2013 Everest Report: A Curse, a Fight and the Aftermath

Posted on: July 11, 2013


Mt. Everest showing (1) South Col/Southeast Ridge original route (Hillary-Tenzing Norgay, 1953). (2) Modern variation of the 1953 route favored by some for its decreased exposure to rockfall compared with the direct variation. (3) Modern direct variation fixed by commercial teams in 2013, favored by others for its efficiency and decreased exposure to serac fall. (4) Griffith/Steck/Moro's line of descent from Camp II. [A] (Not shown.) Everest summit (8848m). [B] Lhotse (8516m). [C] Nuptse (7864m). [D] South Col (7906m). [E] Geneva Spur. [F] Lhotse Face. [G] Western Cwm. [H] Khumbu Icefall. [I] 2013 Camp I (6100m). [J] 2013 Camp II (6500m). [K] Location of argument with fixing team (7100m). [L] 2013 Camp III (ca. 7500m). [M] 2013 Camp IV (7906m). CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE. [Photo] Dick and Pip Smith/Hedgehoghouse.com

From Base Camp on the Khumbu Glacier, on the south side of Mt. Everest (8848m), clients, Sherpas and guides shuffle through the meticulously prepared Khumbu Icefall that, from a distance, seems to consist of more air than solid ground. Spreading up from Camp I at 6100 meters, the Western Cwm forms a comparatively gentle incline, crowned by Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse. At the head of the valley, the Lhotse Face rises from Camp II around 6500 meters at an abrupt forty- to fifty-degree angle, oscillating to form steeper bulges and small platforms amid a cascade of crumpled ice. It's the first continuously steep section that clients encounter on their mass migration to the summits of Everest or Lhotse. But before that march begins, Sherpas prepare the route by fixing lines up the 1400-meter face.

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In late April, western guides and sirdars met in low on the mountain to decide how many and which Sherpa climbers would fix the route up the Lhotse Face. "It's usually the key operators that will kick in with Sherpa power but they also try to get some of the private teams to help out," wrote Becky Rippel, who blogs about her husband Tim's work as a guide at Peak Freaks. "There's quite a bit of politics and planning that go behind the scenes for the fixing of rope up the route from Camp II to the summit."

As usual, there were several absences from this year's meetings, including the team leader of the noncommercial expedition NO(2) Limits: Simone Moro. Moro, who said later he was not aware of the meetings, planned to do a light-style linkup of the Hornbein Couloir on Everest and a new route on Lhotse without supplemental oxygen or fixed ropes with Ueli Steck and Jonathan Griffith.

By the end of a meeting on April 25, the guides and sirdars had chosen the members of the fixing team, set completion dates and agreed that no one would climb on the Lhotse Face until the work was finished, a usual arrangement for commercial teams on the busy normal routes of 8000-meter peaks. "On Everest and anywhere in the Himalaya it is an unwritten rule that climbers will have to wait until the route is opened by the Sherpas," high-altitude worker Norbu Sherpa said to The New York Times.

"Going to Everest is a different game [from climbing less-crowded mountains]," Steck told the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation after summiting Everest for the first time in May 2012. "It is not real mountaineering, but I have to accept the rules. I often had to wait behind the rope-fixers, but I would not pass them out of respect for their work. I often did not clip onto the fixed ropes." Moro, on the other hand, later explained to National Geographic, "I've climbed Everest four times and done ten expeditions here, and I know that on the day the ropes are fixed, nobody should hang on the fixed ropes. This doesn't mean that nobody is allowed to climb the mountain. Everest isn't just a mountain for clients and guides. Everest is for all who pay the permit."

THE NORMAL ROUTE ON THE SOUTH SIDE of Everest roughly follows the line taken by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their successful first ascent in 1953. The route meanders up the fractured center of the Lhotse Face to gain the South Col (7906m). The remaining 942 meters trace the Southeast Ridge to the summit. Co-owner of Benegas Brothers Expeditions Guillermo "Willie" Benegas—who has attempted the North Ridge of Latok I and established a new route on the north face of Nuptse with his brother Damian—began guiding annual trips to Everest almost fifteen years ago. Soon after, he recalls, the route commonly fixed for commercial teams started to evolve from the original route, which risks protracted exposure to falling ice, to a more-direct variation that took much less time to prepare but was subject to increasingly frequent rockfall.

At the same time, less snow remained on Everest through the climbing season. A study published this spring by Nepali scientist Sudeep Thakuri of the University of Milan shows a 13-percent glacial shrinkage on and around Everest since the 1960s. The snowline is also 180 meters higher than it was 50 years ago.

"There's been a drought for last ten years, and it's getting drier and drier. And we had to acclimate to those changes—by changing the route, changing the way we set up the anchors—several years ago," Benegas explained. Commercial teams made a controversial decision to retro-bolt parts of the 1953 route, adding six bolts on the Yellow Band in 2009 and ten to twelve more above the Triangle Face last year to replace what used to be ice anchors. "It's all dirt," Benegas says. "We have to take responsibility, we have to make it safe otherwise were going to see 200 deaths in one shot."

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"The two minutes [represent] many sleepless nights and a strong commitment to my craft," videographer Elia Saikaly writes. "Up on Everest, sleep (as you know) is so incredibly important. I suffered as a result, but in retrospect, very worthwhile." Watch more of Elia's short films here. [Video] Elia Saikaly/eliasaikaly.com

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