In a few weeks climbers will trade their warm homes and soft beds for two months of bitter cold, extreme heat and mind numbing oxygen deprivation as they seek to stand on the top of the world.
After deciding to climb Everest, climbers must choose their route. There are over 18 named routes on Everest and a couple that are still unclimbed. The vast majority of climbers use two routes: South Col or the Northeast Ridge Standard aka North Col route.
Both sides have their pros and cons. Up until 2007, the trend was for more climbers to choose the north due to lower costs. But with the Chinese restricting permits over the past few years, the south side has retained the lead as the preferred route primarily due to commercial operators wanting to reduce uncertainty and to limit their risks.
Let’s briefly compare both sides:
South Col Route
|Beautiful trek to base camp in the Khumbu||Khumbu Icefall instability|
|Easy access to villages for pre-summit recovery||Crowds, especially on summit night|
|Helicopter rescue from base camp if necessary||Cornice Traverse exposure|
|Slightly warmer sometimes with less winds||Slightly longer summit night|
Northeast Ridge Route
|Less crowds||Colder temps and harsher winds|
|Can drive to base camp||Camps at higher elevations|
|Easier climbing to mid-level camps||A bit more difficult with smooth or loose rocks|
|Slightly shorter summit night||No opportunity for helicopter rescue at any point|
Now let’s take an in-depth look at both sides
South Col Route
Mt. Everest was first summited by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New
Zealander Edmond Hillary with a British expedition in 1953. They used the South Col route. At that time the route had only been attempted twice by Swiss teams in the spring and autumn of 1952. They reached 8500m well above the South Col. Of note, Norgay was with the Swiss thus giving him the experience he used on the British expedition. The Swiss returned in 1956 to make the second summit of Everest.
Here is a typical south side climb schedule showing average time and the distance from the previous camp plus a brief description of each section. More details can be found on the South Col route page.
- Base camp: 17,500′/5334m
- Home away from home. Located on a moving glacier, tents can shift and platforms melt. The area is harsh but beautiful surrounded by Pumori and the Khumbu Icefall with warm mornings and afternoon snow squalls. With so many expedition tents, pathways and generators, it feels like a small village.
- C1: 19,500′/5943m – 4-6 hours, 1.62 miles
- Reaching C1, is the most dangerous part of a south climb since it crosses the Khumbu Icefall. The Icefall is 2,000′ of moving ice, sometimes as much as 3 feet a day. But it is the deep crevasses, towering ice seracs and avalanches off Everest’s West shoulder that creates the most danger.
- C2: 21,000′/6400m – 2-3 hours, 1.74 miles
- The trek from C1 to C2 crosses the Western CWM and can be laden with crevasse danger. But it is the extremely hot temperatures that takes a toll on climbers. Again avalanche danger exist from Everest’s West Shoulder that has dusted C1 in recent years.
- C3: 23,500′/7162m – 3-6 hours, 1.64 miles
- Climbing the Lhotse Face to C3 is often difficult since almost all climbers are feeling the effects of high altitude and are not yet using supplemental oxygen. The Lhotse Face is steep and the ice is hard. The route is fixed with rope. The angles can range from 20 to 45 degrees. It is a long climb to C3 but is required for acclimatization prior to a summit bid.
- Yellow Band – 3 hours
- The route to the South Col begins at C3 and across the Yellow Band. It starts steep but settles into a sustained grade as the altitude increases. Climbers are usually in their down suits and are using supplemental oxygen for the first time. The Yellow Band’s limestone rock itself is not difficult climbing but can be challenging given the altitude. Bottlenecks can occur on the Yellow Band.
- Geneva Spur – 2 hours
- This section can be a surprise for some climbers. The top of the Spur leading onto the South Col has some of the steepest climbing thus far. It is easier with a good layer of snow than on the loose rocks.
- South Col: 26,300′/8016m – 1 hour or less
- Welcome to the moon. This is a flat area covered with loose rock and surrounded by Everest to the north and Lhotse on the south. Generally, teams cluster tents together and anchor with nets or heavy rocks against the hurricane force winds. This is the staging area for the summit bids and the high point for Sherpas to ferry oxygen and gear for the summit bid.
