has been pretty silent and had no enemies it really pains me that I now have hundreds of them. It keeps me up at night, it stresses me out during the day. It's an unfortunate nightmare; I've lost alot on this trip.
The Khumbu Valley: Everest, Lhotse, and Nuptse
Ueli and Simone on the approach to Everest, Ama Dablam in the background
But there are many sad factors to this tale. You speak to most people about Everest at Base Camp and they are all there for the summit; for that single moment when they can stand on top of the world. We all seek our challenges in life and at different levels. When I first started climbing I had it in my mind that I wanted to be there as well one day- the style and ethics didnt even play in to my thinking at the time. It is only through years of climbing that my style has evolved that I now look upon the challenge of Everest as something very different to others at Base Camp. But this does not make me better than them, just different. For me the challenge of Everest is without supplementary oxygen, that seems to me the whole point. But then I will happily use the fixed route through the icefall and I will for sure use any track that someone has put in ahead of me. If neither was there it wouldn’t stop me, but if it's there I will use it. But I can also look at my other team-mates Alexey and Denis who wanted to climb a new route Alpine Style on the South Face of Everest. My 'style' of ascent is just as bad from their point of view, than a fully supported one is from mine. Like I say we all find our own challenges. I just happen to be lucky enough to live in the Alps and climb year round- experience counts for everything and I can understand that a climber at Base Camp has a real job, a family to support, and lives in a city- all things that dont allow you, no matter how much you may try, to accrue the kind of experience that I can get. This is life and you will see it on all the mountains of the world.
But for me the real draw this year was on the professional side. I was there to film and photograph a really cutting edge high mountain ascent. The kind of filming and photography that had never been done, let alone attempted, before. It was going to push me to my absolute limit to capture it all. It was going to be light and fast but at 8000m+. There would be no retakes, there would be no second chances. I would have to see every shot in advance, 'run' ahead of two of the world’s best climbers, shoot the shot, then repeat. I would be on supplementary oxygen so that I could carry the extra kit as well as be able to move faster than them. That was the plan anyway and on paper it sounds easy but I dont know of many people running around above 8000m even with supplementary oxygen. The logistics of the filming alone got me tingling. This was no huge budget thing either. It had taken Sender Films months to get sponsors involved just to pay for my basic costs. I would end up putting more money in to this project than any other expedition I have been on as well, and my pay would just break me even. But it would open up a whole new realm of high altitude filming possibilities and that was incredibly exciting.
We all seem to want to do something new on Everest. So for me the appeal of shooting such a climb was the draw- yes it is Everest, but that is the point really; to be able to shoot something of this magnitude on the world's highest peak. It might get harder, but it doesnt get any higher. And that is the draw. It is the same for Ueli and Simone. You can say that they should know better than to go on Everest and that it is not a climber's mountain- but it is still the world's highest peak and that draws them in just as much as any other summit candidate on Everest. Yes they could climb something lower and more technical but have you seen Ueli's technical climbing resume? Surely it is also natural to now set yourself the height challenge and see how hard you can climb at the highest point on earth- it is unfortunate that Everest is Everest but does that mean he should know better and never come to this challenge? Does it mean I should know better and never come to my challenge?
A very moody Everest and Base Camp just after sunrise
For my part I cant really comment on the Sherpa. For sure alot came to our tent (old friends of Simone) but I dont have the years of Nepalese climbing behind me to have a fully formed view like many others do. Some stick to the old romantic view and others have come forward with stories of violence as well. But I think most importantly they are people, we are all people. We are all subject to emotions and we all have our good and bad points. I do think they are a very pacifist people, if the group that had attacked us weren’t so we would have been dead in 5 minutes. But as many have said the few do not represent the many- my experience at the hand of a few ringleaders does not mean that I think all Sherpas are bad people. This holds true in all cultures- there are bad people in all societies no matter how pacifist they might be. The remaining 99.9% of Sherpas expressed huge disappointment and regret to us at Base Camp. Some of the elder Sherpas were brought to tears for the actions of a few and let us not forget that a few Sherpas stood up for us as well during the fight and we owe our lives to them.
Myself acclimatising on the high camp of Pumori- Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse in front
My account of the fight was based on our memories of it and other's input. Questions have been raised as everything is very one sided for the moment. I fully appreciate that and I am happy to put in any other side to the story, it's just that I haven’t got one. I welcome their side because I know that what they did is inexcusable and no matter what we may have done we did not deserve it. I've put in everything I know about Simone swearing and about any other provocations that I can think of. Maybe something was said over the radio that I didn't hear, maybe there was another provocation that I honestly do not know about. These things will come to light. Please realise though that the report I wrote up was well thought out- I know that videos and photos will start circulating of the fight. I knew that at the time. It is the best evidence of what happened and anything that I wrote that is wrong will be shown up straight away on these videos- so I tried to make my account as 100% accurate as possible. I dont want to be called a liar but I knew that an account had to be given.
