For 98% of all Everest climbers, the choice of routes comes down between the Northeast (Tibet) and Southeast (Nepal) Ridges. For most everyone, all other routes are too dangerous, too difficult and not commercially guided.
This post will take a look at the various routes and go deep into the most popular commercial ones.
It may be an exaggeration to say that almost all the routes that can be climbed on Everest, have been climbed because a new generation of climbers always finds a way to blaze new trails.
However, it does appear that Everest has been well scouted now and there are about 20 routes clearly identified and almost all have been attempted at least once. Two still stand out today as unclimbed – the direct route up the East Face and the Fantasy Ridge aka the East Ridge. Both are extremely dangerous, and avalanche-prone. In years with little snow, the route becomes unclimbable as shown in 2006 by Dave Watson and team on the Fantasy Ridge.
If you dream of climbing mountains but are not sure how to start or reach your next level from a Colorado 14er to Rainier, Everest or even K2, I can help. Summit Coach is a consulting service that helps aspiring climbers throughout the world achieve their goals through a personalized set of consulting services based on Alan Arnette’s 20 years of high altitude mountain experience and 30 years as a business executive. Prices and services at the Summit Coach website.
Not much has changed in the content of this post but these are the latest updates for summits and deaths on both side. No new routes were climbed in 2018,
2018 was a record year for Everest summits. The previous record year was 2013 with 670 total summits by all routes. The Himalayan Database has updates for 2018. There were 802 summits and only 1 who did not use supplemental oxygen and 68 females. The Nepal side saw a total of 562 summits made up up 266 foreigners (aka members) and 296 High Altitude Workers (aka Sherpas). For the members who got above base camp, 76% went on to summit. On the Tibet (aka Chinese) side there were 110 summits for workers and 130 by foreigners for a total of 240 summits. 66% of the members above base camp summited. There were a total of 5 deaths in spring 2018, 4 on the Nepal side and 1 on the Tibet side. 1 climbing was climbing without supplemental oxygen and was on the south side.
It can be difficult to analyze the routes as they are often named after their geological feature or the national team or even the person who first climbed it. But in general, there are about 20 climbing routes identified on Mt Everest.
There are three faces on Everest: the Southwest Face from Nepal, the East Face aka Kangshung Face from Tibet, and the North Face also from Tibet. Of these the Kangshung Face has seen the fewest attempts and even fewer summits.
There are many, many variations on the non-standard routes. For example, climbing the standard Northeast Ridge to the summit and returning via the Great Couloir or the North Face. The Southwest Face is also popular, this variation includes the Bonington Route but also climbing via the Rib.
While the vast majority of climbers on the north side take the Northeast Ridge route, actually they are joining the ridge in the middle. The first ascent of the true Northeast ridge was in 1995 by a Japanese team. They start at roads end at 5,150 meters. One section of that route is called the Pinnacles and is extremely technical and difficult. It took them three days and fixed 1,250 meters of rope to navigate thru this section.
An interesting bit of trivia is that of the 8,306 summits, only 265 (197 members and 68 hired) took a “non-standard” route in other words, not the South Col – Southeast Ridge or North Col – Northeast Ridge. There were 80 deaths on these climbs. This is 28% of the total deaths and most likely the reason none of these routes are offered commercially – too high of a risk. Only 28 of the 265 climbers who summited by a non-standard route did not use supplemental oxygen.
The countries with the most summits on the non-standard routes are Japan (30), S. Korea (23), Russia (16), USA (26) and USSR (23).
This is a list by face with descriptions that include the common names plus some used by the Himalayn Database.
The illustrations are courtesy of National Geographic (Martin Gamache, Jaime Hritsik, Chiqui Esteban, Ng Staff Sources: 3D Reality Maps; The American Alpine Journal; The Himalayan Database; Ed Webster; East Face Imagery Courtesy Of Digital Globe @ 2012; Raphael Slawinski). Visit this National Geographic piece about a proposed new route in 2015 with an excellent article and animations.
