Is Mt. Everest Unsafe To Climb This Year?

At 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]

First summits of the year on Everest

The first summits of the spring season on Everest took place two days ago when a group of Sherpas completed fixing ropes to the summit of the world’s tallest mountain. In all, nine Sherpas, from three different commercial climbing teams, stood on the peak at an altitude of 29,029 feet. With their work complete, the door is now open for other climbers to soon follow.

The nine Sherpas were working cooperatively on the South Side of Everest to place the all important ropes for their paying clients, who will begin making their way up the mountain sometime next week. The team consisted of three Sherpas from each of the three largest mountain guide companies operating on Everest, Himalayan Experience, Alpine Ascents, and International Mountain Guides, who joined forces to ensure a safe climbing environment for all the teams.

For their part, the climbers on the Nepali side of the mountain are finishing up their acclimatization process and are preparing to make their summit bids. Early indications are that those bids will begin next Thursday, on May 13th, weather permitting. After years of planning and weeks of preparation, the finish line is in sight, for these mountaineers, many of whom have payed upwards of $50,000 for the chance to stand at the top of the world.

The story is a bit different on the North Side of the mountain, which falls in Tibet. Bad weather on that side of the mountain has prevented the Sherpas from fixing the ropes, so for now, there is no access to the summit. The climbers approaching the summit from the north, including 13-year old Jordan Romero, must be patient and wait for now. Once the weather clears however, there is sure to be a rush to the summit on that side of the mountain as well.