People claimed that it was never a fight just an exchange of words, but I can assure you we've never felt so threatened in our lives. That was why I wrote the account. As for the Sherpa count it was a guess. When we came down initial reports were of 200 but I said 'hang on, I really dont remember there being 200’. It is hard to head count when you're that scared though. Maybe there were only 50, maybe there were 100. I honestly find it hard to know- but to me it doesn’t matter. There were three of us. Whether there were 50 or 100 wouldn’t have made the slightest difference- when you're that outnumbered it may as well be 500.
Crucially as well I have read reports that only the fixing team of 17 were attacking us, the rest of the mob were just watching. Now maybe this is true but picture yourself in our position. A group of 17 Sherpas and their mates arrive en mass above us on the moraine ridge. They stop, a few of them instantly pick up some huge rocks. There is nowhere to run and they have the height advantage. What would you be thinking? Would you not think they were all in it together? They weren’t wearing separate T-Shirts to indicate whether they were watching or attacking- in our minds they were all there attacking. It's simple as. There was no boxing ring or rules- my body felt like lead, I was paralyzed with fear. I still can’t sleep at night over it and I have incredibly violent dreams. I wake up sweating and trembling, my heart racing; and it happens every night. And I managed to get away compared to Ueli- but for a while I felt the uncontrollable fear of being trapped and at the mercy of people who wanted to kill me. I cant tell you how crippling that is.
A fight doesn’t tend to lead to anyone dying. We may not have fought in the conventional sense but this was far scarier and far more serious. I would rather fight someone and have a 'chance' than stand there at Camp 2 whilst a group that far outnumbered us actually said they wanted to kill us. Can you imagine how scary that was? You cant run, your heart races, your mouth goes dry, you're certain these are your last few moments- it's just horrible.
Maybe the oddest thing about it all is that everyone seems to be looking for some kind of justification for what happened at Camp 2. I admit that Simone swearing in Nepalese was incredibly disrespectful and given how cold and windy it was, it would have been taken to tired and stressed minds. But really does that justify what happened at Camp 2? If this were the standard response for swearing or stepping over someone's rope there would be no one left in the Chamonix valley. I have read all the accounts and all the comments online but yet it still amazes me that some people think that the response is valid.
Arrival at Camp 1, Nuptse in the background
From Camp 1 to Camp 2. Everest, Lhtose, Nuptse
Disrespect on the Lhtose Face
I watched the whole event on the Lhtose Face unravel from about 10 meters away sitting on the snow and I could not believe how quickly things got out of hand. But then it is our word against theirs. Who's to be believed? If I was reading the accounts I would for sure think that we were omitting something huge that happened on the Lhotse Face- the reaction at Camp 2 warrants that we would do something like that. But honestly we didnt. Ueli and Simone are two of the world's best climbers and have climbed all over the world. We were never told that we couldn’t climb on the face. We were not part of a meeting the day before- this is a mountain; we don’t get memos pinned to our tents. We're not telepathic. Its pointless to say we shouldn’t have been there because there is an 'unwritten rule' and there was a meeting the day before if we weren’t aware of both.
We did, of course, see the fixing team on the face as we walked in but it hadn’t even occurred to me that we couldn’t climb. The face is vast, our tent was up there already. There is plenty of space for people to climb without hindering each other on the Lhotse Face. I don’t turn around from climbing Mont Blanc because there is a guide and his clients already ahead of me- as long as I don’t bother him then it’s not a problem. Why should this be any different? We didn’t touch their fixed lines once, we climbed off far to the side, and we were never told that we couldn’t climb that day. As for reports from a Sherpa that he spoke to us at the shrund, I never saw one, we were alone at the Shrund. There are photos online now of us climbing the shrund- there isn’t a single guide or Sherpa in sight.
Ueli on the approach to the Lhotse Face, plenty of space for everyone
Ueli staying well clear of the Sherpas and on perfect snow- how could we have knocked ice down?
The only justification that the Sherpas gave for the ensuing argument was that we knocked ice down on one of them and injured one. This has now been widely accepted as a fabrication, no Sherpa ever came forward to admit he was injured.
