** 2016: After fifteen safe and successful years Jamie has finished guiding 8000m peaks. **
This page remains here for your reference.
When discussing Mt Everest in detail it is easy to lose sight of the fundamentals, and that is on the north the random, spin of the roulette wheel risk, is significantly less; hugely less, although that certainly doesn't mean zero.
Fundamentally the north side is less dangerous, and the chance of success is equal too, even if it the south does have some other advantages. Additionally, mountain staff are at significantly less risk on the north side ...
See some of these thoughts in an interview with me in Outside magazine.
On the north side we drive into base camp so can take plenty of relative luxuries in without guilt, such as a gas oven for pizza and fresh bread. On the south side everything is flown in to Lukla then carried up on dzopkio and yaks and porters. The base camps are both on moraine rubble (with a lumpy glacier underneath that on the south) and so sometimes dusty. The hygiene and winds and most other factors are roughly similar, although the south is less windy. For day trips there are limited options on the south, basically to Pumori BC/ABC/C1 (depending on your terminology and goal); there is a much bigger area to explore on the north although choices mostly come back to straightforward two possibilities to gain or lose altitude unless being adventurous.
Our Everest Base Camp on the Chinese-Tibetan side - Jamie
One of the biggest differences between the sides is heading up to the ~6400m altitude. On the south this means climbing through the risky ice fall then staying at C1 (~6100m) which has in the past been flattened by an avalanche (without death though), then a quick wander to C2. Generally the C1 camp is only used the first time by members going through the ice fall as the altitude jump direct to C2-ABC is huge. After that it is usually skipped.
Stocking the C2-ABC camp on the south means staff have to climb repeatedly through the ice fall and so making the camp luxurious means adding risk to them.
Contrast this with the north where we take yaks to ~6350m. Yaks. Certainly it is a rough trek and Interim camp (~5700m) isn't particularly pleasant but it is also good training. We have a permanent Interim camp as even on subsequent treks up we will mostly break the climb. Coming down, we trek ABC to BC in a single, fairly tough day though.
Yaks heading up to ABC on the "miracle highway", north side - Jamie
Clearly, there are significant logistical advantages on the north, and by using yaks we can make a relatively comfortable 6350m camp basically guilt-free. On the south whether gear is helied in to C2-ABC or carried in, with the associated risk, setting up a comfortable camp doesn't feel right.
Nepal Everest Base Camp with a serac collapse from the Lho La, but no danger of hitting base camp - Jamie
On the north side we have an easy run up to 7000m; on the south getting higher than ABC at 6400m takes preparation and takes time. The ropes have to be fixed to C3 (~7200m) and the camp stocked, and the route has usually minor rockfall danger (in 2012 a broken arm and helmet, and it was rerouted), so it is definitely an acclimatization trip that has to be planned and you will almost certainly only sleep there once for a night or two prior to the summit push.
In contrast on the north the climb above ABC is straightforward and the 7000m camp is fixed easily. The actual climb starts with an hour's walk on mostly rubble to crampon point then another hour including stops on ice to rope point. From there the real climbing begins, with an altitude gain of a little under 400m.
The start of the North Col climbing section - Jamie
The route up to North Col (:C1 or in 1920's and 30's terminology C4) weaves between old, mostly stable seracs and hops over crevasses. There are normally two ropes, nominally up and down but often slow and fast lanes, and the avalanche danger is minimal because the terrain is mostly broken. The 1922 avalanche was in a different area to the right, which we avoid.
En route there is a minor risk of serac collapse, particularly one area with a somewhat threatening serac, but on a far smaller scale and much of the route has been stable for many years. However in 2010 one person was killed, and the fixed ropes were promptly rerouted to avoid the area.
With an altitude gain of less than 400m in the area of risk, your time "at risk" and crew time "at risk" is also significantly lower than the time taken to climb through the ice fall. I feel that the risk level of climbing to North Col is very much in line with what most mountaineers expose themselves to with straightforward routes in the Alps, on Mt Rainier etc.
