Changes in Historic South Col Climbing Route
Source: National Geographic

After an avalanche took the lives of 16 Sherpa guides on Everest during the 2014 climbing season, the climbing community and Nepalese officials have came together this week to announce changes they hope will make the mountain safer in 2015.

The portion of Everest in question is called the Khumbu Icefall and is the first major obstacle climbers face after leaving base camp. The icefall – an other-worldly combination of shifting ice blocks the size of buildings and unpredictable avalanches – runs between the West Shoulder of Everest and Nuptse. Besides the fast moving Khumbu glacier, regular serac icefalls from both the West Shoulder and Nuptse make the route hazardous.

Changes in Historic South Col Climbing Route
The Khumbu Icefall and Everest base camp with Mount Everest in the background (Source: Faszination.com)

Since the South Col route was first established by Sir Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing over 60 years ago, warming environmental conditions on Everest have caused climbers to drift towards the West Shoulder. This route takes climbers directly under the West Shoulder fall line, and through the avalanche danger zone.

This winter, commercial outfitters, government officials and Sherpa climbing guides met to discuss a safer route through the icefall. Veteran Everest climber, North Face Climbing Team member and Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International guide, Pete Athens was in Nepal this January and February teaching mountaineering and route construction skills to the Everest mountain workers, known as “Icefall Doctors,” who will begin establishing the new route later this month.

Changes in Historic South Col Climbing Route
Adjusted route through the Khumbu Icefall (Source: BBC.com)

The adjusted route will move towards the center of the icefall and away from the West Shoulder fall line. This adjustment, while hopefully keeping climbers away from avalanche danger, will add more time to the climb. Athens says commercial outfitters have agreed to provide experienced guides to help scout the way when the Icefall Doctors start setting the route . The adjusted route is not without its own hazards. According to Athens, the center of the glacier is fast moving, has deep hidden chasms and is more dynamic than in years past.

Changes in Historic South Col Climbing Route
Climbers often have to use ladders to get through the icefall (Source: summitpost.com)

 

Responsible Stewardship

When I spoke with Athens about the 2014 avalanche, he was moved. Alpine Ascents International lost five guides on that day, and Athens is quick to note that the guides were related to several employees and like family to the western guides that climbed with them. Athens highlights that the adjusted route is just one change made to improve the safety and lives of the Nepalese that work on the mountain. According to Athens, other improvements include better worker training, improved insurance, higher pay and better survivor benefits.

Changes in Historic South Col Climbing Route
Upper Khumbu Icefall (Source: Wikipedia.com)

In spite of these improvements, Athens points out that more still needs to be done. He hopes that wages will continue to increase along with bonuses for the Sherpa guides and Icefall Doctors. Athens says the key is to continue good communication between the government, mountain workers and the climbing industry. He warns that people should not be too quick to criticize the Nepalese government after the 2014 tragedy; Athens believes their response was as appropriate as it could have been given all the of challenges. Athens is encouraged by the progress on Everest and says, “If we all put our shoulders to the wheel,” things will continue to improve.

Changes in Historic South Col Climbing Route
Pete Athens is a Bainbridge Island based North Face Climbing Team member, Senior Guide for Alpine Ascents International and Co-Director of the Khumbu Climbing Center (Source: Alpine Ascents International)

 

What to Check Out

The Juniper Fund is a Washington State based 501(c)(3) established to help the survivors of mountain workers killed in the Himalayan adventure tourism industry. The fund supports families in need and provides education for the children of mountain workers killed on the job. Checkout the site and the great work they do at www.thejuniperfund.org.

Local Historic Connection with Everest Expeditions

Our region has had a connection with Everest since the beginning of American attempts to reach the world’s highest peak. West Seattle native Jim Whittaker was part of the American Mount Everest Expedition in 1963 and was the first American to summit Everest. Jim and his twin brother Lou went on to establish Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated (RMI), one of the first international guiding services.

Changes in Historic South Col Climbing Route
Seattle native Jim Whittaker became the first American to summit Mount Everest in 1963 (Source: coldsplinter.com)
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