- Balcony: 27,500′/8400m- 4 – 5 hours
- Officially now on Everest, climbers are using supplemental oxygen to climb the steep and sustained route up the Triangular Face. The route is fixed with rope and climbers create a long conga line of headlamps in the dark. The pace is maddeningly slow complete with periods of full stop while climbers ahead rest, consider the decision to turn back or continue to the balcony. It can be rock or snow depending on the year. Rock fall can be an deadly issue and some climbers now use helmets. They swap oxygen bottles at the Balcony while taking a short break for some food and water.
- South Summit : 28500′/8690m – 1 to 2 hours
- The climb from the Balcony to the South Summit is steep and continuous. While mostly on a beaten down boot path, it can be challenging near the South Summit with exposed slabs of smooth rock in low snow years. The views of Lhotse and the sun rising to the east is indescribable at this point.
- Hillary Step – 1 hour or less
- One of the most exposed section of a south side climb is crossing the cornice traverse between the south summit and the Hillary Step. But the route is fixed and wide enough that climbers rarely have issues. The Hillary Step is a short 40′ section of rock climbing, again fixed with rope, that creates a bottleneck on crowded summit nights. Usually there is an up and down climbing rope to keep people moving.
- Summit: 29,035′/8850m – 1 hour or less
- The last section from the Hillary Step to the summit is a moderate snow slope. While tired, climber’s adrenaline keep them going.
- Return to South Col: 6 -7 hours
- Care must be taken to avoid a misplaced step down climbing the Hillary Step, the Cornice Traverse or the slabs below the south summit. Also diligent monitoring of oxygen levels and supply is critical to make sure the oxygen lasts back to the South Col.
- Return to C2: 3 hours
- Usually climbers are quite tired but happy to be returning to the higher natural oxygen levels regardless of their summit performance. It can be very hot since most climbers are still in their down suits.
- Return to base camp: 4 hours
- Packs are heavy since everything they hauled up over the preceding month must be taken back down. It is now almost June so the temperatures are warmer making the snow mushy thus increasing the difficulty. But each step brings them closer to base camp comforts and on to their home and families.
For a more detailed description and animated route map, please see the South Col route page.
Northeast Ridge Route
The north side of Everest is steeped in history with multiple attempts throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. The first attempt was by a British team in 1921. Mallory led a small team to be the first human to set foot on the mountains flanks by climbing up to the North Col (7003m). The second expedition, in 1922 reached 27,300′ before turning back, and was the first team to use supplemental oxygen. It was also on this expedition that the first deaths were reported when an avalanche killed seven Sherpas.
The 1924 British expedition with George Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine is most notable for the mystery of whether they summited or not. If they did summit, that would precede Tenzing and Hilary by 29 years. Mallory’s body was found in 1999 but there was no proof that he died going up or coming down.
A Chinese team made the first summit from Tibet on May 25, 1960. Nawang Gombu (Tibetan) and Chinese Chu Yin-Hau and Wang Fu-zhou, who is said to have climbed the Second Step in his sock feet, claimed the honor. In 1975, on a successful summit expedition, the Chinese installed the ladder on the Second Step.
Tibet was closed to foreigners from 1950 to 1980 preventing any further attempts until a Japanese team summited in 1980 via the Hornbein Couloir on the North Face.
The north side started to attract more climbers in the mid 1990s and today is almost as popular as the South side when the Chinese allow permits. In 2008 and 2009, obtaining a permit was difficult thus preventing many expeditions from attempting any route from Tibet.
Now let’s look at typical north side schedule showing average time from the previous camp plus a brief description of each section. More details can be found on the Northeast Ridge route page.
- Base camp: 17000′ – 5182m
- located on a gravel area near the Rongbuk Monastery, this is the end of the road. All vehicle assisted evacuations start here. There are no helicopter rescues or evacuations on the north side or for any mountain in Tibet.
- Interim camp: 20300′/6187m – 5 to 6 hours (first time)
- Used on the first trek to ABC during the acclimatization process, this is a spot where a few tents are placed. Usually this area is lightly snow covered or none at all.
- Advanced base camp: 21300′/6492m – 6 hours (first time)
- Many teams use ABC as their primary camp during the acclimatization period but it is quite high. This area can still be void of snow but offers a stunning view directly at the North Col. It is a harsh environment and a long walk back to the relative comfort of base camp or Tibetan villages.