On the south acclimatizing to 7000m+ means careful planning and won't be an option early in the expedition, and there are no real alternatives nearby that are high enough with less risk. Minimizing the risks and congestion means climbing on Lobuche peak to not even 6000m, and sleeping at 5600-5800m to acclimatize avoiding the ice fall.
On the north we trek then climb over roughly a week with the high point of 7000m and can do that as many times as needed, with relatively minor risk. It must be stressed again just how straightforward it is to sleep multiple nights at 7000m, head up multiple times, and how useful this is to the acclimatization process on the mountain.
Is sleeping multiple nights at 7000m enough for acclimatizing prior to a summit push? Yes, but that is a separate discussion that we have at BC-ABC...
North Col at 7000m with Changtse in the background - Jamie
To this point the north side is the clear winner but there is a down side, and that is after strong winds at BC-ABC on the north or south side, throats are hoarse and that involuntary, potentially debilitating "Khumbu" cough is often developing. On the south side, a jaunt to the sociable lodges Of Dingboche or Pheriche, or lower, is a wonderful break, both physical and mental.
On the north just a couple of hours down are curious tent teahouses and a little beyond a couple of soulless concrete hotels at 4850m, however with wind-free rooms. Getting substantially lower means renting a jeep and bit of a journey. Among the possibilities, Tingri seems the most obvious but one of the main water sources is dirty. Shegar is better but requires a special permit. In the end Zhangmu is perhaps the best option, and best as a team affair. There are a few tricks to this though that we discuss at BC.
Although the north side logistics are easier, in practice there is little difference between the comfort levels. The north side is more spread out, so being sociable takes a fraction more effort but is also protected from base camp sightseers by a barrier and police post. The north side is definitely windier at times, and at a guess the dust levels are slightly higher but overall I am not sure if this has a real impact on anything unless it is a particularly windy season.
On the south side the base medical post run by the HRA is unique, and a wonderful, professional service. That said, it is not particularly missed on the north side as there are doctors on teams and leaders are adept as working out the usual problems.
The south also has busy helipads; on the north China doesn't allow helicopters to fly and so any evacuation is by Landcruiser from Base Camp, a ~5 hour or so drive, then once across the border into Nepal, a heli flight from near there or another ~4 hours drive. Although calling a heli is incredibly convenient, I can't recall an incident where the lack of immediate evacuation caused a death on the north side.
One of the bigger differences between the north and south high on the mountain is shelter from the wind. Climbing to North Col is in the lee of the wind, as is the North Col camp itself, so possible to climb up there in all except the windiest conditions (which sometimes virtually destroys the camp). Above North Col is quite a different story though. On the south climbing in the Western Cwm, heat is more of an issue as camps and the route are relatively sheltered. It can be baking sometimes, as indeed it can be climbing to North Col on a windless sunny day.
Sticking your nose into the wind above North Col is OK for a for a day trip up the slopes, but sleeping higher for an acclimatization trip doesn't usually work and is proven to be unnecessary, perhaps surprisingly. However when it comes to climbing above North Col en route to the summit, that wind can be vicious, perhaps a balance to the throngs on the south side? In similar conditions it will be windy on the south, but not quite as windy.
Talking camps, the C2 on the north is strewn somewhat uncomfortably along the ridge, the first tents can be a ~7500m, and stretching all the way up to around 7900m. (We normally have our C2 at around 7650m). The south has tents more concentrated, but no more comfort, as it is sited on hacked out ice ledges.
Part of Camp 2 and sheltered North Col below (center-left) - Jamie
Technically from North Col to C2 is quite comparable to ABC to C3 on the south, both featuring snow slopes that steepen, that on the north turns to a rocky ridge with basic scrambling.