- (J) Integral N.E. Ridge – 1995 Japanese Team
- (L) Russian Couloir – 2004 Russian
- (K) The Complete NE Ridge, N-NE
- (M) South Pillar, NE Ridge-N Face-Norton Couloir I – Messner Solo Route 1980 Messner Italian
- (N) American Direct – 1984 American
- (O) The Great Couloir aka Norton Couloir (White Limbo) – 1984 Australian
- (P) Russian Direct – 2004 Russian
- (Q) Japanese Supercouloir – 1980 Japanese
- (A) West Ridge Direct – 1979 Yogoslavian
- (R) Canadian Variation – 1986 Canadian
- (H) East Face-S Col: Neverest Buttress – 1988 International
- (I) Southwest Pillar, East Face: American Buttress – 1983 American
- (J) Integral N.E. Ridge – 1995 Japanese
- (K) N. Ridge/N.E. Ridge – 1960 Chinese
- (A) American West Ridge – 1963 American
- (C) Korean (Park) – 2009 South Korean Team
- (D) Russian Buttress – 1982 Soviet
- (E) Southwest Face – 1975 British
- (F) South Pillar – 1980 Polish
- G) South Col – 1953 British
Using the Himalayan database, I researched the non-standard routes to get an idea of the volume on these routes. This is not an all-inclusive list.
|Khumbutse-W Ridge-N Face (Hornbein Couloir)||2||1||1989|
|Lho La-W Ridge||19||2||1989|
|SW Face including the Bonington Route||48||2||2009|
|West Ridge- North Face- Hornbein Couloir||8||0||1986|
By now you know two routes dominate Everest. 8,041 out of the total 8,306 summits followed the same basic route that was pioneered in 1953 by John Hunt’s British expedition to the summit using the Southeast Ridge-South Col and Shi Zhang 1960’s summit via the Northeast Ridge-North Col.
Today, these routes seem to be caught up in guide politics as to which is safer, the degree of difficulty and opportunity for success. An argument can be made for climbing from either side.
Southeast Ridge – 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 as high as Camp 2 at 21,000′ if necessary||Cornice Traverse exposure|
|Slightly warmer sometimes with fewer winds||Slightly longer summit night|
Northeast Ridge – North Col Route
|Fewer 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||Currently 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.
This 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.
- Trekking Peak Acclimatization: Lobuche 20,161′
- Many teams now summit a trekking peak for acclimatization thus reducing one trip through the Icefall.
- Basecamp: 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, can be a 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 along the edges. 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 extreme heat that takes a toll on climbers. Again avalanche danger exists 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 most teams require it 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. Rockfall can be a 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 – 3 to 5 hours
- The climb from the Balcony to the South Summit is steep and continuous. This is the most technical section of a climb from this side IMHO.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 might have been changed by the 2015 earthquake. Climbers since ten report a large snow bulb area with no rock climbing as in the past. Previously it was a short 40′ section of rock climbing, again fixed with rope, that created a bottleneck on crowded summit nights. Usually, there was 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 keeps them going.
- Return to South Col: 4 -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.
This animation is based on Alan Arnette’s personal experience of climbing on Everest 4 times and summiting on May 21, 2011.
Not all teams will use this exact schedule to summit from the Nepal side via the South Col.
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 flanks of the mountain 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 Southside 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.
- Basecamp: 17000′ – 5182m
- located on an extremely windy, gravel area near the Rongbuk Monastery. This is the end of the road. All vehicle assisted evacuations start here. As of 2018, 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 basecamp 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 couple of 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 footwork and steady use of the fixed rope in the final gully 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 descent 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 downclimb takes the identical route. Early summiteers may experience delays at the 2nd Step with climbers going up or summiteers 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.
The Deadly Route?
If you just look at climbing from Tibet or Nepal, it misses the detail where the deaths occur. As this chart shows, the standard routes account for 73% of the deaths with the Southeast Ridge dominating all deaths at 137 or 48%. This number is heavily driven by the 2014 ice serac release off the West Shoulder of Everest onto the Khumbu Icefall taking 17 lives and when 14 people were killed at Basecamp in 2015 after 7.8 magnitude earthquake caused an avalanche off the Pumori-Lintgren ridgeline.
Whether these were one time events or ongoing concerns have yet to be determined. Climbers must make their own decision as to the safer standard route.
