As Everest 2012 becomes more dangerous, the commercial expeditions leaders are being forced into making difficult decisions. At the root of the dilemma are extremely dry conditions and rock fall. Some teams have declared a ground hold, others are retreating back down valley, some are holding at their current camps and yet others are pushing higher.
As I have said, there are no rules on Everest. Each team leader makes their own call based on their experience and best available information. While the teams leaders met this week to sort out the dangers and route finding, clearly there was no consensus as the following shows.
The Everest area has not had the same amount of snowfall over the preceding winter that it usually experiences. Snow is what holds loose rocks together and prevents them from falling down the steep slopes. The routes above Camp 2, starting at the Lhotse Face, become very steep ground with angles from 20 to 45 degrees. When a rock starts rolling, even a tiny one, it becomes a missile. While climbers wear helmets, they can still be hurt or killed depending on where they are hit by a rock and how large it is.
At this point there have been numerous reports of Sherpas, no westerners yet, becoming casualties of rock fall. There are reports of broken arms and head lacerations requiring 10 stitches. This is a dangerous environment that can only be remedied by a heavy snowfall – even then it may not be enough to salvage the season if the high winds return.
Already, climbers on Lhotse may be looking at the end of their season. A Lhotse climb requires climbing a steep, gully surrounded by rock. In good snow years, rockfall is common; this year it may be unacceptable.
There is further concern about the climb from Camp 3 to the South Col, which crosses the Yellow Band, a large area of rock. While ropes have been fixed to this level, it has not seen the stress of hundreds of climbers pounding the rocks. Finally it is too early to know, but above the South Col to the Balcony and on the Southeast ridge is another area covered with rock. I know on my 2008 climb, I was almost hit by rock just below the Balcony.
There has been a huge effort to reroute the fixed lines on the Lhotse Face with some success. The new route has been used by several teams to reach Camp 3 safely. However, the Sherpas are complaining that it is longer depleting their precious energy. Also, a few commercial teams are refusing to use the new route maintaining it is equally unsafe – again no rules, just experience and judgment.
All of this has created an atmosphere on Everest not seen in a decade. This season will go down in history regardless of the final results as one of tough calls, second guessing and risks.
Expedition on “Hold”
Himex’s Russell Brice’s team issued a post yesterday that read like press release but essentially told the story that Brice feels the entire mountain is too dangerous and has pulled his entire team back to base camp on an indefinite hold:
Himalayan Experience has had to put its expedition on hold due to too many hazards on the mountain. “The danger on the Lhotse Face as well as in the Khumbu Icefall is way outside our parameters. The rockfall onto the Lhotse Face is relentless and I cannot put my members, guides or Sherpas through this danger,” Russell explained during lunch on Thursday – shortly after the first Everest group, the ‘Yetis’ as well as the Lobuje team had arrived back at base camp.
Tim Ripple of Peak Freaks made a similar post:
We are grateful we don’t have teams up at Camp 2 pondering what to do, our Sherpas are pulled off the mountain for the time being. Our team are all happy campers enjoying vacation life Pheriche except for Marty, Joshua, Ben and I who are holding tight here.
I strongly encourage you to read both of these posts completely to understand their positions.
As I covered recently, predicting weather on Everest is tough but at the large scale – huge winds or just winds, big snow or nothing, the forecasters are pretty good. Over on Mike Moniz’s site they quote a forecast that looks pretty good:
The jet stream winds subside a lot in the next 24 hours and should abate over the weekend and into early next week. In fact, the 10-day forecast doesn’t show a return of the winds as strong as they’ve been the last few days, but it could get windier in a week or so after it is calmer for the next few days. Tough to forecast precipitation with midday and afternoon clouds/snow showers possible most days.
Another post provides some insight into the schedule which is subject to change in this uncertain season. This from Chris Klinke
The weather has been windy the last 5 days stripping most of the snow off the upper mountain. That appears to be changing over the next 5 days with higher level convection coming in from the Jet stream causing snow to fall on the upper mountain which makes the Lhotse face a little more stable and less subject to rock fall. The route to C3 has been changed in the last two days because of the winds and rock fall. The new route is a little longer in distance but it is much safer given the condition of the mountain. the route to the South Col has not been established yet for this year. The goal is to have it established by May 7th, then If possible the route to the summit by May 11th.
Just to make matters more confusing, or optimistic, Allie Pepper climbing over on Manaslu which is east of Everest (where the weather comes from) posted this about TOO much snow:
Ok believe it or not we are back in Base again and I am absolutely frustrated. Yesterday I had a big cry and its not because its hard, I am weak, sick or not acclimatised. Its the weather. It is driving us crazy and it is making it impossible to make plans. Once again we were in a snow storm at Camp 1 and our weather report said that today would be worse. However we awoke in Base to totally clear skies so now I am crying again!! Its the 4th of May and we haven’t even got to Camp 2 yet. No one here out of the perhaps 80 climbers has managed to get beyond Camp 2 let alone to Camp 3 because of the continuous snow storms and of course the very deep and avalanche prone snow.
One more item that has a lot of credibility. This from world-class climber Ueli Steck who has been climbing the trekking peaks near Everest instead of using the normal “climb high, sleep low” routine is now on his way to Everest based on his belief of improving weather. He mentions he may attempt the West Ridge.
Maybe he will team up with Conrad Anker now that Cory Richards had to leave the expedition with health issues (my total speculation!). Also we know that Annapurna has had significant snowfall this season creating avalanches. While these posts look encouraging, I can assure you that every team is looking at every prediction with an eye of skepticism.
Planning for Success
Adventure Consultants, having tagged Camp 3, is looking to spend a few nights down valley in one of the tea houses as they wait for fresh snow:
If the ropes were fixed to the summit and a summit weather window beckoned, we would not frivolously waste time by heading down valley. But right now all indications are that we are beginning a cycle of patience. At a base camp meeting yesterday the major commercial operators all decided that until the ‘bonding power’ of new snow has taken affect on loose rock, it is unsafe to fix ropes to the South Col and to the summit. Climbing high on Chomolungma is currently on hold. Fortunately, the current forecast has quite a lot of snow predicted and in this case we are really hoping it is true. We could definitely do with some of the high amount of snow that has fallen recently on Manaslu in Western Nepal.
Eric Simonson, IMG, made a similar optimistic post:
Greg and Ang Jangbu report that the IMG Hybrid and guided teams made it down to EBC, and the first Classic group went up to Camp 2. The fixing teams have 29 bags (200m each) of rope at Camp 2, and 4 more 200m bags on top of Yellow Band, along with screws and pickets, ready to move up the hill for further fixing of the route when the conditions improve. It has been cold the last couple days, and there was a little snowfall this afternoon with a chance of some more snow in the forecast.
These dry, icy, rocky conditions are not unusual early in the season, with more snow often coming as we head into the month of May. Just remember the 1999 season when the mountain was bone dry, and we found George Mallory on May 1. Then, it stormed for the better part of the next two weeks after that. There is still a lot of time for conditions to change before summit bids!
Bill Burke, attempting a double summit, reports in after this time at Camp 2:
Many tents were destroyed at Camp 1, including all but 2 of our tents. The Nepalese Ministry of Tourism is very concerned about the number of deaths on the mountain so early in the season. The MOT is not issuing more climbing permits for this year. There are also rumors that the MOT will be significantly reducing the number of permits that are issued next year.
On Bill’s comment that Nepal may limit permits next year, who knows but I really doubt it given that Everest is a major source of income for this poor country. In 2011, Everest brought in $9M to the economy in a country with a per capita income of $473.
OK, for now it continues to be weather watch.
Memories are Everything