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A Historical & Modern Perspective on the South Col Route

The South Col route on Mt. Everest's south or Nepalese side was first reconned in 1950 by a British expedition led by Eric Shipton. Prior to that time, the Khumbu Icefall had been seen from the high glaciated pass easily accessed from the north or Tibetan side of Mt. Everest. It was universally considered impossible by those few who had looked upon it from this high vantage point. Then, with the Chinese invasion and take over of Tibet, geopolitics changed and the world's highest peak was no longer accessible to the west from Tibet. Thus for the first time, Nepal allowed access to foreigners. In 1950 the previously unthinkable happened and the Khumbu Icefall was first climbed and deemed doable but dangerous.

What exactly is an icefall? For non-climbers, a glacier can be likened to a very slow moving river, one which is simply frozen. When a river increases it's gradient, it turns into a very broken up rapid or cascade. When a glacier increases in gradient, it turns into an "icefall." This icefall, especially the Khumbu Icefall, is an amazingly chaotic jumble of ice blocks of all sizes. It is a place of otherworldly beautiful and improbable shapes, forms, and shades of green and blue. It is a place of eerie silence, and improbable heat as well as cold. It is also a place of continual movement. Often this movement is not perceptible, as the entire mass is moving. At other times, the movement is sudden, brutal, and has incredibly destructive consequences to everything below as literally hundreds of tons of ice blocks can give way all at once. When this happens (often several times per day in one place or another within the icefall) everything below is reduced to nothing more than a fine white ice powder blown away by the mountain winds. The trick as a climber is to not be in that spot . . .

As climbing Mt. Everest became more popular in the 1970's, and consequently more expeditions were on the mountain at the same time, expeditions began to cooperate with the "fixing" of the route through the Khumbu Icefall. This fixing means a continuous length of interconnected ropes, thousands of feet of ropes, for safety. This allows a climber to always be connected to ropes which are in turn connected to various anchors placed into the snow or ice. This is a safeguard against falling and injury while at the same time allows a climber to quickly move independently away from danger, something which is much more difficult and slower if one is instead roped directly to other climbers. Along with these ropes, often the terrain requires artificial structures to bridge otherwise uncrossable ice walls or large cracks called crevasses. Most often, these artificial structures are combinations of aluminum ladder sections tied together and stabilized by a latticework of other ropes. Very impressive to behold, and often very scary to traverse!

By the 1990's, with even more climbing action taking place, there were complaints that many participating expeditions either lacking funds or desire, were not contributing to the group "fixing" of the route. They were instead using other expeditions hard work while contributing nothing. Therefore the past few years, a Nepalese governmental agency has stepped in to ensure that all contribute fairly based upon the size of the expedition. The SPCC (Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee) now oversees this. They are primarily concerned with policing expeditions and groups to control garbage properly, and so they sub-contract with other people to do the actual work. During the Alpine Ascents 2000 expedition here to Mt. Everest, this work was carried out very well and ongoing maintenance to the icefall route was always done promptly. This year, however, has been another story.

The group, run by a British individual, was awarded the contract for this spring 2002 season, and the maintenance effort has been very short on supplies, manpower, tools, and perhaps experience to properly do their job. This has created some dangerous conditions for climbers traversing the icefall, and most expeditions here this season have drafted letters to the SPCC lodging their complaints regarding this situation. There has even been some discussion regarding next season many regulars here refusing to pay the SPCC and simply going back to the old cooperative way of doing things.

The route farther up the mountain in places also is prepared or "fixed" with fixed line in places for safety as well, but this work is done by separate expedition Sherpa staff in cooperation with each other. All expeditions here share the same goals of summiting and doing so safely, so it makes a great deal of sense to cooperate with each other and share in the work of preparing the route with this in mind. About 2 weeks ago, all expedition leaders and Sirdar (a Sirdar is the chief of Sherpa staff for an expedition) met and all decided upon a work and materials schedule so that all expeditions could share in this preparation work on the upper mountain. This has generally worked quite well, and the route is currently ready as far as the South Col at almost 26,000-feet or 8,000-meters. Within the next week, the plan is to have portions of the route fixed for security with rope above the South Col via a cooperative effort amongst expeditions such as Alpine Ascents, Adventure Consultants, International Mountain Guides, National Geographic, etc.