There is alot of talk of money and pride and ego. I like to think that Sherpas are not so shallow as to hate us because we weren’t employing their services directly. We pay, as does everyone, for the Ice Fall Doctors (Khumbu Icefall) but I find it hard to believe that there is resentment against us because we weren’t part of a commercial expedition and not contributing to their wages. As for ego and pride that is a delicate subject. We all have ego and pride, it doesn’t matter who we are. But I don’t climb because I want to be the strongest climber on the mountain; I climb because I love to climb. Maybe things are different on Everest but if merely climbing faster than someone else leads to a death threat then there’s something very wrong going on on that mountain.
Fleeing for our lives down the untracked a heavily crevassed glacier by Nuptse. No rope, just run.
I've already had my say on styles on the mountain and how we all differ. It doesn’t make us any better, we all find our own challenges in life. The reasoning behind the attack at Camp 2 is still blurred. It will never be a clear thing to any of us. But the finger of blame has to fall somewhere- everyone needs a justification and it seems that people find it hard to believe that maybe the main reason is just a personal and human one. Everest is complicated. If you've never been there or tried to understand how it all works then you can easily imagine the Commercial Expeditions being the evil beast behind it all and how they have brought the mountain to its knees. But Commercial Expeditions are a product of basic economics- they exist because there is a demand for it. If I preach that the mountain is for everyone then who am I to say that some people cant go? I do think that it is overcrowded though- this is a simple fact. Your average Everest climber is not experienced enough without the help of his Sherpa and the lines and systems set in place. The problem with this is that it is all fine and well when the system is working 100%, but when bad weather hits, a fixed line breaks, oxygen runs out, or any other link in the chain breaks then you have a catastrophe. People die on Everest because they aren’t ready for Everest. They rely on a system that they don’t understand and didn’t set up- how do they mend something if they don’t know how it works? How do they get off in a sudden storm when they've never dealt with bad weather before? We've all experienced fear and panic when something goes wrong in the mountains but it is through years of experience that we learn how to remove the panic element and teach ourselves how to deal with the situation. What would you do if you'd never had any experience and suddenly you were caught in the middle of a huge storm on the summit ridge of Everest? Would you rely on your years of experience and work out how to get down, or would you just sit there and wait to die because you wouldn’t know what to do? Look through the history of Everest and the latter happens a scary amount of times.
But it's not just Everest either. Take a look at the disaster on K2 in 2008. Climbers were stranded above the bottleneck because a serac collapsed taking out the fixed lines. Some climbers were capable enough and down-climbed the snow / ice field and survived. Many were left stranded simply because they couldn’t down-climb the terrain, some didn't even have an ice axe with them- relying so heavily on the fixed lines and system set in place that it would cost them their lives.
The vast expanse of Base Camp- not even in high season yet.
I have nothing against the style used on these big mountains. I think it is a shame but who am I to force my style on others? Just because Ueli will go and solo the Eiger North Face in a few hours does not mean that he will demand that this becomes the new style. Style evolves. There is no right or wrong, it isn't black and white. But in the end wasn’t the first ascent of Everest done with fixed ropes, oxygen, and many more fixed camps than nowadays? I'm not really trying to compare them like for like as the first ascent is a completely different affair to an ascent nowadays, but all we do is talk about ‘commercial’ style when in fact if you look at the system used nowadays it is very similar to the one used 60 years ago. What has changed is the equipment and this has allowed more people on the mountain with far less ability that the first ascentionists, and that’s the issue for me really.
Style is just what you make of it: we had a Sherpa and a high altitude Porter on our team to help us ferry loads up the mountain. We've never said that using Sherpas is cheating or tried to hide it. We had our way and style of climbing and it wasn't a totally pure alpine style and it wasn't full on 'commercial' style, but we never claimed it was. We were never hypocritical, as some have claimed: find me one quote from us that says that using Sherpas or local help is bad?
The mountain is vast and there is for sure plenty of space for everyone. I certainly don’t feel that commercial expeditions have pushed aside smaller independent climbing teams. If anything they help them by bringing the amount of people necessary to the mountain to afford the ice fall doctors; they help set lines and put in tracks which, no matter how good you think you are, you will always appreciate. It's a very fine balance. There is no 'us' VS 'them'. We're all commercial in a way- I make my living from photography and Everest was part of that living. Ueli makes a living from his slideshows and that would have formed a part of that. Simone is currently flying rescue missions off the mountain. We never blamed the commercialisation of Everest because we are cashing in on the mountain as well- it's just that we do it differently. Who is right and who is wrong? Maybe both, maybe neither. Find me one person who climbed Everest and didnt make any money or fame from it afterwards- we're all commercial on this mountain, let's not kid ourselves.