From C3 to South Col (7900m) on the south side feels nervy in some places, the Lhotse Face is huge and relatively smooth and at the angle such that you are completely reliant on the fixed ropes in some places. On the north leaving C2 ~7650m it is mostly a rock plod higher until a little beneath the 8210m C3 when it steepens and while it definitely feels more comfortable with a fixed rope, there is no need to weight the rope when resting (or when climbing, depending on your skill level though).
So summarizing getting to the highest camp on either side are broadly equivalent, with wind on the north more of an issue than the south.
Climbing up the Yellow Band at around 7500m, it looks steep,
it IS steep and would be extremely difficult and dangerous to climb without ropes - Jamie
On the north side you start from the shitty 8210m C3, so 300m higher than on the south, and the climbing is steeper with few passing places. With only the throw of a headlight, it feels steep and that you are hanging on the ropes but in reality there are only a couple of quite steep sections. Once on the ridge there is a trail to the First Step, which in a partial bottleneck although it is possible to pass in a section there. Along to the Second Step is mostly narrow, single file, and the Second Step itself is more complex than just a single ladder, it is actually in 4 sections with waiting room for a few between each of them, see the photo below. Above, there are open areas, great for refueling and changing oxygen bottles in the light. A moderately steep snow section leads to a narrow traverse and a gully and then the summit undulations, and finally the summit ridge.
The Second step in its entirety - Copyright Jamie McGuinness
Coming down, the Second Step is a bottleneck however it is worth pointing out that some years there has been an abseil rope beside the ladder, so an up and down separation in that particular point.
On the south leaving South Col you cross and climb some snow fields then on a debris cone where I personally had two scarily close calls with rocks accidentally kicked down from above. Most of the terrain is relatively straightforward with some opportunities to pass, although everyone tends to bunch up. The route steepens near the south summit but it is really from that point that there are real bottle necks, a narrow trail and a tricky move on a rock slab if the snow isn't perfect, and then a haul up the ropes on the Hillary Step with next to no standing room between (and indeed a massive gulp view down the Kangshung face). The summit is still a plod away.
The Hillary Step - Jamie
Overall, the south has less bottlenecks but massively higher numbers of climbers that completely negate any advantage (in the past anyway). In the recent seasons on the north side (2009-2014), there basically haven't been queues, we have never had to wait anywhere. 2015 will require more planning though, and this is where a major advantage of the north becomes apparent.
The Hillary Step looking up (and, yes, that is a tangle of ropes that should be cut away - Jamie
The north side has time on its side. On the south side the ice fall starts falling apart in the third week of May and there is a rush to take absolutely the first window, and get off the mountain as quickly as possible as the ice fall seems to be (is!) literally moving, with ice screw popping out, ladders sinking and ropes flapping. The climbing sherpas desperately try to clear the mountain of gear in one go, humping whatever it takes, even 45kg/100lb+ to avoid going up into the ice fall again. And if the summit window is late, it is nervy...
In contrast on the north side, the later in the season, the safer and warmer it gets. We have summited a couple times in early June and friends have even summited in the middle of June, and those windless days are glorious, and often the later weather windows are longer too, so teams are summiting over a number of days. There is still a little luck involved (aside form good forecasting) but in general once those good days kick in teams space their summit pushes a little more cooperatively and logically.
Tibet side, the Second Step from the top - Jamie
Fixing above the last camps on either side requires good weather, and without going into too much detail, the north side rope fixers have copped some undue criticism, I feel. They have resisted pressure to climb in really nasty conditions and have climbed with the safety of the rope fixers in mind. Yes, the Chinese groups have followed immediately after, even though other expeditions have been warned not to follow closely, but the advantage of that is those climbers are now out of the way (and the rope have been tested). Ultimately nobody has been stopped from summiting by this cautious rope fixing approach.