Here is the summary update with 2017 statistics:
Illness (non AMS)
% of Total
Everest Stats and Price
The numbers bundle the non-standard routes into either the Tibet or Nepal side. As of autumn 2017, the Himalayan Database reports that there have been 8,306 summits (4,333 members and 3,973 hired) of Everest through June 2017 on all routes by 4,833 different people. 1,106 people, mostly Sherpa, have summited multiple times. There have been 539 summits by women. The Nepal side is more popular with 5,280 summits compared to 3,026 summits from the Tibet side. 208 climbers summited without supplemental oxygen, about 2.5%. 32 climbers have traversed from one side to the other. About 63% of all expeditions put at least one member on the summit.
288 people (173 westerners and 115 Sherpas) have died on Everest from 1924 to June 2017, about 3.5%. 71 died on the descent after their summit or 25%. 11 women have died.The Nepal side has 181 deaths or 3.4%, a rate of 1.27. The Tibet side has 107 deaths or 3.3%, a rate of 1.15. Most bodies are still on the mountain but China has removed many bodies from sight. The top causes of death were from avalanche (77), fall (67), altitude sickness (32) and exposure (26).
In 2017 there were 648 summits, 237 from Tibet and 411 from Nepal and 11 didn’t use supplemental oxygen. There were 6 deaths.
From 1923 to 1999: 170 people died on Everest with 1,169 summits or 14.5%. But the deaths drastically declined from 2000 to 2017 with 7,056 summits and 118 deaths or 1.7%. However, two years skewed the deaths rates with 17 in 2014 and 14 in 2015. The reduction in deaths is primarily due to better gear, weather forecasting and more people climbing with commercial operations.
Of the 8000 meter peaks, Everest has the highest absolute number of deaths at 288 but ranks near the bottom with a death rate of 1.23. Annapurna is the most deadly 8000er with one death for about every three summits (71:261) or a 3.91 death rate. Cho Oyu is the safest with 3,681 summits and 50 deaths or a death rate of 0.55.
In my post on “How Much Does it Cost to Climb Mt. Everest-2018 edition” I not that the headline for 2018 is that prices went up at the low-end and ultra high-end. Climbing from China saw the largest overall increases again this year but the increase is driven by a few high-end companies trying to differentiate their product.
In 2018, it remains slightly less expensive to climb from Tibet whether guided or unguided, except with the ultra high-end western companies. The median price is $41,500 from Nepal and $38,500 from Tibet.
The price range for a standard supported climb ranges from $28,000 to $85,000. A fully custom climb will run over $115,000 and those extreme risk takers can skimp by for well under $20,000. Over the past five years, companies have increased their prices by 6% on the Nepal side and 12% on the Chinese side.
Recently, the low cost Nepali operators were getting a foothold in the market by competing on price but now realize they were leaving money on the table and have started to increase their prices. That said, they will make you a deal unlike most western operators who sell out quickly.
Guided climbs on Everest is like any competitive marketplace, it’s driven by supply and demand and the demand is huge! As I’ve noted for years now, more and more Everest climbers are coming from India and China adding to the historic demand from the Americas, Europe and Southeast Asia. Meeting that demand are many Nepal based guides. China is making huge moves to capitalize on the tourist demands from their own country which will add to the crowding.
Bottom line: Look for Everest to become more crowded, more expensive over the next five years, regardless of which side you climb, and six to eight people to lose their life each year – more on the south side due to more people climbing that side.
I am often asked which side or route is safer and my answer is pick your poison.
By now you can see the non-standard routes are the domain of the elite and highly skilled alpinist, and even with their talent, the death rates soar.
On the standard routes, the south has the Khumbu Icefall and the north has the Steps and weather. However these numbers clearly show the south takes a stronger toll with the 2014/15 deaths. But the real story is the role and impact of the unsung heroes – the Sherpas.
In spite of the Icefall dangers, I think most operators will say the south side is safer and slightly easier and consider the 14/15 events as a one-off occurrence. Perhaps wishful thinking.
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.
Memories are Everything
If you dream of climbing mountains but are not sure how to start or reach your next level from a Colorado 14er to Rainier, Everest or even K2, I can help. Summit Coach is a consulting service that helps aspiring climbers throughout the world achieve their goals through a personalized set of consulting services based on Alan Arnette’s 20 years of high altitude mountain experience and 30 years as a business executive.
Everest Pictures and Video
© all images owned and copyrighted by Alan Arnette unless noted
A tour of Everest Base Camp 2016