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]

Everest Ice Doctors Operate on the Khumbu Icefalls

Many people operate under the assumption that the most dangerous part of climbing Everest is the so called “Death Zone”, above 26,000 feet, or the summit itself. But on the South Side of the mountain, at least statistically speaking, that just isn’t true. There have been more deaths in the Khumbu Icefall than any other area on Everest, and the Icefall is located just above base camp at about 18,000 feet.

The Khumbu Icefall is found at the southern most end of the Khumbu Glacier, and due to the shifting nature of the ice, large crevasses and giant ice towers are formed in the region. These large cracks make it extremely difficult to cross through this portion of the mountain, and since it changes so rapidly, a new path must be created each year. Enter the Khumbu Ice Doctors.

The Ice Doctors are a team of highly skilled Sherpas who are integral to the success of climbing on Everest on the Nepali side of the mountain. Each year they lay down a series of ladders across the crevasses, and use a thin nylon line, held in place by ice screws and anchors, as a guide rope across the open spaces. Climbers than walk across these openings, usually in their mountaineering boots and with crampons on, stepping on the rungs of the ladder for support, and using the thin ropes to help stabalize themselves. For many, it can be a very terrifying and intimidating proposition.

It can take dozens of ladders to complete the course through the Icefall, and the climbers will pass through the area several times in the course of establishing their higher camps on the mountain and going through the acclimatization process.

Because the ice can move as much as three to four feet per day, the Ice Doctors stay on the mountain through the end of May maintaining the route and making sure that the ladders and ropes remain in place. Once they pack up their gear and head home, the climbing season is considered over on the South Side for another year, and access to the upper reaches of the mountain is closed once again.

Reports from Everest this year say that the ice docs have used more than 20 ladders in completing the route, and it was expected to open today, giving the teams their first real access to the mountain itself. Many of the teams have already been making practice runs through the Icefall, but now the real work begins, and they’ll soon move through it for the first time, and set-up Camp 1 just on the otherside of this dangerous landmark.