On the north side we pay a per person amount to the authorities and the Guide School rope fixing crew fix from the bottom to the top of the mountain. On the south it is rather different. The SPCC fixes the ice fall (aka the ice fall doctors) to C2-ABC but the rest of the mountain is fixed by cooperation between all the teams and is a huge, expensive job.
Dawa Gyalgen on the summit of Everest (and a similar photo was used on Action Asia's cover) - Jamie
Let's look at the 2012 statistics to compare north vs south.
North: 78 foreign climbers and 74 High Altitude Climbing Sherpas (HAS) plus 71 Chinese and Tibetans; overall 74% summited!
South: 325 foreign climbers (total: of those 55% summited) and 358 High Altitude Climbing Sherpas (HAS)
So much for the south being more successful than the north. Perhaps it was a bad year? Even so I am guessing that when it comes to well supported commercial expeditions (ie excluding the dodgiest western operator and most other budget expeditions) that the statistics are similar. Basically everyone who was capable of summiting, did. On the north the statistics for both summits and deaths are significantly skewed by budget climbers attempting ambitious projects, or having little/no backup (other than commercial expeditions). Strip them out of the statistics and I would take an educated guess that the north side wins out.
Sadly no Everest discussion is now free of politics. Tibet is generally closed to tourism during March and will reopen at the end of the month or the first few days of April. This is unlikely to change.
In Nepal it is clear that with the tragedy and the 2015 brutality towards Ueli Steck in particular, that development and leadership from the government (MoCTCA) is needed for the industry, however so far there is zero indication that anything sensible is in the works, and their utte,r total incompetence is a a serious worry.
Are you interested? Contact us...
Working through the tragedy is now part of climbing Everest
** After fifteen safe and successful years Jamie has finished guiding 8000m peaks. **
This page remains here for your reference.
Have you read almost every article on this disaster? Then compare my views, my analysis to give an insight of your potential expedition leader. This is factual; my deeper thoughts are not here.
On the south side of Everest at the beginning of the season a serac collapsed above the ice fall route sending large blocks crashing down and 16 people died, unable to get enough shelter. See Mark Horrell's factual account with a horrifying photo.
Also see the photo-diagram most of the way down Aaron Huey's National Geographic article to understand how close the 2014 route through the ice fall was to the seracs above.
As it happened all 16 were load-carrying climbing sherpas (of which were 13 ethnic Sherpas; there is a difference). If this incident had happened exactly 24 or 48 hours later undoubtedly some climbing members would have died as well. That said, the climbing sherpas do climb the ice fall many times more than members, so face a significantly higher risk of this sort of random event.
Being the single worst climbing disaster on Everest this incident has provoked further debate on the frighteningly high statistical risks of working, being a climbing sherpa, on Everest and the risks of the south side route overall for everyone. Grayson Shaffer calculated carrying loads through the ice fall on the south side of Everest as riskier than serving as a US soldier in Afghanistan.
Already it is understood that a few people will die in the ice fall every few years from toppling blocks of ice that the route clambers over, and these have usually been mountain workers (climbing sherpas). Throw into the mix possible changes from slow global warming such as occasional hotter seasons and therefore more dangerous ice and snow conditions, a possible speeding up of the ice fall increasing the instability, and there is a lot to debate. Add in the multitude of other mountaineering risks for the rest of the mountain and my gut instinct feels that perhaps for commercial expeditions "throwing everything at it" with relative luxuries on the mountain such as high flow oxygen and tables at ABC, the risks are simply too high, or at minimum uncomfortably high.
If the Khumbu ice fall was in Europe or New Zealand or the USA I seriously doubt anybody would climb it at all. I think taking that extreme risk has come about from the 1950's to 1970's national expeditions (with no alternative route) morphing into commercial expeditions, and the fact that it is simply the highest mountain on the planet.
