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Has Hillary Step on Mount Everest Collapsed?

A British mountaineer says yes, but authorities in Nepal have denied his assertions

(Uwe Gille/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

The Hillary Step on Mount Everest is known as the last of many difficult barriers to the summit of the mountain. The imposing rocky outcrop stretches some 40 feet high, and requires mountaineers to make a near-vertical climb before they can head to Everest’s peak. But as Kate Lyons reports for The Guardian, the Hillary Step may no longer exist. British mountaineer Tim Mosedale, who ascended Mount Everest for the sixth time on May 16, has confirmed reports that the step has collapsed.

Located nearly 29,000 feet above ground, the Hillary Step is one of the mountain’s most iconic features. It is named after Sir Edmund Hillary, who became the first person to ascend the summit of Everest on May 29, 1953, along with Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Before they scaled to never-before-reached heights, Hillary and Norgay wedged themselves through a fissure in the step—wriggling and kicking to make their way through, Cynthia Russ Ramsey writes in Sir Edmund Hillary & the People of Everest. It was an exhausting and perilous endeavor, but it gave Hillary and Norgay a clear passage to the top of the mountain. The spot was dubbed Hillary Step.

Word of the step’s destruction began to circulate last year, when the American Himalayan Foundation posted photos of a seemingly deflated outcrop. Has Everest’s Hillary Step become Hillary’s Slope?” the caption read. Snow cover, however, made it difficult to say whether the step had in fact crumbled. 

According to the BBC, there was less snowfall on the mountain this year, allowing Mosedale to get a better look. “It’s official,” the mountaineer wrote on Facebook. “The Hillary Step is no more.” Planet Mountain, a website devoted to climbing news, writes that the Hillary Step “probably” collapsed due to the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

Authorities in Nepal, however, have dismissed Mosedale’s claims. “This is a false rumor," Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, said, according to Euan McKirdy and Sugam Pokharel of CNN. "After this news surfaced ... I checked with Sherpas, climbers, and officials at the Base Camp. Hillary Step is intact."

Contrary to reports saying that there was reduced snowfall on Mount Everest this year, Ang Tshering Sherpa claimed that Hillary Step was covered by “excessive snowfall,” which could lead climbers to erroneously assume it had collapsed.

Determining what happened to Hillary Step is important because the site’s disappearance could make the climb up Mount Everest even more dangerous. While the physical ascent would be easier without the steep rock wall, the collapse of Hillary’s Step would reduce the number of available pathways up the mountain. As Lyons explains, traffic on Hillary Step would leave climbers waiting at high altitudes and in frigid temperatures while their fellow alpinists tried to make it over the section.

And if the area was in fact disrupted by an earthquake, it is likely unstable, as Mosedale noted in an interview with CNN. "My suspicion is that if anyone was to try and clamber over that remaining rubble and debris that it would cause it to move," he said. “So really I think it's an area to be avoided now."

It’s probably sage advice, at least while the fate of Hillary Step remains unclear.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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