Everest 2017: Building the Climbing Route

Fixing the route on Everest

As we end the third week of April, teams are all over both sides of the mountain. They are doing their first acclimatization rotation primarily to the lowest of the camps above base camp. For most teams they will do at least one more of these rotations but to the next highest camp before they are ready for the summit pushes in mid May.

But the key to it all is getting the route set. You read the term “fixing the route” and “fixed ropes” all the time so let’s take a moment while we wait for the climbers to return to base camp over the weekend to explore what these terms mean.

Jumar on Everest
Jumar attached to a fixed rope on Everest

Simply put, a thin nylon rope aka “fixed line” is anchored to the mountain side marking the path aka “route” climbers should take. The rope is about the thickness of your thumb and is attached to the climber’s harness using a carabiner and a jumar. To see how the rigging is set up, Tim Mosedale has a nice description on his site. While it may seem silly that mountain climbers need a rope to mark the trial, there’s more to it than marking the path.

Who Does the Work?

In general the route is set by dedicated teams of Sherpas on the Nepal side and Tibetans on the Tibet side.

The Doctors taking ladders into the Khumbu Icefall
The Doctors taking ladders into the Khumbu Icefall

On the south side, the Icefall Doctors, a team of eight dedicated Sherpas install aka “fix” the route from Everest Base Camp to Camp 2 in the Western Cwm each year. They first scout the route for the safest and most direct path, then they carry on their backs hundreds of pounds of rope, ladders, ice screws and pickets into the Icefall and the Western Cwm to create the route.

The ropes must be reset each season because the ultraviolet rays from the sun will rot the ropes causing them to fail under the weight of a climber’s fall.  In addition, the route must be maintained daily through the season given the Icefall is a moving glacier and can move up to three feet a day. This movement will cause ladders to drop into crevasses, bend them or move them into a dangerous area. The Doctors inspect the route at least once a day throughout the season to keep it open and safe.

From Camp 2 to the summit on the south side, a coalition of Sherpas from multiple commercial teams work together to set the route. This is more of tradition to have the commercial teams do this work but there are calls to have the Icefall Doctors assume responsibility from EBC to summit.

Again, they carry ropes and the anchors on their backs and work together to fix the “fixed rope” aka safety lines to the mountain side. In 2017, a major change occurred when the Nepal government allowed the ropes and anchors to be helicoptered to Camp 2 thus saving an estimated 78 Sherpa loads thru the Icefall. This was a pure safety decision.

On the Tibet side, a dedicated team of Tibetan climbers perform the same duties but they set the route from Advanced Base Camp to the summit and the commercial teams do not participate in the effort. The ladder at the 2nd Step, installed in 1975 is attached permanently but has been replaced a couple of times.

On both sides the labor and material are funded thru climbing permits or collections from the teams.

Why Fixed Ropes?

Class 3 on the Geneva Spur
Class 3 on the Geneva Spur

In addition to marking the route, which is extremely useful in whiteout conditions, the fixed line also provides a safety net for a climber in the event of a fall. If the 1996 climbers had been able to follow the fixed rope to the South Col, many would have lived.

The problem that is occurring in recent years is that the line can only support so much weight and it is common to have 30, 50 or even 100 people attached to the same rope. While, amazingly it has never happened, if the climbers were to fall together the lines would fail under the load. So in many high traffic areas, there are dual lines established, one for climbers ascending and one for descending climbers. In 2017, this dual route is established on the Lhotse Face.

There are two routes on the Hillary Step but one is designed for climbers to rappel down, just off the Hillary Step proper, and onto an exposed ledge. It has not been used since it was established a few years ago as it requires skills most Everest climbers lack.

But sometimes there is simply not enough room for dual ropes. Also, remember that it takes human effort to haul the gear high on the slopes and attach it to the mountain.

Khumbu Icefall Ladders
Ice Screw Stabilizing a Ladder

The way the ropes is attached is by using ice screws, primarily in the Icefall or very icey areas but more often by driving an aluminum picket into the snowy mountain side and attaching the rope using another segment of rope. All in all this is very time consuming and it takes days to get the route set to the summit. That is why we rarely see summits in April as the Tibetans and Sherpas are busy establishing the route while the climbers are acclimatizing.

Is this really necessary? Certainly Everest has been climbed successfully without the use of fixed ropes, but this has been by exceptionally skilled and experienced Alpinists like Reinhold Messner. Ueli Steck, attempting a traverse from Everest to Lhotse said he doesn’t need fixed ropes. In 2007, Conrad Anker climbed the 2nd Step on the North side without using the ladder as a test the see if it could be done.

2017 Update

The IMG team reports excellent progress with the fixed lines already to Camp 3 and soon to the Geneva Spur. From here it’s a matter of a day or two to get to the South Col

We received some great news from Camp 2 this afternoon; 14 members of the Sherpa Fixing Team left Camp 2 this morning and worked all day on the Lhotse Face. Through their hard work, they were able to fix two lines (for both up and down traffic) from the bergschrund at the bottom of the Lhotse Face all the way to Upper Camp 3!

