Everest 2010: Comparing the Routes

Mar 11, 2010
Outside Magazine

South Col Route

Ina few weeks climbers will trade their warm homes and soft beds for twomonths of bitter cold, extreme heat and mind numbing oxygen deprivationas they seek to stand on the top of the world.

I will be covering this season as I have for the past 8 years as an Everest climber or a observer with daily updates on my site at www.alanarnette.com and regular updates here on Outside Online's Blog.

After deciding toclimb Everest, climbers must choose their route. There are over 18named routes on Everest and a couple that are still unclimbed. The vastmajority of climbers use two routes: South Col or the Northeast RidgeStandard aka North Col route.

Both sides have their pros andcons. Up until 2007, the trend was for more climbers to choose thenorth due to lower costs. But with the Chinese restricting permits overthe past few years, the south side has retained the lead as thepreferred route primarily due to commercial operators wanting to reduceuncertainty and to limit their risks.

Let's briefly compare both sides:

South Col Route

Pluses Concerns
Beautiful trek to base camp in the Khumbu Khumbu Icefall instability
Easy access to villages for pre-summit recovery Crowds, especially on summit night
Helicopter rescue from base camp if necessary Cornice Traverse exposure
Slightly warmer sometimes with less winds Slightly longer summit night

Northeast Ridge Route

Pluses Concerns
Less crowds Colder temps and harsher winds
Can drive to base camp Camps at higher elevations
Easier climbing to mid-level camps A bit more difficult with smooth or loose rocks
Slightly shorter summit night No opportunity for helicopter rescue at any point

Now let's take an in-depth look at both sides

South Col Route

South Col Route

Mt.Everest was first summited by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New ZealanderEdmond Hillary with a British expedition in 1953. They used the SouthCol route. At that time the route had only been attempted

twice bySwiss teams in the spring and autumn of 1952. They reached 8500m wellabove the South Col. Of note, Norgay was with the Swiss thus giving himthe experience he used on the British expedition. The Swiss returned in1956 to make the second summit of Everest.

Here is a typicalsouth side climb schedule showing average time and the distance fromthe previous camp plus a brief description of each section. Moredetails can be found on the South Col route page.

Base camp: 17,500'/5334m
Home away from home. Located on a moving glacier, tents can shift andplatforms melt. The area is harsh but beautiful surrounded by Pumoriand the Khumbu Icefall with warm mornings and afternoon snow squalls.With so many expedition tents, pathways and generators, it feels like asmall village.

C1: 19,500'/5943m - 4-6 hours, 1.62 miles
Reaching C1, is the most dangerous part of a south climb since itcrosses the Khumbu Icefall. The Icefall is 2,000' of moving ice,sometimes as much as 3 feet a day. But it is the deep crevasses,towering ice seracs and avalanches off Everest's West shoulder thatcreates the most danger.

C2: 21,000'/6400m - 2-3 hours, 1.74 miles
The trek from C1 to C2 crosses the Western CWM and can be laden withcrevasse danger. But it is the extremely hot temperatures that takes atoll on climbers. Again avalanche danger exist from Everest's WestShoulder that has dusted C1 in recent years.

C3: 23,500'/7162m - 3-6 hours, 1.64 miles
Climbing the Lhotse Face to C3 is often difficult since almost allclimbers are feeling the effects of high altitude and are not yet usingsupplemental oxygen. The Lhotse Face is steep and the ice is hard. Theroute is fixed with rope.  The angles can range from 20 to 45 degrees.It is a long climb to C3 but is required for acclimatization prior to asummit bid.

Yellow Band - 3 hours
The route to the South Col begins at C3 and across the Yellow Band. Itstarts steep but settles into a sustained grade as the altitudeincreases. Climbers are usually in their down suits and are usingsupplemental oxygen for the first time. The Yellow Band's limestonerock itself is not difficult climbing but can be challenging given thealtitude. Bottlenecks can occur on the Yellow Band.

Geneva Spur - 2 hours
This section can be a surprise for some climbers. The top of the Spurleading onto the South Col has some of the steepest climbing thus far.It is easier with a good layer of snow than on the loose rocks.

South Col: 26,300'/8016m - 1 hour or lessWelcome to the moon. This is a flat area covered with loose rock andsurrounded by Everest to the north and Lhotse on the south. Generally,teams cluster tents together and anchor with nets or heavy rocksagainst the hurricane force winds. This is the staging area for thesummit bids and the high point for Sherpas to ferry oxygen and gear forthe summit bid.

