AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
KATHMANDU: A mountaineer on Everest described Monday the "terrifying" scene of two famous European climbers fighting with Nepalese guides in a high-altitude brawl that has sparked a police investigation.
Ueli Steck, a Swiss national who holds climbing records, and Simone Moro of Italy, who has climbed the world's highest peak four times, were approaching the 7,470-metre (24,500 feet) Camp Three on Saturday when the bust-up occurred.
The American eyewitness, speaking to AFP by telephone and on condition of anonymity, said Steck, Moro and British photographer Jonathan Griffith were asked to wait on the mountain while a group of Nepalese rigged up some ropes.
The witness said the Europeans, who were trying to climb the 8,848-metre (29,029-foot) mountain by a new "undisclosed" route without supplementary oxygen, ignored the request and carried on.
"The Sherpas told the team not to climb above them while they were fixing the ropes but they did it anyway. Then some ice fell and hit the Sherpas, which made them angry," said the eyewitness.
Later in the day, a furious group of Nepalese stormed up towards the climbers' tents and pelted them with stones until the men came outside, after which a loud argument ensued and punches were allegedly thrown.
"It was terrifying to watch -- they nearly got killed," the eyewitness said.
However Moro, in a statement on his website describing events, said it was "highly unlikely" that any ice had fallen as a result of his group. He said he had been attacked by an "out-of-control mob".
"They became instantly aggressive and not only punched and kicked the climbers, but threw many rocks as well," said the statement.
The statement added that Moro's group had caused no interference for the Sherpas who were fixing the ropes, which they do each year so that hundreds of other summit hopefuls can access the mountain.
Police near the world's highest mountain are investigating the incident and mediation meetings between the climbers and the local Sherpas took place on Monday afternoon, local officials told AFP.
"We were told our clients disagreed with the instructions of the Sherpa guides and went ahead over some icy terrain," said Anish Gupta of Cho-Oyu Trekking, the Kathmandu-based company that organised the Europeans' expedition.
"We understand that at some point the foreign climbers kicked some ice back and it hit one of the Sherpa guides, causing the fight to start," Gupta told AFP.
According to the climbing company, the men have since descended from the upper stretches of the mountain.
Raj Kumar, a police constable in Lukla, told AFP that Steck had spent the night at a hospital near the airport in the town but did not show any sign of injuries.
On Monday morning Steck flew in a helicopter back to Everest's base camp to rejoin Moro, who had remained on the mountain. The pair are reportedly mulling whether to try again to reach the summit.
More than 3,000 people have climbed Everest, which straddles Nepal and China, since it was first conquered by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Every year hundreds more set out in April to attempt the climb.
Nepal's tourism ministry announced Monday that a Chinese climber had gone missing after climbing the world's fifth-highest mountain, the 8,481-metre (27,825 feet) Makalu.