The Fixing Team is excited to take advantage of the favorable weather and keep working on the Lhotse Face route, so they are planning an early departure from Camp 2 in the morning to head back up. Their next objective is to push the ropes up through the Yellow Band, over the Geneva Spur, and on to the South Col. This is a steep part of the route, and it will take some work. We are very happy to have these incredible Sherpas up there working so hard.

On the Tibet side, the Tibetan “Rope Fixers” are there and preparing the route to Advanced Base Camp.

Without the fixed ropes, the death toll would be significantly higher. Fixed ropes are used on most 8000 meter mountains, including K2.   On lower peaks including Denali, Rainier or Mont Blanc, it is common for climbers to climb roped together but not on a fixed line. If one person falls, the others are responsible for stopping that fall.

Ropes are a key part of climbing, alpine, siege style, or rock. After a few weeks on the mountain, that rope becomes your best friend, and in case of a fall, it is a genuine lifesaver.

Climb On!


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10 thoughts on “Everest 2017: Building the Climbing Route

  1. hi Alan. thks a lot for another great insight.
    coupe of questions if I may…
    the Geneva Spur – where this name comes from ?
    and , speaking of which Nepal mountains is most difficult/dangerous…
    as I heard K2 and Nanga Parbat are both of such. while K2 requires as I understand a lot of
    technical climbing what is difficult of Nanga ?
    and, would it be correct to suggest that biggest difficulty of Everest is her longest death zone ?
    mthks for yr thoughts.

    1. Thanks Leoind. The Geneva Spur was named by the early 1950s Swiss expeditions as the “Eperon des Genevois” and translated as the Geneva Spur.

      On your question of technical difficulty, this is a source of debate and I doubt there is a clear answer. But K2 is cited for its technical difficulty meaning a lot of rock climbing at altitude and is exposed (read: if you fall you die) spots.

      Nanga Parbat’s normal route is not extremely technical, but it’s long and exposed. The mountain is infamous for bad weather and the route offers many tricky sections. It’s considered as one of the harder peaks. But certainly there are routes on Nanga that join with K2 as extremely difficult.

      The summit to death ratio (a flawed metric by some opinions) shows Annapurna as most deadly at 27%, followed by K2 at 23% then Nanga at 20%.

      As for what makes Everest hard/deadly? My one word answer is: altitude. While you can spend longer above 8000 meters on other routes, for example the multiple sub peaks on Nanga Parbat’s Mazeno Ridge, the profile of today’s climber on Everest reveals limited experience at altitude, or skills to make good decisions thus when trouble emerges at altitude, they are at a severe disadvantage.

      Hope this helps,


  2. Hi Alan – my husband, Chris, is on the MT/MM team currently at Camp 2. Along with MT’s excellent online dispatches, your Everest 2017 posts are helping keep this mountaineer’s wife grounded. BTW, thank you for putting hyperlinks to teams’ dispatches in your excellent team progress chart.

    Your response to Brian is spot on. I can personally attest that the families of Sherpas, climbers and guides care very deeply about ladders and ropes. And all respectable guide services care deeply not just about compensating but also honoring the invaluable climbing & support Sherpa. This is made abundantly clear by virtually all teams’ expedition communications.

    1. Thanks Terri for the comment. Both MM and MT have an excellent relationship built on mutual respect for their staff and the Sherpa community. Wishing that all have a positive experience this season. WIll be following Chris and team and reporting on them.

  3. Climbing without O2 seems to be an aspiration of many ultra elite mountaineers. Is the same true for climbing without using fixed ropes? I ask because in the published data I’ve seen of summits of 8000m mountains, summits without O2 are noted but those without fixed ropes aren’t.

    1. Interesting question Hugh. I think fixed rope are like using crampons – safety and effectiveness so noting the use of them is not necessary. But to your point, on some 8000ers, only certain steep and exposed sections are fixed, not the entire mountain like Everest, Cho Oyu, Manaslu where there is a disproportionate amount of “non-professional” climbers than say on Nanga Parbat.

  4. Thank you for your exceptional and interesting coverage of everest. I always wondered if there is only one rope for both directions up and down, and felt very uncomfortable with this thought.

    Do you know anything about the progress Ueli Steck is making? His facebook page doesn’t give any updated information about his project. Is there a special page covering his amazing attempt?

    Greetings from Germany

  5. I get the prestige thing but paying for it with such a high mortality rate vs any other job in the world seems nuts. Everything is being automated these days in manufacturing, vending, driving, I’m confident even jobs involved with this trade could be innovated and have stricter safety. The fact is these guided tours is already a far cry from virgin peaks should make it not even matter if you made automated load bearing jumars? or drones to lay line or whatever lol? Who cares when there’s ladders and fixed rope the whole way up anyway? Why lose so many human lives for twenty dollars a load?

    1. Certainly there are many ways to make the task safer Brian. Sounds like you have read a magazine article that made a broad claim that was off base in my opinion but sold a lot of magazines and made the author his reputation.

      Interesting idea to automate the route fixing, I’m sure if you come up with a solid plan many would entertain it throughout the world’s highest peaks.

      Who cares about ladders and ropes? … the families of the Sherpas and climbers. BTW, the income the Sherpas earn have put their children thru college. The Sherpa’s son I have climbed with often, Kami, just graduated with a BSEE degree.

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