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May 122012
Climbing the Hillary Step

Climbing the Hillary Step by Brad Jackson

Multiple reports this morning say the jetstream has returned with a vengeance on Everest shutting down the carries and rope fixing. This was expected and teams on both sides have made remarkable progress over the past week as the new snow made conditions safer and faster. The South Col is stocked for many teams and the fixed line established at bit above the Col. I expect it will be fixed to the summit along with the first summit push later next week.

The Sherpas have stocked the highest north camp at 8300m – the highest, High Camp in the world; reports Phil Crampton of Altitude Junkies. Now they wait for the weather window. In an email to me this week, Phil said the north side is not crowded at all and they climbed only with a few Sherpas from other teams this week as they did a rotation to the North Col.

Andrew Lock, climbing without supplemental oxygen on the north, gave us an idea today of the conditions on that side -much different than the south:

… a couple of days ago, after a successful load carry to camp 2 (camp 5 in Mallory’s terminology) at 7700 metres, where I dropped a tent, stove, food, gas and various bits and pieces. The winds have been so strong that I didn’t erect the tent; just left the cache under a rock. No shortage of those up there, particularly this season with the wind having stripped the mountain bare. We’ve been hearing stories of expedition’s cancelling on the south (Nepal) side of the mountain due to rock fall; a result of the very dry season. On our side however, the mountain conditions are ok. Our biggest issue is the wind.


Over the past ten years, Everest has become increasingly crowded. The long lines of climbers queued on the summit push create bottlenecks that costs many climbers their fingers, toes, dreams and sometime lives. Guides have struggled to control the crowds through coordinating summits pushes, duplicate safety ropes and staggered start times.

2012 looks to test all these techniques as the warm weather, now heavy snow have delayed fixing the rope to the summit thus compressing the schedule slightly. However, 45 climbers and Sherpas are no longer climbing this year due to the pullout of Himex so it may not be that bad. Also, it is rare to only have one summit weather window.


The leaders regularly meet to coordinate many aspects of their Everest expedition. They work together on who will ropes and pickets, transport them to base camp and then to fix them above the Icefall. As for camps, each team is on their own establishing and maintaining their camp using their own Sherpas. But when it comes to summit night, some teams try to keep their schedule a secret in order to get a jump on the others. But on Everest, there are no secrets, especially within the Sherpa community.

Start Times

It is quite common to have many, many teams staged at the South Col based on a good weather forecast. Guides will approach start times differently with some preferring to start early if they have a slower team or later if they feel their group is strong and fast. It is common for leaders or Sherpas to survey one another on the South Col to get a feeling of the schedule for that night. But things change on a moments notice with new weather information or gut feelings so the laid plans may come apart. In the end, each team leader is responsible for their team’s safety and success and will do what they feel is necessary.


This is the biggest fear and the result of poor coordination, rouge leaders or bad luck. It is quite common to have a large group that moves together as one unit but very slowly. They create a massive strain on the route and slows everyone down. Passing is possible but difficult. It requires unclipping from the fixed rope, climbing freely and faster than the large group for a relatively long period. If can be a dangerous move.

But it may be right move as getting caught in a slow climb can be deadly as you use limited supplemental oxygen, risk the weather deteriorating or become very cold resulting in cold feet, hands or even frostbite. This will end your climb if not your climbing career.

Dual ropes help on the difficult sections but are not a panacea. It is very useful on the Lhotse Face which is somewhat wide and accommodates dual ropes – one for climbing up and one for going down. Believe it or not, it is quite common for climbers to get these confused resulting in a sharp correction from a nearby vocal climber!

The section above the Balcony, the Southeast Ridge, the Cornice Traverse and Hillary Step experience bottlenecks due to the extreme altitude, slow climbers, fatigue, narrow, rocky and difficult terrain. There are rarely dual ropes. Remember that every ounce of rope and pickets must be carried by a Sherpa and attached to the mountain each season – there is no reuse of last year’s lines.

On the Hillary Step, as shown in this post’s picture, is very narrow with most climbers preferring to climb the crack in the rock wall to the right and not stray too far towards the mile high drop offs. So it is common when climbers get backed up for a Western guide to assume command and direct traffic allowing down climbers to get off the summit by stopping the up climbers at the base of the Step. Yes, a high altitude traffic jam.