A couple of days after the incident the Nepalese were keen to have an official and public ceremony where, in theory, we would all shake hands and we would continue our expedition. But we were almost killed; that doesn't just go away with a handshake. That's just bullshit. Apart from Simone swearing at the Sherpa on the Lhotse Face we honestly didn’t feel that we had done anything wrong. We didn’t think it was right to apologize for being on the face- it is a dangerous precedent to do that. If two of the world’s best climbers apologise for being on the face then no one ever has a leg to stand on in the future who wants to climb ahead.
We then signed a written document which has been interpreted in many ways. It is very vague, as many will have noticed. This is not from our side- we wanted it to be more specific, but the LOs at Base Camp were adamant that if we added anything to that effect that it would then involve the police and become a legal matter. You can read the document however you want but the only reason we ended up signing it was because we have the whole ceremony on tape. The tape seemed more powerful than the document. As for the section saying we would not discuss it any further this was meant that we would not take this further to the courts or in any legal sense, not that no one would talk about this to the media- the media frenzy was already well under way and not started by us. We didn't rub our hands with glee and run to our ‘publishers’ as some have put it- publishers???- my office is a desk in my bedroom, I don't have a publisher!
I do understand the underlying reasons behind the Sherpa anger. Since we've been back it's all we seem to talk about. And the thing is is that I totally empathise. I often think that if I was in their position with their Maoist upbringing and for dozens of other reasons, would I have done the same thing at Camp 2? Nurture is a very powerful thing. But it is still inexcusable. Mob rule is never excusable. I empathise but I do not sympathise.
Nestled away at the very end of Camp 2 under a full moon
Time has past now and I still find it hard to swallow what happened to us. The aftermath at Base Camp was a very tiring time. Emotionally we were drained from what had happened at Camp 2. Physically we had had a huge day as well. Sleeping was impossible. But we had endless meetings with Base Camp 'leaders' and officials. Of course everyone had their own priorities and agendas and it was hard and tiring to keep on top of that and see the motives behind what people were telling us. In the end we were told that if we proceeded in the legal sense the ringleaders would be beaten in a Nepalese jail and there would be a riot at Base Camp (that was the actual word used: a riot).
In retrospect I see that I totally missed the point. There would be no mass riot at Base Camp, but it would lead to a strike or general work stoppage. The climb must go on. Whilst we felt the ringleaders deserved jail time (they did try to kill us remember) we understood that sending these young Sherpa to jail would effectively ruin their lives and it wouldn’t solve anything on the mountain. It was not us that said that the Sherpas feel treated badly by Westerners it was them that told us- and we fully understand the issues at play. The only way to really resolve the situation is to listen to the problems on a personal level and try to re-establish the respect so necessary between Westerners and Sherpas on the mountain. But that wasn’t for us to do, that was for the Base Camp Community to deal with. So we left it in their hands, we trusted them to resolve the issue and to also discipline those responsible.
As for the mountain nothing changed, it didn’t even hiccup. Ueli fixed the lines to Camp 3 thus completing the projected work. The following day was a pre-scheduled rest day for the fixing team, and the day after they resumed their normal duties. Climbers from all around the world summited Everest, as in any usual year, and alot of dreams have become a reality for many people. As for the ringleaders that we were assured would be 'disciplined'- the very people that rallied a mob to try and kill us? No one was fired, no one was reprimanded. We put out trust about something really important to us in the hands of people who didn't care past their own bank balances. It was business as usual- I wonder how safe the Western clients would have felt knowing that they were still on the mountain.
For those who believe that we deserved what we got, that is the most worrying because next year a client will knock down some ice on a Sherpa, he will get tangled up in the fixed lines, and no doubt a tired client will shout at his Sherpa on the summit ridge. It happens every year. If you believe that we deserved what we got then we should be very afraid for the future of the mountain because it will happen again and next time it may not be such a lucky story. No example was made, no one was fired, the mountain goes on. If I were a young Sherpa I would see this as empowerment- there is no law and order. As Messner said, the Sherpa are the king of the mountain. What is to stop another group of young Sherpa doing the same thing next year or the year after when a tired client shouts at them, or knocks some ice down.
The Khumbu Ice Fall
Will I return?
Everyone seems to ask me this. I do want to go back yes. I want to complete my filming project but I don’t feel welcome or safe on the South side right now. If you've read the whole text then maybe you can appreciate and understand it from a personal point of view. So far we hand out factually written press releases and I felt I needed to write down exactly what I felt because this isn’t just a story about numbers, it’s about human emotion as well.
