Everest 2010: A Tibetan Preview from Jamie McGuinness


It is about a month before teams from all around the world packtheir duffel bags for the flights to Kathmandu. Thus far the southlooks like business as usual with about 16 teams already announced. Toput this in perspective, in 2007, when we saw a record number ofEverest summits, there were about 17 teams on each side.

One question for 2010 is how the north will shape up. It has been afew years since climbing was open from the north. The Chinese closedEverest with their desire to celebrate the 2008 Olympics in Beijing bytaking the torch to the summit.

This created difficulties in getting permits and access to routes in2007 when they did a practice climb and again in 2008 when they took atorch to the summit. In 2009, violence in Lhasa resulted in Chinaclosing Tibet to foreigners for most of the climbing season.

The north side is generally considered the “tougher” side to climbwith colder temps and a slightly more technical upper route but 46% ofclimbers said in my pollthat they want to climb Everest from Tibet. Since the permit costs arelower, it is also considered the “bargain” side of Everest.

No matter how it is perceived, it is the deadly side of Everest with 32 deaths vs. 16 on the south since 2000, as I reported earlier.

There were at least four planned traverses which, obviously,involved climbs on the north side but to the best of my knowledge allhave been delayed due to permitting issues on the Tibet side.

For 2010, it looks like the north side of Everest may be somewhatreturning the traffic volume of a number of years ago. The north tendsto attract more independent and national expeditions than commercialteams. At this point, these commercial expeditions have announcedintentions:

  • Adventure Extreme Expeditions
  • Adventure Dynamics
  • Adventure Peaks
  • Asian Trekking
  • Project Himalaya
  • Summit Climb
  • 7 Summits

With all this as a brief introduction, I reached out to Kathmandu resident and owner of guide service Project Himalaya, Jamie McGuinness. He was not in Nepal but in Mendoza leaving for aclimb of Aconcagua. I wanted to get his views on the north for 2010.

I am not sure if Jamie is a professional mountaineer, trekker or photographer!

I went to Shishapangma with Jamie in 2006. He runs a tight operationwith top notch Sherpas and base camp operations. If you have ever metJamie, you know he is quite willing to share his thoughts on most anymatter and has an annoying habit of being well informed!

He is one of those people you wouldn't mind being trapped in a tent with for a week. You might learn something!

In any event, here are Jamie's thoughts on Everest this year:

Q: Tell us a bit about Project Himalaya? Any new cameras for 2010?

Project Himalaya is a lifestyle for myself, Kim Bannister and JoelSchone. We run the treks that we want to do and hope that people shareour enthusiasm for our mostly exploratory treks. Everest and other bigpeaks feed the business side, but are still good value and our teamstend to be small, much smaller than comparable companies. Perhaps ourmarketing is a little low key.

Ha, we are both photo geeks… See the last adventure– a truly crazy trek on river ice, and nearly as risky as climbingEverest. I am Canon 5D mark ii guy dreaming but am getting a 50mm lensand am ready for the challenge of a fast primer over the ease of usingzooms.

Q: How is the permit process going thus far for climbing Everest (and Cho Oyu and Shishapangma) from Tibet in 2010?

For us everything is on track. It is worth understanding that it isstill the period between Chinese New Year and the Lantern Festivalthough, most civil servants are on holiday.

Q: Will there be any traverses this year?

Nobody on our team is attempting the traverse but my guess – and itis a guess – is that they will be allowed, at least climbers on thestandard traverse. I am not so sure on the double traverses, and otherfirsts though.

Q: You have climbed from both sides, Jamie, what do you think are the major differences?

As far as the chance of summit success goes, I think both sides are equal, the differences are many though.

The (south side) ice fall seemed less dangerous than I wasexpecting, but was surprised at the seriousness of the rock fallbetween South Col and the
Balcony and am surprised nobody has been seriously injured or killedthere. We heard a few stones whizzing past us, and one real rock thatwas uncomfortably close, but all invisible at night. If that area wascovered in snow, there is probably no rock fall danger though. It seemsto me the
chance of random incidences are significantly higher on the south side.

The north side has a major advantage in that you can trek, that iswalk, up to 6400m and climb up to 7000m very easily, conditions arealmost a non-issue. On the south side there are queues that matterthrough the icefall but other than that it is straightforward to get toABC/camp to at 6400m. However acclimatizing higher requires the ropesbe in place (fixed by teams themselves rather than the icefall doctors)and good snow conditions, it feels a far more significant altitude,involves more challenges to sleep at ~7200m/Camp 3.

As far as technical climbing difficulties go, the north side withits tricky second step and ladder is often portrayed as a moretechnical climbing, but that is focusing on one point only. The Firstand Second steps definitely require hauling hard on and trusting fixedropes, and are real bottlenecks, but on the south side you are totallyreliant on the fixed ropes for a long section across the Lhotse faceand on summit day there are a number of bottlenecks, especially theHillary Step.

It is often portrayed that the summit day on the north side islonger than on the south, which is  virtually irrelevant, and in factthey are about the same number of hours. On the North you are startingat the 8300m camp (actually 8210m), so significantly higher than the7900m South Col, and 2-3 hours faster to the summit. Because of theterrain, descending from the summit on the south side is faster thanthe North but on the south slower climbers descend to 7900m; on thenorth it is usual to reach 7650m, an altitude where you can manage moreeasily without oxygen.

Perhaps the major factor though, usually unmentioned, is actuallygetting to the highest camp. On the south side it is easier to get toSouth Col in windy conditions, the north side climb to 8300m is morecommitting.

The last major aspect is dropping in altitude to recover and this isso easy on the south side, trekking down to a lodge in Dingboche,4350m; on the north side we can walk down to around 4900m but goinglower requires driving, and the accommodations, meals are not inspiring.

Overall, I think the north side is safer from random danger; the south side is more comfortable.

Q: You like to summit late in the season when on the north. What is your strategy with this approach?

It is simply a matter of safety, an early May window can beextremely cold, with a substantial risk of frostbite as a many climbershave found to their cost. There is much less room for error, movingslowly has greater danger. Additionally, in contrast to the south sidewhere the ice fall becomes even more dangerous in late May, the northside simply gets easier with a higher margin of safety, the route isnever truly closed as the ropes do not require nearly as muchmaintenance.

All this must be balanced against the timing of a summit window,which is almost entirely jet stream-dependent, and the possibility ofanother summit window.

Q: Do you think we will see the north side attract more climbersthan south one day similar to in 2006 when we saw an equal number ofsummits from both sides?

That depends on China, and whether they reduce the uncertaintysurrounding permits and visas; internal stability is more important tothem than anything else. In Nepal you know that you will not be stoppedin the paperwork stage, even if there are strikes and the place is acomplete mess politically.

Thanks Jamie. best of luck on Aconcagua and Everest his Spring. You can follow Jamie and his team on his website where he presents the best pictures during an Everest climb anywhere.

Climb On!


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