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Mar 152016

Everest West Ridge from Tibet (courtsey research)Some people are questioning the wisdom of climbing Everest from Nepal. Is the North safer? Is this another change in climbing Everest that could result in a serious economic impact for Tibet, but more so for Nepal?

The Nepal (south) side of Everest has seen a tragic series of events the past few years including Himex abandoning their entire expedition in 2012 fearing an avalanche onto the Khumbu Icefall. Then that precise scenario occurred in 2014 when that very serac released onto the Khumbu Icefall taking 16 Sherpa lives. Then when a few Sherpas lead a work stoppage, the entire season came to a early end that year.  Last year, 2015, an earthquake triggered an avalanche that killed 18 in base camp on the south side.

The Nepal Ministry of Tourism seems to use the press as a sounding board by floating new rules in search of public relations points that they are making Everest safer. But in fact, these press releases confuse and delay people from making informed decisions.

With the terrain instability combined with the political instability in Nepal, will the long time commercial operators shift to the Tibet in search of a more stable environment? This post explores that option with the operators.

To state my view up front, climbing from either side has its pros and cons and there are operators who can provide a safe experience at reasonable prices on both sides. Of course you can climb a different route than the ones discussed.  Bottom line: research the issues, choose carefully and climb safely.

China Closes the Border

To start the discussion, China provides surprises almost every year. For example in 2008 when they effectively closed Everest to accommodate their Olympic torch summit. And then occasionally refusing permits to certain nationalities with no explanations. And finally closing their border fearing protests with little warning or means of appeal for expeditions who have spent tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars assuming a smooth and safe border crossing.

There are already hints that China may be nervous in 2016 as teams will have to wait to cross the Nepal/Tibet border on their way to base camp. The Chinese announced in January that all foreigners must leave Tibet and no one can enter until March 30, 2016. Ostensibly they are fearing protests ahead of several politically sensitive anniversaries including the 2008 March uprising that rocked Tibet in the run up to Beijing Olympics.

These delays are somewhat normal for China as it seems that each year there are surprises that delay or even cancel climbing. This is why long time operators like IMG, Himalayan Experience, Altitude Junkies and others long ago shifted their Everest operations to the, arguably, more stable Nepal side. But a few operators now prefer the north side and one has made it the center piece of their Everest strategy arguing the Northeast Ridge is a safer route by avoiding the Khumbu Icefall on the south. Other operators hedge their bets and offer climbs on both sides.

A Discussion on North vs. South

With this as the introduction, I asked a few operators their opinion of which side is safer and if they are considering switching. But before we get to their comments,  let me provide the facts so you can make your own judgment about any potential spin in the following comments. The Himalayan Database, run by Elizabeth Hawley and Richard Salisbury, recorded from 1924 to today:

  • The Nepalese side has 4,421 summits with 176 deaths or 3.98%
  • The Tibet side has 2,580 summits with 106 deaths or 4.1%

The spin will be in parsing these statistics into time frames to prove that the north, or south, is safer or that “hired” as the Himalayan Database calls anyone who does not pay a guide but supports members, are more often killed than members in recent years. Again, the facts are that from 1924 to today:

  • 282 people (168 foreigners and 114 hired) have died on Everest
  • Deaths climbing from Tibet:  83 foreigners and 23 hired
  • Death climbing from Nepal:  85 foreigners and 91 hired

Clearly the disastrous events of 2014 (17) and 2015 (22) have and must be factored into any climber’s risk assessment, but they should also be taken in context of the long term statistics.

The North is Safer, Obviously!

First up is Adrian Ballinger of Alpenglow Expeditions, perhaps the most vocal and strident north side advocate. Ballinger guided for Russel Brice’s Himex operation for years but left to grow his own company in 2012 and now exclusively operates on Everest’s north side eschewing all arguments that the south side is safe.