The media was huge. I think it's probably one of the world's most covered climbing stories, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. We did interviews with every major newspaper, radio, and TV news agency around the world. I hated it. It was front page of so many national and international papers that I can't even remember them all. I had over 200 different reporters emailing me within the first week for interviews, and that was just me- for Simone and Ueli it was the same. This media hype was inevitable, we didn’t just email news agencies to try and get some publicity out of this. This is the worst kind of publicity anyone of us could ever imagine; it was a really scary time. (I didn’t sell any photos or make any money whilst dealing with the press storm). But the story of 3 Westerners almost getting stoned to death on Mt Everest is too big an interest piece that it wouldn't leak out. We knew that straight away, and the following week was taxing in every possible way.
I'd never dealt with the media before and it was even harder to have to give interviews with such an exhausted and screwed head. But it was important that we did speak to the press to try and fight for our names. Wouldn’t you do the same? Personally I was terrified of the media- people are swayed by what they read and I had a horrible feeling that we were going to get trashed. It was really tiring to deal with. We couldn't sleep and we didn't eat much, we were still at Base Camp and felt rooted there simply because we had internet connection. It was horrible and I was praying for it to just go away- but once you start you have to fight to the end and speak to every reporter to make sure you've had your say. I was really concerned that if I didn’t speak to a certain reporter, but had done to others, that he would take a bad stance against us. It was a really worrying time.
Heading up to Camp 1 on our penultimate day
I also learnt that the media will lie and make stuff up. I realised that Skype interviews over a bad connection and having to repeat your answers allows people to effectively 'cut and paste' what you say in to what they want you to say. The bad connection allows for the change in pitch. I also read alot of quotes that I know I never said, and I know Ueli or Simone never said. But there's no point in doing anything about it- once it's been published its been read.
But maybe the saddest thing of all was seeing some people jump in on the opportunity for their two minutes of fame. Whilst we were trying to fight for our reputations I saw Cathy o Dowd and Alan Hinkes come on national television and say that we were arrogant and ego driven and that was why we had angered the Sherpas. We've never met them, they weren’t at Base Camp, they know really nothing of the story, they didn't even think to get in touch with us. Somehow it seemed like getting two minutes of air time on national television was worth trashing people you'd never met before; kicking us when we were already down. It was a sad sight to see.
On the flip side it was amazing to see such strong international support. I received tons of emails from all sorts of climbers around the world recounting their past troubles with Sherpas and how close it had become as well. It was also really warming to see the climbing media take our side on this and be able to read the climbing forums and see that on the whole climbers understood the problems of Everest. So thank to you all for your support.
At the end of the day I don't really have an answer or an explanation for what happened on Everest. I am deeply saddened about the whole affair and it still haunts me. We’re not bad people, we’re not after publicity here and we’re not trying to trash any Sherpas or give them a bad name. We stopped talking to the media as soon as we came home, but after weeks of deliberating we did decide to finish our Everest film off with Sender Films. They had invested a lot of time and money in to this project, but it was not an easy decision to make. For now it’s just amazing to be back home and out climbing again; the summer has begun, I’m happy to be out in my favorite mountain range, and I’m back off to Pakistan in 2 weeks. As for Everest, if you've read this far there's not much more I can add- I guess only time will tell.
It's been a busy month for work- which is good as I still need to pay off the debt from Everest and pay for my upcoming trip to Pakistan. But thankfully 'work' takes me in to my favourite alpine playground so it's not all that bad.
I've been shooting for Cotswold Outdoor for quite a few years now and it's the only catalogue that I actually shoot for. I remember when I was younger flicking through catalogues as they were essentially a free magazine with lots of nice glossy pictures. But your standard Outdoor retailer catalogue is about as far removed from real alpinism as possible, and that's natural given how many clothing changes you have to make. However in the last few years it's been great working with Matt Farrar from Cotswold and see the catalogue change from the 'fake' format to a very real one, and now I can proudly say that when you flick through it the images you see are from real climbs and not just taken 10 meters from the lift station. Matt taught me alot about product placement and I showed him what I felt was real alpine photography, and somehow we've found a perfect middle ground that I'm very happy with.
It's always a hard balance though as I'm not going to shoot on the Jorasses- you have to shoot something that the clients can relate to. Even so, climbing around the Tacul is a far cooler thing to be doing than sitting at the Midi. So this year we went over to the Oberland and climbed the Monch and then did various climbs around the Tacul with stunning results. Get next year's catalogue, buy their stuff, and fund my next shoot....!
On the Monch at sunrise
Pretty cool ridge!
The summit of the Monch looking towards the Jungfrau
Tom Grant on some mixed action
Tom playing about on the Tacul Seracs
Perfect sunset on the descent from the Tacul
ZZZZZZZZZZ.....Full moon over the Tacul and the happy campers
Tom soloing Left Edge at sunrise