After three years of unprecedented turmoil on the world's tallest peak, the scene at Everest returned to business as usual in 2016: tourists filled the surrounding valleys and villages, and more than 600 climbers summited. Now, with confidence restored and the 2017 spring climbing season about to begin, some believe we could witness history of a different kind—especially because Everest permit extensions from the seasons lost in 2014 (due to an avalanche) and 2015 (due to an earthquake) allow hundreds of climbers to attempt the peak this year on credit.
"I think 2017 could be the busiest season yet on Everest," says Garrett Madison, a seven-time summiter whose company, Madison Mountaineering, is leading 11 clients up the peak this spring. Here’s what to expect this year.
Ueli Steck Returns
Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck and a young Nepali mountaineer named Tenji Sherpa will attempt what Steck is calling the "Lhotse Traverse" without supplemental oxygen. It's a new route that would link Everest and neighboring Lhotse, the world's fourth tallest peak, using the never-repeated Everest traverse pioneered by Americans Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld in 1963. Hornbein and Unsoeld ascended the West Ridge from Camp 2, traversed over to the eponymous Hornbein Couloir on the north face, climbed that to a snowfield that led to the summit, then descended to the South Col and returned to base camp.
Steck and Tenji will break from the 1963 route at the South Col and follow an exposed traverse to the Lhotse Couloir that was pioneered by Kazakh alpinist Denis Urubko in 2010. After summiting Lhotse, the pair intends to either return to Base Camp or, if they're feeling strong, continue their enchainment with a third peak—possibly 25,791-foot Nuptse, a sharp skyscraper next to Lhotse, though Steck wouldn't say what his third permit is for.
It's Steck's first trip to Everest since 2013, when he, Simone Moro, and Jonathan Griffith got into a fight with a group of Sherpas on Everest. A verbal argument at 23,000 feet led to a physical altercation, and the trio abandoned the peak. Lost in the aftermath was the fact that Steck and his partners had been attempting the same route he will try again this year.
Kilian Jornet Wants a Record
After being thwarted by shoddy weather and unstable snow last fall on Everest, Spanish ultrarunner Kilian Jornet tried to get a permit for another attempt this coming fall, again from the north side. But the Chinese denied his request, so he bumped up his trip to this spring. He will again try to establish a speed record from Rongbuk, in China, (16,300 feet) to the summit, an ascent that he expects to take around 25 to 30 hours, he wrote in an email.
Pioneering a New Route
Also in Tibet, David Goettler of Germany and Hervé Barmasse of Italy are attempting a new route on the south face of Shishapangma, a Himalayan mountain that is the 14th highest peak in the world. It is the same route that Goettler and Steck tried last spring before bad weather shut them down. (Their trip also took on a new dimension when they discovered the bodies of Alex Lowe and David Bridges.)
Exploring the North Side
In the ongoing debate over whether it is better to access Everest from the north (via Tibet) or south (via Nepal), a major change to permit fees could sway opinions. The Chinese Tibetan Mountaineering Association this year raised its Everest fee for Western climbers by 32 percent, from $11,000 to $14,500, while Nepal kept its fee at $11,000. In addition, China imposed stiff limits on fall permit numbers and closed Shishapangma for the autumn, according to International Mountain Guides co-owner Eric Simonson. Most outfitters surveyed for this story remain committed to whichever side they have used in the past, with the north’s less hazardous approach offset by more predictable permitting in Nepal.
You've probably heard that the glaciers around Everest are melting. Well, according to a paper by British researcher Owen King published this year in the European journal on geoscience, The Cryosphere, it is happening faster than ever—and the rate is still accelerating. King and his research partner, Scott Watson, also just submitted a paper that shows the surface of the Khumbu Glacier has dropped in height by as much as 230 feet over the past 32 years. Due to its disintegration, King and Watson predict the heavily used Kongma La Pass trail will become impassible by 2020 and will have to be rerouted around the glacier.
Meanwhile, longtime Everest guide Adrian Ballinger, a six-time summiter with oxygen, returns for his second attempt without supplemental oxygen after revamping his diet to improve endurance. He and Cory Richards, who summited last year, will again use Snapchat to chronicle their journey at #everestnofilter.
Also on Everest, 50-year-old Andy Holzer of Austria will attempt to become the second blind man to summit, while British climber Ian Toothill is trying to become (what he says would be) the first person with cancer to summit.