Balcony: 27,500'/8400m- 4 - 5 hours
Officially now on Everest, climbers are using supplemental oxygen toclimb the steep and sustained route up the Triangular Face. The routeis fixed with rope and climbers create a long conga line of headlampsin the dark. The pace is maddeningly slow complete with periods of fullstop while climbers ahead rest, consider the decision to turn back orcontinue to the balcony. It can be rock or snow depending on the year.Rock fall can be an deadly issue and some climbers now use helmets.They swap oxygen bottles at the Balcony while taking a short break forsome food and water.

South Summit : 28500'/8690m - 1 to 2 hours
The climb from the Balcony to the South Summit is steep and continuous.While mostly on a beaten down boot path, it can be challenging near theSouth Summit with exposed slabs of smooth rock in low snow years. Theviews of Lhotse and the sun rising to the east is indescribable at thispoint.

Hillary Step - 1 hour or less
One of the most exposed section of a south side climb is crossing thecornice traverse between the south summit and the Hillary Step. But theroute is fixed and wide enough that climbers rarely have issues. TheHillary Step is a short 40' section of rock climbing, again fixed withrope, that creates a bottleneck on crowded summit nights. Usually thereis an up and down climbing rope to keep people moving.

Summit: 29,035'/8850m - 1 hour or less
The last section from the Hillary Step to the summit is a moderate snowslope. While tired, climber's adrenaline keep them going.

Return to South Col: 6 -7 hours
Care must be taken to avoid a misplaced step down climbing the HillaryStep, the Cornice Traverse or the slabs below the south summit. Alsodiligent monitoring of oxygen levels and supply is critical to makesure the oxygen lasts back to the South Col.

Return to C2: 3 hours
Usually climbers are quite tired but happy to be returning to thehigher natural oxygen levels regardless of their summit performance. Itcan be very hot since most climbers are still in their down suits.

Return to base camp: 4 hours
Packs are heavy since everything they hauled up over the precedingmonth must be taken back down. It is now almost June so thetemperatures are warmer making the snow mushy thus increasing thedifficulty. But each step brings them closer to base camp comforts andon to their home and families.

    For a more detailed description and animated route map, please see the  South Col route page.

    Northeast Ridge Route

    Northeast Ridge Route

    Thenorth side of Everest is steeped in history with multiple attemptsthroughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. The first attempt was by a Britishteam in 1921. Mallory led a small team to be the first human to setfoot on the mountains flanks by climbing up to the North Col(7003m). The second expedition, in 1922 reached 27,300′ before turningback, and was the first team to use supplemental oxygen. It was also onthis expedition that the first deaths were reported when an avalanchekilled seven Sherpas.

    The 1924 British expedition with GeorgeMallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine is most notable for the mystery ofwhether they summited or not. If they did summit, that would precedeTenzing and Hilary by 29 years. Mallory’s body was found in 1999 butthere was no proof that he died going up or coming down.

    AChinese team made the first summit from Tibet on May 25, 1960. NawangGombu (Tibetan) and Chinese Chu Yin-Hau and Wang Fu-zhou, who is saidto have climbed the Second Step in his sock feet, claimed the honor. In 1975, on a successful summit expedition, the Chinese installed theladder on the Second Step.

    Tibet was closed to foreigners from1950 to 1980 preventing any further attempts until a Japanese teamsummited in 1980 via the Hornbein Couloir on the North Face.

    Thenorth side started to attract more climbers in the mid 1990s and todayis almost as popular as the South side when the Chinese allow permits.In 2008 and 2009, obtaining a permit was difficult thus preventing manyexpeditions from attempting any route from Tibet.

    Now let's lookat typical north side schedule showing average time from the previouscamp plus a brief description of each section. More details can befound on the Northeast Ridge route page.

    Base camp: 17000' - 5182m

    located on a gravel area near the Rongbuk Monastery, this is the end ofthe road. All vehicle assisted evacuations start here. There are nohelicopter rescues or evacuations on the north side or for any mountainin Tibet.

    Interim camp: 20300'/6187m - 5 to 6 hours (first time)
    Used on the first trek to ABC during the acclimatization process, thisis a spot where a few tents are placed. Usually this area is lightlysnow covered or none at all.