The strategy is to get out of the South Col early – maybe 8:00 – climb fast and get down fast. This sounds easy but can be extremely difficult if you are not at 100%. One issue with leaving early is they might summit before dawn, which is about 5:00AM on Everest in late May, and it will be the coldest conditions. It should take 7 to 10 hours from the South Col to the Summit. As they descend they will still have to deal with climbers going up.

The other approach is to leave very late, after midnight and accept the risk of summiting in mid to late morning and descending in the early afternoon. This is risky if they are not moving fast due to storms developing after noon. But even leaving late they will encounter long lines of climbers descending.

2012 Outlook

There have been multiple reports of the weather window emerging around May 18 – 21. It is extremely rare for there to only be one window.  So I expect to see some teams push hard to get the first window and others will be content to wait for the next one.

Climb On!
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Comments on/from Facebook

  13 Responses to “Everest 2012: Dealing with the Crowds”


    Hi Allan,

    Great blog, more like an essay every time, how do you find the time everyday to keep us followers happy? In addition to Alt Junkies and AXE blogs your site gives a great description what is happening at Big E, and it helps me to understand, and keep my nerves in check when I’m following Margaret’s climb, even it’s 3rd time on everest my emotions in following her are the same, big pride and scare at the same time. Keep writing and be healthy and happy. Thanks again.
    PS where did the somewhat critical long comment re Himex departure disapeared? Did you have to take it off?


      Thanks Tad. My best for Margret on a safe and successful climb. Yes, I removed the post you mentioned because it violated my terms I have at

      “The Blog and Everest Season Coverage offer readers the opportunity to post comments. I moderate all comments and reserve the right to remove any content I deem knowingly false and/or defamatory, inaccurate, abusive, vulgar, hateful, harassing, obscene, profane, sexually oriented, threatening, invasive of a person’s privacy, or otherwise violative of any law at my discretion and without notification. All spam and non-authorized business solicitations will be removed. I reserve the right to block any user without notification.”


    Alan, I am really impressed with your blog… I look forward to more posts.. Thanks so much !!


    In an earlier blog you said that some of the teams particularly on the south side had combined their Sherpa teams to stop too many risky journeys through the icefall where the seracs were building up and risking lives as well as creating queues.I also thought when Himex withdrew they could have done a deal with teams still needing to send gear up by trading their gear already in higher camps with those who still had gear at base camp.(if you get me).I agree with Mark Rickert, things are getting a little out of control but what on earth one can do about it without taking away the mystique and romance of Everest I can’t imagine. Cheers Kate


      Kate, I think you saw where Himex swapped some of their gear (oxygen bottles, etc.) already at the higher camps with other teams to eliminate a trip for their Sherpas.



    I just wanted to publically acknowledge that even though I was sitting in my little yellow tent at BC on Everest you almost always knew more of what was going on than I did. My wife would check your site every day and in our evening call she would bring me up to date with real information instead of the rumors we normally hear. You have become the best source for Everest news bar none.

    I am sitting in Doha having decided to pull the plug this year for reasons I will get into more on my blog at over the next few days but suffice it to say I think the danger is actually increasing.

    Thanks again for your hard work keeping us all informed!



      Thanks Bud, sometimes it is a forest and trees thing 🙂 . Sorry you cut the climb short but hope you enjoyed your time on the big Hill with Bill and Allen. Look forward to your update. BTW, some long time Everest folks are talking about the Icefall getting safer as we end the season – we will see.


    Alan, This is the best site to get current news. You do an excellent job of keeping us flatlanders informed.


    Hey Alan,

    Thanks again for a great post

    Zachary Zaitzeff


    As more and more climbers are attempting Everest each year surely there has got to be a point where a limit has to be set to stop congestion on the summit push. Congestion on Everest seems to be increasing each season. With such a small window of opportunity limiting ascents will give climbers a much better chance of summiting with no bottlenecks. As you stated Alan congestion can be costly.


    welcome to the 3rd world


    Always a pleasure to have my daily reading on your blog Alan !


    Do I hear traffic congestion relief spelled, LOTTERY system? This would include limited number of climbing slots and eliminate yet another obstacle towards a summit push. It is a shame that the mountain is being littered, trashed, and that people spend tens of thousands of dollars to be held up by Disneyland style lines. Something has to be done!