Adrian offers a list price of $85,000 per climber to attempt the summit from the north in only six weeks. This includes pre-acclimatization via altitude tents, western guides and all the frills – and he runs a solid operation. He is there in 2016 but climbing personally with Cory Richards on a no O’s attempt. He has two members who are being guided by a western guide – all of whom are using supplemental oxygen. Ballinger sums up his opinion on the sides argument:

I strongly believe that commercial guiding with hired workers on the South Side is unreasonable (and perhaps unethical) based on current mountain conditions combined with current commercial trip standards and current Nepali government rules. The icefall has repeatedly demonstrated its dangers, and we as guides and expedition leaders have demonstrated our inability to predict its random risk. 2014 was not a one-off accident that no one expected. Every competent guide and leader I knew had been waiting for that accident, or worse, to happen. As the requirements for what is carried through the icefall grows, the likelihood of icefall accidents involving workers like 2014 (or 2012, 2009, 2006, etc.) continue to grow.

South is Best for Most People

International Mountain Guides (IMG) used to run climbs from Tibet but now exclusively runs Nepal climbs. I asked Eric Simonson if he is considering a north side expedition given what has happened in Nepal recently:

No. In our opinion, the Nepal climb is still the way to go for most people, and the sherpas want to get back on the mountain.  There have been big improvements on the Nepal side since 2012 (the year of the big traffic jam) which unfortunately have been completely ignored with the news of the Icefall and avalanche tragedies in 2014 and 2015 . For example, teams (together as the EOA) have been purchasing more fixed rope with the idea of putting in more “up” and “down” ropes to mitigate “traffic jams”. 

As you know well, for 2015 the new Icefall route (more in the middle) seemed to be a good alternative.  Most importantly, there has been a huge increase in communications between the various operators with a commitment to do a better job coordinating their summit bids and movement of climbers and sherpas high on the mountain (as in the case of the 2013 attachment, which was the product of team meetings at EBC).  Having said all that, we would certainly consider going back to the North side occasionally.  We have done 8 expeditions there, so we know the route and situation very well.  Despite the “current issues in Nepal” I still feel there is still more uncertainty associated with China and Tibet than there is with Nepal.

North is Dangerous

Willie Benegas of Benegas Brothers Expeditions who has been an Everest mainstay for years said:

I do not see any difference on the north side in terms of logistical issues, they are all still there. However summit day is extremely dangerous on the north side, with many more chances of things going wrong due to the type of terrain. This year on the south side, thanks to the hard work of the Ice Fall Doctors, (my brother) Damian, and other guides, the ice fall was really in perfect climbing condition, to the point that not one person was injured or killed in the Ice Fall during the earthquake.

What happened in Base Camp was simply the consequence of a 7.8 on the Richter Scale earthquake. Despite the deaths that occurred in BC, we need to remind ourselves that over 8,000 people died in this event. It has absolutely nothing to do with the south side being more dangerous than the north side (alleged by one guide who justified this claim by saying no one died on the north side during the earthquake). To the contrary, during the early 2000s, the accident ratio per numbers of climbers was actually much higher on the north side, and due to the type of climbers (on a budget). I guarantee you that the death toll will increase dramatically when more expeditions move over to the north.

Because the current situation is so difficult and complicated, with politics involved, it is all our responsibility, operators, guides and members, to keep helping the Nepali economy, and most importantly our Sherpas brothers. 

North has a Big Future, But is Harder

I then asked Phil Crampton of Altitude Junkies, who has also guided both sides, why he doesn’t return to the north as he recently said 2016 will be his last year guiding Everest – from either side:

I am now thinking that the north side will eventually become busier than the south after the last two disastrous years on the Nepal side.  The only downside is if the border will be open or not as the Chinese have been known to close it without due warning.

I think the route is harder on the north, which will deter some climbers with little experience and they will head to the warmer and easier south side. I prefer the north side as it seems to have more experienced climbers in attendance then the Nepal side. Saying that, there are usually some huge Chinese teams supported by the Tibet Guide School and these groups usually get preferential ment when it?s time to fix ropes and go to the summit. 

