Everest 2013: A Ladder At The Hillary Step?

Ladder At The Hillary Step: There has been a lot of buzz the past few days about the possibility of installing a ladder on Everest at the Hillary Step. This past weekend, Dawa Steven Sherpa, who is part of the Expedition Operators Association in Nepal, let slip that there have been some discussions about adding the ladder as a way to alleviate bottlenecks and traffic jams on the mountain.

One of the places that gets the most crowded is the Hillary Step, which is a 40-foot vertical rock face that requires some technical skill, not to mention time, to negotiate. Because of the fact that only one person can be going up or down the ropes at any given time, it can lead to serious delays in getting to the summit.

So Dawa, along with some other prominent members of the Sherpa community, has proposed adding the ladder, which would only be used by those descending the mountain. This has of course drawn the ire of some purists who feel it’ll detract from the challenge of the climb.

For those who aren’t familiar with the landmarks of Everest on the South Side, the Hillary Step falls at about 8763 meters (28,750 ft) and is the last major obstacle to overcome before reaching the summit. It is described as being relatively easy for anyone who has rock climbed before, although the altitude, weather and sheer exhaustion can all make it more challenging than it should be.

The proposed ladder would make it much easier to descend and could greatly reduce traffic jams at such a high altitude. One of the biggest complaints about Everest in the past few years has been all of the crowds on the mountain, some of whom are put in jeopardy because they must stand in line while they wait their turn to go up. Sometimes they can end up waiting for hours, which isn’t particularly safe in poor conditions.

As many of you probably know, there is a ladder in place on the North Side of Everest that is used on the Second Step there. That rock climb is much longer and more difficult than the Hillary Step however and it is doubtful that most people would be able to reach the summit without it.
 For a good explanation of the logistics of all of this, I’d recommend reading Alan Arnette’s thoughts on the addition of a ladder to the mountain. He is decidedly against the plan saying that anyone who comes to Everest ought to have the fundamental skills necessary for completing the climb. Alan also notes that just how the ladder would be installed on the Hillary Step remains a bit of a mystery, although I’d have to think that the Sherpas have some kind of plan in mind.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with adding the ladder if it means the mountain will be safer for the climbers. After all, they are already used on other parts of the mountain, including in the Khumbu Icefall, albeit in a different manner. We all know overcrowding is an issue on Everest and while this is a way to help break-up one of the bottlenecks, it isn’t going to solve the issue of overcrowding itself.

By all accounts, 2013 looks to have been another record year for the number of summits on the mountain, and it doesn’t seem like that trend will change anytime soon. In my opinion, the only way to lessen the crowding is to issue fewer permits to climb. But of course, that isn’t going to happen as all of these commercial expeditions mean big business and lots of cash for Nepal.

It should also be noted that traffic jams didn’t seem like they were much of a concern this year. We certainly didn’t have images of long lines like the ones we’ve seen in years past. Part of what made it work so well this time out was how the final weather window stayed open for an extended amount of time.

With the forecast looking promising, some teams remained patient and waited until he rush was over before proceeding up. We can’t count on that being the case every year however, so anything that can help lessen the long lines will be much appreciated by all involved.

Obviously interest in climbing Everest is only increasing. Traffic jams have become part of the culture on the mountain. Until something tragic happens, they are likely to remain there.

Kraig Becker