From Camp I, just above the Khumbu Icefall, the route enters the Western Cwm, which is a very large and steep-sided valley partly filled with the upper Khumbu Glacier. This "valley of silence" was first traversed by the Swiss expedition of 1952, who in fact pioneered most of the route on the upper mountain and came very close to the summit the year before the British success in 1953. It is a hauntingly beautiful place, but not without its dangers also. While it is often a place of ear-ringing silence, it also occasionally thunders with rockfall raking the steep faces of Mt. Everest to one side and Nuptse to the other side, or just as frequently ice or snow avalanches roar down for thousands of feet to the glacier. These things are quite easily avoidable simply by staying away from the sides of the valley. A less easily avoidable hazard are the many deep glacier fissures called crevasses. These crevasses are caused by the stress of glacier movement (take a warm Snicker's candy bar and bend it in the middle and note the "crevasses" formed on the surface, and you get the idea). Many of these crevasses are bridged over by snow and not visible to a climber on the glacier's surface. These hidden crevasses can constitute a serious threat especially after times of fresh snowfall, and are usually dealt with by climbers roping up to other climbers with adequate rope between so that the climbers general technique and the skill known as "self-arrest" are adequate to stop a fall into a crevasse should someone break through one of these snow bridges.

Near the end of this gently sloping valley, lies Camp 2, and the Lhotse Face looms above. Camp 2 at over 21,000-feet or over 6,400-meters, is the staging camp for starting up the face formed by the western side of neighbor mountain Lhotse. This face constitutes a serious challenge, as over 3,000-feet or 1,000-meters of 35-degree to 45 plus-degree ice must be climbed, with Camp 3 perched in the middle of this awesomely steep and long face. So here too, thousands of feet of fixed ropes are placed for the safety of climbers to safeguard against falling if used properly.

The last stop on the way to the summit, is Camp 4 or High Camp at the pass between Lhotse and Everest known as the South Col. To arrive at this camp requires traversing much steep ground also, and such features as the "Yellow Band" (a steep, golden, sandstone cliff which splits part of the upper Lhotse Face), the "Geneva Spur" (an enormous buttress or ridge-like feature of rock which must be climbed) must be overcome with the safety of fixed ropes.

Many early expeditions here used seven or eight camps instead of the currently accepted four camps. This big reason for this change, has been the huge increase in skill and ability of the high altitude Sherpa hired by most expeditions to assist. Originally in the 1950s, the foreign climbers were looked to to help train Sherpa as most were not skilled in climbing techniques. Their main assets were their strong work ethic and their genetic adaptation to altitude. Nowadays, Sherpas still have their genetic adaptation to altitude and their strong work ethic, but they are often also much more skilled climbers than the foreign climbers who hire them to help. This means it is much easier and faster for them to go up and down the mountain preparing and stocking camps than in earlier times, and so fewer camps are needed. I must also stress here that I do not believe many climbing expeditions give their Sherpa staff enough credit for the success of an expedition. Without the hard work of Sherpas and their high skill levels, there wouldn't be 10% of the current numbers of successful Everest summiters. Everyone has perhaps herd of "Hillary" backpacks, but has anyone ever seen a "Chewang" sleeping bag? Chewang has summited 9 times on 12 different Mt. Everest expeditions. Why isn't he famous in America or Europe? Or how about Apa who has summited 13 times?

Above High Camp still lies much steep ground before the summit at 29,035-feet or 8,850-meters is reached. Such features as the Triangular Face, The Balcony, the Southeast Ridge, the South Summit, the Traverse, and the Hillary Step all guard the world's "third pole" well and ensure that a climber will work for his or her reward and need a minimum level of hard earned skills to get there. A sufficient level of safety and security can be maintained in this hostile territory only through the judicious use of fixed ropes, individual skills, and a high level of teamwork on both Sherpas and foreign climbers' parts. The exercise of good judgement is also vitally important. "Never give up" or "just do it" can and has proved fatal many times on the world's highest mountain, and perhaps a "those who climb and run away live to climb another day" is a more appropriate attitude for climbers who dare to challenge themselves on the slopes of Chomolungma in an environment more suited to jet airliners.

Willi Prittie. From Everest Base Camp, May 8, 2002

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