One issue the north has is the rope fixing. The Tibetan Sherpas do a great job but it?s harder to fix the ropes earlier in the season, due to the constant wind and colder temperatures. There are a lot of nervous members waiting at base camp watching days tick by for the rope fixers to complete their job. This means a lot of climbers all go around the same time on the summit push due to time constraints.

Both Sides Sell

Dawa Stephen Sherpa of Asian Trekking, the largest Nepali climbing and trekking company, runs annual expeditions from both sides. He noted:

Unlike most other companies, Asian Trekking runs expeditions on both the Nepal and Tibet side. From  2008 until 2014 there was dramatic switch from the China side to Nepal side, due to the cancellations caused by abrupt decision making by the Chinese Authorities during the olympics. I haven’t seen a drastic swing back to the north side yet but am getting more than normal enquiries for Tibet side. Especially with CTMA and CMA become more professional and being more open to its member’s feedback, they are certainly have  become more attractive to work with. 

Comparing the Sides

2008 Everest Icefall Avalanche

2008 Everest Icefall Avalanche

I expect the current mix of 63% Nepal versus 36% Tibet to stay the about the same but perhaps equalize to 50/50 over next decade, but not soon. The convenience and relative stability of Nepal simply outweighs the risks of China for most Everest aspirants today.

The trek to Everest Base Camp is a unique experience and one that many trekkers and climbers savor. To get to the Tibet Base Camp, you ride in a 4 Wheel Drive for days on end on bumpy roads staying in dismal rooms in depressing villages.

But the Tibetan landscape leaves you awestruck and the view of Everest from the north base camp is the of any mountain anywhere in the world.

The climbing has it’s pros and cons. The north has the climber staying at higher altitudes longer thus the acclimatization process is a bit shorter than on the south. The north climbing is a bit more “technical” in the sense that the north, with its ever-present brutal winds that scours the snow away leaving the climbers to struggle with crampons against bare rock, an uncomfortable and tiring process that saps energy away from those lacking experience.

But the largest difference is the lack of the Khumbu Icefall, that for some is the single determining factor when it comes to safety and choosing sides. As I always, I say pick your poison.

Nepal Elevations and Times Between CampsTibet Elevations and Times Between Camps
  • Base Camp: 17,500’/5334m
  • C1: 19,500’/5943m – 3-6 hours, 1.62 miles
  • C2: 21,000’/6400m – 2-3 hours, 1.74 miles
  • C3:23,500’/7162m – 3-7 hours, 1.64 miles
  • Yellow Band – 1-3 hours
  • Geneva Spur – 1-2 hours
  • South Col: 26,300’/8016m – 1 hour or less
  • Balcony: 3 – 6 hours
  • South Summit : 28500′ – 8690m – 3 to 5 hours
  • Hillary Step – 1 hour or less
  • Summit: 29,035′ / 8850m – 1 hour or less
  • Return to South Col: 3 -7 hours
  • Return to C2: 3 hours
  • Return to Base Camp: 4 hours
  • base camp: 17000′ – 5182m
  • Interim camp: 20300′ – 6187m – 5 to 6 hours (first time)
  • Advanced base camp: 21300′ – 6492m – 6 hours (first time)
  • North Col or C1: 23,000′ – 7000m – 4 to 6 hours (first time)
  • Camp 2: 24,750′ – 7500m – 5 hours
  • Camp 3: 27,390′ – 8300m – 4 to 6 hours
  • Yellow Band
  • First Step: 27890′ – 8500m
  • Mushroom Rock -28047′ / 8549m – 2 hours from C3
  • Second Step: 28140′ – 8577m – 1 hour or less
  • Third Step: 28500′ – 8690m – 1 to 2 hours
  • Summit Pyramid – 2 hours
  • Summit: 29,035′ / 8850m – 1 hour
  • Return to Camp 3: 7 -8 hours
  • Return to ABC: 3 hours
Beautiful trek to base camp in the KhumbuKhumbu Icefall instability
Easy access to villages for pre-summit recoveryCrowds, especially on summit night
Helicopter rescue from base camp if necessaryCornice Traverse exposure
Slightly warmer sometimes with less windsSlightly longer summit night
Less crowdsColder temps and harsher winds
Can drive to base campCamps at higher elevations
Easier climbing to mid-level campsA bit more difficult with smooth or loose rocks
Slightly shorter summit nightNo opportunity for helicopter rescue at any point

