The South Col route starts at Everest Base Camp (EBC) which is a 30 mile trek from Lukla (9,317’), the nearest airstrip. Treks to EBC (17,200’) are common so I will not cover this segment in much detail other than to say it should take about 7 to 10 days in order to begin the acclimatization process and most people stay in teahouses and take their meals there. The “regular” schedule includes:
Day1: Fly to Lukla, trek to Packding (8,700’)
Day 2 and 3: Namache (11,150’ for 2 nights)
Day 4: Tengboche (12,600’)
Day 5 and 6: Pheriche (14,000’ for 2 nights including a day hike to 17,000’)
Day 7: Lobuche (16,200)
Day 8: Gorak Shep (17,120’)
Many climbers take the opportunity to summit Kala Pattar (18,300’) from Lobuche or Gorak Shep before the final trek to Base Camp. The trek is easy walking along well worn trails. There are many Zo’s and Yaks ferrying supplies to the multiple Base Camps for Island Peak, Ama Dablam, Loboche, Lhotse, Everest and others. The views are incredible especially in the spring when snow is still covering most of the surrounding peaks. For Everest climbers, they carry light day packs with a lightweight jacket, water and some snacks … and of course your camera!
Climbing Everest is a true expedition normally requiring 5 weeks on the mountain. The climb is actually a series of climbs by establishing four camps at 19,500; 21,000; 23,500 and 26,300; all towards the summit of 29,035. There are many styles and approaches to climbing Everest ranging from the solo climber with no supplemental oxygen to small teams of 2 people with Base Camp and Sherpa support. Also there are the standard commercial expeditions. Each has their advantages and disadvantages. This report assumes Sherpa support and the normal South Col route.
Everest Base Camp to Camp 1 (19,500’) via the Khumbu Icefall: 5 -7 hours first trip, 2 to 4 after acclimatization – one way
In modern times (post 1990), this is the most dangerous section of an Everest South Col climb. Every year, there are deaths or serious injuries due to the shifting ice in the Khumbu Icefall. The route leaves EBC towards the base of the Icefall. The Icefall is 2,000’ high. Crampons are now attached to boots and the climbers clip onto to the fixed rope.
The first section is pretty much a continuous climb that ungulates wildly for about 500’. Sometimes it is a 60 degree climb, others a more gentle 10 degrees. After an hour in a "normal" year you reach the first ladder. There are usually 15 to 25 ladders in the Icefall that span the deepest crevasses. They are maintained by special Sherpas called Icefall Doctors and are paid for by the permit fees.
About half way up, the Icefall flattens out in a section known as the football field – a large area of relatively flat hard-packed snow. This is the first safe area to take a break, drink some water, slow your breathing and eat something. After more climbing, but fewer ladders, you reach another area called the Popcorn, named due to boulder sized ice blocks scattered around. House size ice blocks and towering seracs are all throughout the Icefall and can collapse at anytime. This is why climbers take few breaks and go as quickly as possible.
The upper part of the Icefall has the most crevasses and steepest climbing. On some walls, it is normal to have 3 or more ladders lashed together. This is where bottlenecks can occur because only one climber is on the ladder at a time – normally!
Once clearing the Icefall, the Western Cwm becomes visible and is a short hour or less walk to Camp 1 along a gentle scope. This area is crevassed but teams normally do not rope up here but continue to clip into fixed lines established by the Sherpas.
Camp 1 to Camp 2 (21,000’) via the Western Cwm: 2 -4 hours first trip, 1 to 3 after acclimatization – one way
Leaving Camp 1, the grade sharpens but the crevasses offer the challenges. Some have single-length ladders across them but others require a down-climb and subsequent climb out. The deepest are about fifty feet and some are 10 or less. This is the first time you feel like you are actually climbing since angles can be 80 degrees in some crevasses. It is common to use your front points and do some rappelling. As the season progresses, steps are created by the large volume of climbers going through this area.
It is about 2.5 miles from Camp 1 to Camp 2 with an altitude gain of 1,500'. So it is not far and not that high but ... it is hot, very hot. The sun reflects off the walls of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse’s snow covered slopes making the temperature rise above 100F degrees.
A word about safety in this area: most teams do not rope up in this area since it is flat and “short”. However, this is the area where I fell into a crevasse in 2002 and without ropes and my teammates, I would not be writing this report today. The same occurrence happened to a teammate the next year higher up in the Cwm. Also, sudden snow squalls are common creating white out conditions.
The final quarter mile to Camp 2 is miserable. You leave the hard-packed snow and go onto frozen scree or mushy snow late in the season. The angle is about 20 degrees, which doesn’t sound like much but at 21,000’ feet it is tiring.
Camp 2 to Camp 3 (23,500’) via the Lhotse Face: 4 -6 hours first trip, 2 to 4 after acclimatization – one way
There are two sections to this segment: C2 to the base of the Lhotse Face and on to C3. It is about an hour or less to the base. Again, smart teams rope up here. It is relatively flat with no ladders or crevasses. The Face is the west side of Lhotse Mountain, the 4th highest at 27,939'. It is a sheer face in the sense that there are few flat spots and represents a drop of over 6,000' from summit to where it meets the Western Cwm. It is also the source of the Khumbu Icefall.
Sherpas fix rope all the way up the Face and it is absolutely critical that climbers stay attached to the rope at all times - even when passing another climber. It seems that most every year at least one death occurs while climbing the face and in most cases, the climber had failed to clip in properly. This is the first real test of the expedition. In addition to the climbing required, there is the altitude. At this point you are approaching 7000m or 23,000'. This is the altitude of Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas so each step take you higher than you could go anywhere else on earth.
The ice is usually very hard and snow free. Obviously, climbers try to get as much purchase as possible and avoid front pointing. It is a long climb of up to six hours.