- North Col or C1: 23,000′/7000m – 4 to 6 hours (first time)
- Leaving Camp 1, climbers reach the East Rongbuk Glacier and put on their crampons for the first time. After a short walk, they clip into the fixed line and perhaps cross a few ladders that are placed over deep glacier crevasses. The climb from ABC to the North Col steadily gains altitude with one steep section of 60 degrees that will feel vertical. Climbers may use their ascenders on the fixed rope. Rappelling or arm-wrap techniques are used to descend this steep section. Teams will spend several nights at the Col during the expedition.
- Camp 2: 24,750′/7500m – 5 hours
- Mostly a steep and snowy ridge climb that turns to rock. High winds are sometimes a problem making this a cold climb. Some teams use C2 as their highest camp for acclimatization purposes.
- Camp 3: 27,390′/8300m – 4 to 6 hours
- Teams place their camp 3 at several different spots on the ridge since it is steep, rocky and exposed. Now using supplemental oxygen, tents are perched on rock ledges and are often pummeled with strong winds. This is higher than the South Col in altitude and exposure to the weather. It is the launching spot for the summit bid.
- Yellow Band
- Leaving C3, climbers follow the fixed rope through a snow filled gully; part of the Yellow Band. From here, climbers take a small ramp and reach the northeast ridge proper.
- First Step: 27890′/8500m
- The first of three rock features. The route tends to cross to the right of the high point but some climbers may rate it as steep and challenging. This one requires good foot work and steady use of the fixed rope in the final gulley to the ridge.
- Mushroom Rock -28047′/8549m – 2 hours from C3
- A rock feature that spotters and climbers can use to measure their progress on summit night. Oxygen is swapped at this point. The route can be full of loose rock here adding to the difficulty with crampons. Climbers will use all their mountaineering skills.
- Second Step: 28140′/8577m – 1 hour or less
- This is the crux of the climb with the Chinese Ladder. Climbers must first ascend about 10′ of rock slab then climb the near vertical 30′ ladder. This section is very exposed with a 10,000′ vertical drop. It is more difficult to navigate on the decent since you cannot see your feet placement on the ladder rungs. This brief section is notorious for long delays thus increasing the chance of frostbite or AMS.
- Third Step: 28500′/8690m – 1 to 2 hours
- The easiest of the three steps but requires concentration to be safe.
- Summit Pyramid – 2 to 4 hours
- A steep snow slope, often windy and brutally cold, climbers feel very exposed at this point. Towards the top of the Pyramid, climbers are extremely exposed again as they navigate around a large outcropping and experience three more small rock steps on a ramp before the final ridge climb to the summit.
- Summit: 29,035′/8850m – 1 hour
- The final 500′ horizontal distance is along the ridge to the summit is quite exposed. Slopes angles range from 30 to 60 degrees.
- Return to Camp 3: – 7 -8 hours
- The down climb takes the identical route. Early summiters may experience delays at the 2nd Step with climbers going up or summiters having down climbing issues.
- Return to ABC: 3 hours
- Packs can be heavy since everything hauled up over the preceding month must be taken back down. It is now almost June so the temperatures are warmer making the snow mushy thus increasing the difficulty. But each step brings them closer to base camp comforts and on to their home and families.
For a more detailed description and route pictures, please see the Northeast Ridge route page.
Each year is different on Everest. The temperatures can be colder or hotter, winter snows more or less and of course, the wildcard is when the jet stream moves off the summit.
Predicting Everest weather is difficult at best. Experts around the world send daily updates to expedition leaders who analyze the reports as compared with what they are seeing. When the winds are predicted to be under 25 m.p.h over a 48 hour period, teams set off for the top of the world.
So which side is easier? As I always say, pick you poison. The south has the Icefall; the north the exposed northeast ridge and the Steps. In spite of the Icefall dangers, I think most operators will say the south side is safer and slightly easier. One sobering statistic backs up this advice – more climbers, by a 2:1 ratio, have died on the north than the south since 2000 as I explained in this earlier post.
But the real answer is no one knows for certain what each season will bring. So train hard, get skills on low mountains and altitude experience on another 8000m mountain before Everest and go with a team you can count on in an emergency.