Crowds will Drive the Future

I asked Phil Crampton for his long term view of where Everest guiding is going because Phil has said 2016 is his last year on Everest after guiding it for over a decade on both sides. His answer is revealing:

I think there are now a new breed of operators starting expeditions. Some have worked for big name companies in the past and branched out on their own. Some of these guys have invested many years in the hills but own very little or no gear and use the gear of the better known trekking agencies. It all seems good on the outside but they usually only know one or two of their Sherpa staff. I think companies like Himex, AC, Jagged Globe, who use a regular team of Sherpa staff have a better success rate and members get a better service. Everest is the big one and everyone relies on the Everest exposure to get their members for future trips as well as smaller peaks all over the world.

I think it?s business suicide to pull Everest from the schedule but I am really getting very concerned for the safety of my Sherpas with all these inexperienced climbers on Everest causing long lines and delays. If I can offer them the same pay and bonuses on another spring climb that they would get from Everest then I will be happy to switch for safety. It?s hard to sell peaks that people do not know well. Cholatse for example is a harder and more technical climb than Ama Dablam and has very few teams on her flanks compared to Ama Dablam that is way too overcrowded, even in a quiet season. People know of Everest and K2 but how many know about the third, fourth and fifth highest peaks of the world.

I met a British woman in her early fifties in Kathmandu after her successful Everest attempt. I was sitting with Tunc Findak at the courtyard chatting about previous expeditions we had climbed together on. The British woman overheard us and proudly told us she had just climbed Everest. We congratulated her and she asked where we had climbed. I replied Kachenjunga and she replied, is that a mountain and if so, which country is it in. My point exactly.

The Future?

As the saying goes, if you must make predictions, do so often. With that …

What’s the future of Mt. Everest? History has shown that after each difficult or tragic year, a record number of climbers come to Everest the next year. I expect 2016 to break this trend with fewer climbers as the bad publicity after last year’s earthquake plus the political instability (constitution, blockades, change of leadership) in Nepal has scared away many climbers (and trekkers). But I expect slightly higher numbers of the North side for the same reasons.

For 2017, I anticipate record numbers on both sides IF 2016 is a low-drama year. However, Nepal extended the 2014 permits for five years and the 2015 permits for only two years thus 2017 could emerge as a focal point in people’s planning if they want to save $11,000 in permit fees resulting in crowds and chaos on both sides.

But overall, I expect Everest to continue as it has. Attracting the experts, amateurs, peak baggers and life dreamers.

We will see 10 to 15 deaths each year, split equally between members and “hired” – more on the south than the north due to the ratio of who climbs each side; prices will continue to go up – and down as the Nepali operators get a stronger foothold and the western operators add more frills.

And the Nepal government will continue to use Everest as a cash cow to fund, well, to fund who knows what but we know that of the millions raised on the back of climbing little, if any, goes back to the Sherpa people or their villages.

But one thing that will never change.  Mount Everest, Sagarmatha, Chomolungma will always be the tallest mountain on earth, and that will attract climbers for generations, just as it has.

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

Read part 1, part 2  and part 3 of this series.

Comments on/from Facebook

  One Response to “Everest 2016: A Changing Mountain – Part 3”


    “…and the view of Everest from the north base camp is the best view of any mountain anywhere in the world.”

    I’ve only seen these mountains in video and photographs, but clear weather views of K2 from Concordia and the Godwin-Austen glacier are absolutely breathtaking (and a little humbling) for an armchair climber like myself.

    Best of fortune to you on your Lhotse climb.