American climbers Garrett Madison and Ben Jones, both of whom summited Everest in the final weeks of May, tell Outside that the Hillary Step has been significantly altered. Their revelations bring clarity to a debate that left the mountaineering world wondering whether or not Everest’s most iconic feature still existed.
The Hillary Step, which is located at an elevation of 28,839 feet, was a near-vertical rock outcropping 200 feet below Everest’s summit. It has long been one of the most foreboding obstacles on the mountain’s South Col route. Named after Sir Edmund Hillary, who in 1953 used the 39-foot feature to make the first ascent of Everest with Tenzing Norgay, the step was among the most challenging and notorious features on the mountain.
In its previous form, the step was comprised of four large boulders and several smaller rocks stacked on top of each other. But both Madison and Jones tell Outside that the main boulder—the largest and highest rock in the feature—is gone. Both join other observers in speculating that the boulder was shaken loose during the massive earthquake that hit the region in 2015.
“The boulder formally know as the Hillary Step is gone,” Madison says. “It’s pretty obvious that the boulder fell off and has been replaced by snow. You can see some of the rocks below it that were there before, but the gigantic boulder is missing now.”
Madison, who completed his eighth summit of Everest on May 23, sent Outside before and after photos of the Hillary Step—one image from 2011 and another from 2017—that show where the boulder is missing. Dave Hahn, an experienced guide who has summited Everest 15 times (more than any non-Sherpa climber), reviewed the images at Outside’s request. “The photos show pretty conclusively that a large mass of rock is missing. I’d say that [main] boulder is absolutely gone,” he says. Hahn also noted that there are “scars” of lighter rock exposed that didn’t exist before, but he hopes to examine higher resolution photos in the future.
“The main boulder that is the actual step is completely gone. There is no question in my mind that it is gone,” says Jones, a guide for Alpine Ascents who made his fourth summit of Everest on May 27.
Speculation regarding the Hillary Step’s condition began a year ago, when climbers summited Everest for the first time since the earthquake. But there was so much snow near the summit in 2016 that mountaineers couldn’t determine whether the step was gone or just buried. The debate ignited in mid-May, when British mountaineer Tim Mosedale posted a picture of the step on Twitter with a caption that read, in part, “The Hillary Step is no more.” However, soon after his post, Nepalese officials disputed Mosedale’s claim, telling CNN it was a “false rumor.”
The debate left media outlets and climbers confused, not knowing what, if anything, remained of the feature. But now that mountaineers like Madison and Jones have returned from the mountain, the consensus is that the Hillary Step is a shell of its former self. “Now, instead of the Hillary Step, you have some snow steps on a 45-degree angle,” Madison says. “And it actually makes the climbing much easier because instead of ascending this pure vertical rock face, it’s just walking up some snow steps with a fixed line.”
When weather windows make it possible to summit, droves of climbers head up the South Col at once, and the Hillary Step was known for creating a bottleneck anytime there was heavy traffic—a relatively common occurrence in recent years. Hahn, for instance, says that he remembers once standing in line for an hour, waiting for over 100 people to come off the summit before he could climb the step. Madison predicts that, because the main boulder fell, traffic congestion might be more easily mitigated. “It’s actually safer now because you can essentially walk around people and two way traffic is easier.”
Whether or not the section will be easier to climb is still up for debate. Jones noted that on May 27 his team also climbed snow steps where the main boulder used to be, but “there are some definite loose boulders and bigger rocks in that area that could pose a little bit of a danger,” especially in a dryer climbing season, he says.
Hahn also is skeptical about whether the section will be easier. “Even if the rocks fell away, you’re still going to have an elevation change there in the ridge,” he says. “You’ll always have a step in the ridge, but maybe not the same obstacles as before.” In Hahn’s mind, the real loss is the “monument” to the climbers who first summited Everest. “It was an extremely great tribute to Tenzing and Hillary,” he says. “I couldn’t climb it without thinking of them.”