Camp 3 to Camp 4 (26,300’) via the Yellow Band and Geneva Spur: 3 -5 hours– one way
The climb from C3 to the South Col is only 1,200’ of gain and is mostly over flat, hard-packed snow and ice but is approaching 8,000 meters! The Leaving Camp 3 the angle is suddenly steeper. While there are fixed lines, you find yourself moving slowly and carefully trying to avoid a mistake that would leave you in the crevasse at the bottom of the Face. Most climbers leave as close to sunrise as possible because, believe it or not, heat is the primary issue - even at 24,000'. The sun bakes the climbers as it rises over Lhotse. The route is usually very crowded. There are Sherpas carrying loads and climbers carrying themselves. For many climbers they will use bottled oxygen for the first time on a climb during this stretch.
After an hour or so, the route turns sharp to the left and begins a gentle climb to the Yellow Band. This is a limestone rock band that is prevalent throughout this area of the Himalayas. You cross the same striation on Cho Oyu. The Band is not very difficult if you are a rock climber and if it was at sea level almost anyone could scramble over it. But at 24,000' it takes concentration to keep your crampons on the smooth rock, staying clipped into the fixed line and breathing steadily. The Band is only a few hundred feet in total vertical and horizontal area and after half an hour or so you are pass it.
Once past the Yellow Band climbers turn back north or left and follow the fixed lines on a relatively gentle slope. You approach the saddle that defines the South Col between Everest and Lhotse. However a huge nose-like rock formation defines the route on the climber's left called the Geneva Spur. While looking up at the Spur, the climbers are also very aware that one slip without the being clipped in could mean a free fall 5,000 feet down the icy Lhotse Face.
Climbers don't actually climb the Spur proper but hug the south side as they climb the final few hundred feet to reach to Col. But this final climb takes all the energy they have left. It can take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours to reach the base of this section depending on conditions and how well the climber has acclimatized. But standing at the bottom of the rock and snow covered slope is intimidating no matter what your condition is! They carefully remain clipped in and start a slow step by step climb which is mostly on rock. Remember the vast majority of their Everest climb thus far has been on snow or ice. So climbers must have careful foot placement and stay focused on small steps. Again, this is not terribly difficult but the altitude and fatigue introduce complications.
One of the most sobering moments of a South side Everest climb is arriving at the South Col and seeing Camp 4. The Everest pyramid dominates the view. And it is almost impossible not to let your eyes trace the route (tomorrow's update) to the balcony, up the southeast ridge to the South summit. You cannot see the true summit from here. The Col is about the size of a couple of football fields. There is absolutely nothing up there. Small rocks and a few large boulders cover the Col.
The first order of business is to find your tent. Sitting on your pack, you gulp a drink and begin to let it sink in ... you are higher than all the mountains on earth except for 14 - higher than Denali, higher than Kilimanjaro, higher than Mont Blanc - but not your goal. Each direction brings an amazing view: East - the Himalayas with Cho Oyu at 26, 907'. West - Makalu at 27,765' South - Lhotse - 27,939' and North - Everest - 29035' .. and the goal. But you really don't spend a lot of time looking around.
Camp 4 to Balcony (27,500’): 4 - 6 hours – one way
This is the beginning of the summit bid. Most teams start before 10 PM and get up even earlier to eat, drink and get their down suits on. Climbers leave the South Col towards the summit pyramid or North. It is a few hundred yards to the base of the pyramid. The fixed line start there as the route goes straight up the icy slope. Normally, there is hard-packed ice at the bottom shifting to snow, ice and rock as you go higher. You are climbing in the dark so you mostly see your own boots or the climber directly in front. On a normally crowded summit night, there is a conga line of headlamps all the way to the Balcony as well as the lights of C4 on the South Col below.
Climbers are clipped onto the fixed line but some climbers eschew this aid and pass slower climbers. The route is mostly straight up with angles of 30 to 50 degrees I short sections. It tops out on the Southeast ridge on a flat spot called the Balcony. This is where climbers take a rest, drink a little, eat a snack and look up the ridge to the South Summit. They also make their first swap of oxygen bottles here. The flow is normally 3 liters a minute.
Balcony to South Summit (28,700) via Southeast ridge: 3 - 4 hours after acclimatization – one way
[the following is based on discussions with team mates and other sources noted]
The climb up the Southeast ridge is a fairly straight forward climb of a steady 30 degrees until just below the South Summit. Here it gets steeper and can be rocky if the wind has blown away any fresh snow. Also, this is usually the area where the weather will turn bad. It is about sun rise and the climbers have been out for 8 hours or more. Another oxygen bottle swap is performed
South Summit to Summit (29,035’): 1 – 2 hours – one way
[the following is based on discussions with team mates and other sources noted]
Of course the most famous part of this section is the Hillary Step. But the ridge from the South Summit to the Hillary Step is infamous as well. The 400’ narrow ridge drops on both sides - 10,000’ into Tibet on the west and 8,000’ on the east into Nepal. It is as wide as a sidewalk in some places. The traverse is considered to be the most exposed and dangerous section of the summit climb.
The Hillary Step is at 28,750 feet, is a 40-foot spur of snow and ice. There is fixed rope, too many in fact since ropes from previous years are rarely removed. They can be frozen and brittle and should not be used. Usually there is one for ascending and one for rappelling down. In recent years (post 2000), the Step is mostly rock as opposed to early 1990 pictures showing it fully snow covered.
Summit to Camp 4 (South Col): 6 hours – one way
Retracing their steps, climbers descend carefully switching out oxygen bottles at the South Summit. For many climbers the descent down the Southeast ridge is long and demanding. They are extremely tired, dehydrated and suffering from sleep deprivation.