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 Everest 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 and Moro were asked to wait on the mountain while a group of Nepalese rigged up some ropes.
The Europeans, accompanied by a photographer recording their attempt 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 eyewitness said.
"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," he said.
Later in the day, a furious mob 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.
"After a while the mob left, and the climbers packed up and walked past us down -- as far as we knew they were leaving the mountain," the eyewitness added. "It was terrifying to watch -- they nearly got killed."
Police near the world's highest mountain are investigating the incident, 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 spent the night at a hospital near the airport in the town but was "totally normal" and 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.
AFP was unable to reach the European climbers for comment. Their trekking company said they did not have mobile phones.
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.