Is Mt. Everest Unsafe To Climb This Year?

Mt. EverestAt 8848 meters (29,029 feet) in height, Mt. Everest is a significant challenge for climbers even under the best of conditions. Thin air, the threat of altitude sickness and physically exhausting technical challenges are commonplace on the mountain, which has seen more than its fair share of fatalities over the years. But unusual weather conditions this spring may make climbing Everest more unsafe than ever and those conditions have even prompted one of the largest commercial climbing companies to cancel all attempts on the summit this year.

Yesterday Himalayan Expeditions, or Himex as it is known in mountaineering circles, announced that it was cancelling its Spring 2012 Expedition due to concerns over the safety of the guides, Sherpas and climbers. Team leader Russell Brice feels that it is simply too unsafe to climb Everest this year and rather than risk the lives of his team or clients he has elected to go home instead. As you can imagine, this was crushing news for the climbers, many of whom have dreamed of this expedition for years and have spent upwards of $55,000 for the opportunity to scale the world’s tallest peak.

What makes this season different from others in the past is that it has been unusually dry on Everest this spring. You would think that that would actually be a good thing for the climbers, but it turns out that without snow and ice on the slopes the mountain becomes much more difficult to climb. When climbing across snow or ice, mountaineers use crampons – small spikes that are attached to the bottom of their boots – to climb more safely and effectively. Those spikes can become a detriment when used on bare rock. Additionally, the snow and ice help make the route up the mountain safer by firmly keeping rocks locked into place, without it the rocks can dislodge quite easily and tumble down the side of the mountain, striking those below.The excessive amounts of loose rock aren’t the only problem, however, as Brice has also voiced concerns about the stability of the Khumbu Icefall, which is widely considered the most dangerous section on the South Side of the mountain. The icefall is a result of the Khumbu glacier breaking up as it moves down the valley. Due to the ice shifting and collapsing, a new route must be built through that section each year. A special group of Sherpas known as the Ice Doctors are charged with building and maintaining that route, which is created by laying down a series of ladders over the open chasms. Climbers then walk across those ladders as they navigate to the base of the mountain located on the far side. The Himex leader feels that the route could collapse at any time, stranding the mountaineers on Everest, or worse yet, taking the lives of those in the icefall at the time.

The other big commercial guide services seem less concerned about the dangers of climbing Everest this spring and there are some indications that conditions are actually improving. Snow fell on the mountain over the weekend, which has brought a measure of stability to the peak and has allowed climbers to go as high as Camp 3, located at 7470 meters (24,500 feet), as part of their altitude training. Those climbers are hoping that conditions will continue to get better over time, allowing for safe passage to the summit in a few weeks.

It is hard to fault any guided climbing company for being overly cautious when keeping their customers safe but I’m sure there are more than a few Himex clients that are wondering if they’ll ever get another shot at climbing Everest. Hopefully the teams that remained on the mountain will get up and down safely in the days ahead.

[Photo credit: Pavel Novak]