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Everest Climbers Now Prohibited From Taking One Deadly Route

Nepal announces that the Khumbu Icefall, where 16 sherpa were killed last year, is now off-limits

Climbers in the Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest. (Christian Kober/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Those attempting the mammoth climb up Earth’s highest mountain will now have a harder—but hopefully safer—trek ahead of them.

Nepali officials announced that one portion of the climb, which has been part of the typical route up the mountain’s south face for over 20 years, would be abandoned beginning with the 2015 season. Instead, climbers will take a more direct, if steeper and more arduous path formerly used from the 1950s through the '90s.

This move is intended to ensure mountaineers avoid one of the most lethal expanses of the trek: the Khumbu Icefall. As Sarah Kaplan at the Washington Post describes it:

The steep, craggy expanse of glacier skids downhill at a rate of several feet per day, constantly heaving and shifting from the pull of gravity and the pressure of its own immense weight. Deep crevasses can appear overnight, and huge ice towers called “seracs” can splinter and fall at any moment, sending chunks the size of cars cascading downward. Mountaineers have christened the icefall’s most notorious sections with names like “Popcorn Field” and “the Ballroom of Death,” and for years guides have eyed the path through them with unease.

The Khumbu Icefall was the site last year of the deadliest incident in Everest’s already quite lethal history. Sixteen Nepali men, all Sherpas helping to guide climbers, were killed when an ice tower toppled over them. The disaster, in part, is blamed on unusually rapid ice melt thought to be caused by climate change, which has made the mountain’s already treacherous paths even more dangerous.

The tragedy prompted Sherpas to demand better wages and working conditions. The guides are widely acknowledged to bear the brunt of the work getting up Everest, hauling heavy loads for their mountaineer clients and making the climb as often as 20 times a year. But while the job risks are high, the pay and available insurance are low.

Now, as the beginning of the new climbing season approaches, officials hope the route change will help Sherpas and their clients avoid degrading ice fields where tragedies like last year’s took place—even if it makes the climb a little harder. "The route through the centre part will be difficult and time consuming but it will be relatively free from the risk of avalanche, as the ice cliffs and hanging glaciers are comparatively far away from it," said Ang Dorji Sherpa, chairman of a committee authorized to set expedition routes, the Post reports.

But the Nepali government has fallen short of meeting all the demands presented by the workers last year. In particular, the guides had requested a lift of the ban on helicopters above base camp. This would allow equipment drop-offs part way up the mountain, limiting the Sherpas’ loads and subsequent risks. But proponents of the ban say it is in place to help preserve the mountain’s fragile environment. A change in law isn’t expected soon, as researchers keep an eye on Everest’s health. 

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