    Advanced base camp: 21300'/6492m - 6 hours (first time)
    Many teams use ABC as their primary camp during the acclimatizationperiod but it is quite high. This area can still be void of snow butoffers a stunning view directly at the North Col. It is a harshenvironment and a long walk back to the relative comfort of base campor Tibetan villages

    North Col or C1: 23,000'/7000m - 4 to 6 hours (first time)
    Leaving Camp 1, climbers reach the East Rongbuk Glacier and put ontheir crampons for the first time. After a short walk, they clip intothe fixed line and perhaps cross a few ladders that are placed overdeep glacier crevasses. The climb from ABC to the North Col steadilygains altitude with one steep section of 60 degrees that will feelvertical. Climbers may use their ascenders on the fixed rope.Rappelling or arm-wrap techniques are used to descend this steepsection. Teams will spend several nights at the Col during theexpedition.

    Camp 2: 24,750'/7500m - 5 hours
    Mostly a steep and snowy ridge climb that turns to rock. High winds aresometimes a problem making this a cold climb. Some teams use C2 astheir highest camp for acclimatization purposes.

    Camp 3: 27,390'/8300m - 4 to 6 hours
    Teams place their camp 3 at several different spots on the ridge sinceit is steep, rocky and exposed. Now using supplemental oxygen, tentsare perched on rock ledges and are often pummeled with strong winds.This is higher than the South Col in altitude and exposure to theweather. It is the launching spot for the summit bid.

    Yellow Band
    Leaving C3, climbers follow the fixed rope through a snow filled gully;part of the Yellow Band. From here, climbers take a small ramp andreach the northeast ridge proper.

    First Step: 27890'/8500m
    The first of three rock features. The route tends to cross to the rightof the high point but some climbers may rate it as steep andchallenging. This one requires good foot work and steady use of thefixed rope in the final gulley to the ridge.

    Mushroom Rock -28047'/8549m - 2 hours from C3
    A rock feature that spotters and climbers can use to measure theirprogress on summit night. Oxygen is swapped at this point. The routecan be full of loose rock here adding to the difficulty with crampons.Climbers will use all their mountaineering skills.

    Second Step: 28140'/8577m - 1 hour or less
    This is the crux of the climb with the Chinese Ladder. Climbers mustfirst ascend about 10' of rock slab then climb the near vertical 30'ladder. This section is very exposed with a 10,000' vertical drop. Itis more difficult to navigate on the decent since you cannot see yourfeet placement on the ladder rungs. This brief section is notorious forlong delays thus increasing the chance of frostbite or AMS.

    Third Step: 28500'/8690m - 1 to 2 hours
    The easiest of the three steps but requires concentration to be safe.

    Summit Pyramid - 2 to 4 hours
    A steep snow slope, often windy and brutally cold, climbers feel veryexposed at this point.  Towards the top of the Pyramid, climbers areextremely exposed again as they navigate around a large outcropping andexperience three more small rock steps on a ramp before the final ridgeclimb to the summit.

    Summit: 29,035'/8850m - 1 hour
    The final 500' horizontal distance is along the ridge to the summit isquite exposed. Slopes angles range from 30 to 60 degrees.

    Return to Camp 3: - 7 -8 hours
    The down climb takes the identical route. Early summiters mayexperience delays at the 2nd Step with climbers going up or summitershaving down climbing issues.

    Return to ABC: 3 hours
    Packs can be heavy since everything hauled up over the preceding monthmust be taken back down. It is now almost June so the temperatures arewarmer making the snow mushy thus increasing the difficulty. But eachstep brings them closer to base camp comforts and on to their home andfamilies.

      For a more detailed description and route pictures, please see the Northeast Ridge route page.


      Eachyear is different on Everest. The temperatures can be colder or hotter,winter snows more or less and of course, the wildcard is when the jetstream moves off the summit.

      Predicting Everest weather isdifficult at best. Experts around the world send daily updates toexpedition leaders who analyze the reports as compared with what theyare seeing. When the winds are predicted to be under 25 m.p.h over a 48hour period, teams set off for the top of the world.

      So whichside is easier? As I always say, pick you poison. The south has theIcefall; the north the exposed northeast ridge and the Steps. In spiteof the Icefall dangers, I think most operators will say the south sideis safer and slightly easier. One sobering statistic backs up thisadvice - more climbers, by a 2:1 ratio,  have died on the north thanthe south since 2000 as I explained in this earlier post.

      Butthe real answer is no one knows for certain what each season willbring. So train hard, get skills on low mountains and altitudeexperience on another 8000m mountain before Everest and go with a teamyou can count on in an emergency.

      Climb On!


      Arnette is a speaker, mountaineer and Alzheimer's Advocate. You can read more on his site

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