Looking up part way through the ice fall at some of those threatening seracs - Jamie
In talking with friends most agreed that the 2014 route of the ice fall was particularly dangerous and that instead of that left side route, a central route through would be significantly less dangerous, although probably more difficult climbing. Virtually all mountaineers thought that the risk of climbing a central line was somewhat acceptable for Everest and Lhotse, in contrast to what I have articulated above. Years ago it was a central route that was favoured. Indeed it is worth noting that Russell Brice pulled his 2012 Everest expedition off the mountain because of multiple dangers including that threatening serac. Denis Urubko gave a friend one single bit of advice for his 2014 Lhotse climb; watch that serac (in my photo above).
In addition to that line of threatening seracs it is also worth emphasizing the other random, roll of the dice, risk there is on the south side, and that a disaster of that proportion could easily happen again in the same season. There are several other seracs that threaten the route as well as potential for avalanches, the difference being that a serac may collapse again and again hours or days apart - or not - whereas with an avalanche it takes another build up of snow (and shear layers) before there is any potential at all for another avalanche.
Higher up the risks are not negligible either. There is stone fall danger and avalanche danger on the Lhotse Face and at C3. And who can forget Ralf Dujmovits' horrifying photo of the snake line of climbers (part of a good article by Mark Horrell)? Now contemplate what the loads on the anchors and ropes must be; enough for me to unclip and hold the rope in my hand only (which won't save me if I take a stone in the head that knocks me out).
Everest south summit with Lhotse and Makalu behind - Jamie
2014 was a terrible tragedy for the climbing sherpa/mountain workers community and for the (Sherpa) village communities they came from. Thame, a village of several hundred people lost four people in the prime of their life. One friend of mine died but almost incredibly none of the climbing sherpas I have worked with did.
The very human side of the tragedy was perhaps best expressed by Jemima Diki Sherpa, Three Springs, a slow read.
Aaron Huey, a National geographic photographer, had a brilliant idea and 10 photographers donated a photo each that could be purchased on the Sherpas Fund site, and raised not far off half a million dollars for the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, managed by Conrad Anker which has done more to inspire Nepali (mostly Sherpa) climbers than anybody else (and in a non-political way).
The best factual summary from someone who was there is Russell Brice's 5 part summary. Alan Arnette's chronicles of each Everest season and his Everest 2014 season summary is also the best, hitting hard and accurately in a most depressing way.
There has been a need for better management of Everest and other 8000m peaks, and the associated industry for a long time (and trekking numbers in the Everest region, peak season too).
Briefly, my feeling on all of this is the skill levels of many people on the mountain need to be raised. Although a little onerous, I think that everybody must have completed the equivalent of something like the one week TMC (Technical Mountaineering Course) of New Zealand or an NMA course (Nepal Mountaineering Association). That should go for everyone heading to any 8000m peak, and by that I mean climbing sherpas, members, Camp 2 cooks and any person who sets foot on the mountain, any 8000m mountain.
For climbers working on the mountain, the NMA courses count, but to fix ropes and to LEAD a rescue, should need a much higher qualification level, and to claim extra money for assisting in a rescue requires a certain higher level of qualification too. Which leads on to fixing modalities and rates for rescues. I have plenty of ideas and so do plenty of others but it is beyond this web page for discussion.
Second, the better way to sensibly limit climbers on Everest is to have a tiered service level. If as a guest climber (as opposed to worker) you have climbed (summited) two other 8000m then you can climb in whatever style you want. If you have summited one other 8000m peak then your expedition must have at least a 1:1 climbing sherpa ratio, and if you have not summited any 8000m mountain then you need to book a personal climbing sherpa and have another climbing sherpa too, so 2:1 climbing staff ratio, and pay a higher royalty.
The devil is in the detail; Shishapangma's central summit, Broad Peak fore summit etc do count. Does getting to 7500m on Cho Oyu count? I am not so sure, and supporting evidence cannot be simply a certificate. We are in the digital age...
See the end of this article.
Pasang Gombu and heavy, big loads; our climbing sherpa crew clearing the mountain in one go - David Cole