Mount Everest Climbing Routes - insights and conditions on the trail

by Brantley F

Deep in the Himalayas, resting in the Mahalangur Range, the enigmatic Mt. Everest looms above its neighbors, daring adventurers to summit. This enigma has taken several different forms over the years, however, as the mountain has become more accessible to people around the world. When first dubbed as the tallest mountain in the world in 1852 by the British, it was awe and bewilderment that occupied the minds of its surveyors 1 . Once summited n 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the paradigm of Everest as an indomitable feature of this immense planet shifted into a viable feat. Though it was exceedingly perilous, Hillary and Norgay’s achievement in summiting Everest became a call-to-arms to mountaineers and thrill-seekers everywhere to test their mettle against the volatile conditions of the Mahalangur Range. The routes to the summit today are littered with evidence of this call being answered; oxygen tanks, articles of clothing, food wrappers, and human excrement serve as reminders that anyone attempting to summit Mount Everest is on the right path, irrespective of the environmental implications.

That said, there are multiple paths by which one could feasibly summit Mt. Everest – eighteen to be exact. Only two of these eighteen routes to the top have actually resulted in a successful summit, though. I have a big conscience that doesn’t let me sleep at night, therefore I have no intention of suggesting any of you consider one of the sixteen routes that have not been completed. So, for the purpose of this article, we will only discuss the two most traveled and successful routes. For those who are not technically skilled enough yet to summit Mount Everest, you can attempt the Everest Base Camp trek . It is an incredible experience and will test your will and dedication.

The two routes to the Everest summit (for all practical discussions) are :

  1. The Northeast Ridge Route ( from Tibet)
  2. The South Col. ( from Nepal )

Northeast Ridge Route (North Col)

The North Side of Everest is widely regarded as the more technically difficult, but more desirable method of climbing by most climbing enthusiasts. The North Side touts less crowds, largely due to the Chinese government's strict climbing permit policies, but is also subject to stronger winds and less successful summits. Bearing this in mind, there are 7 routes taken from the North Side which have had successful summits. Only one of those routes, though, has had more than two successful ascents in the past 60 years: The North Ridge Route 3 . For information purposes, though, below are the other routes available for those with little regard for their lives.

A graphic showing the route to the Everest summit with various landmarks and reference points

The Northern Ridge Route. Photo credit

The Ascent: Northeast Ridge Route

The Northeast Ridge Route, often referred to as “North Col”, originates from Tibet. Its Base Camp, located at 17,000’/5666m, is just outside of Rongbuk Monastery. It’s accessible by car, and it is from here that the acclimatizing begins. From the Base Camp climbers take on a 2 day trip along the East Rongbuk Glacier to the Advanced Base Camp (ABC), stopping along the way at an interim base camp for acclimatizing at 21,300’/6400m.

Once fully acclimatized to this area, climbers continue on to North Col, more commonly referred to as Camp 1 (23,000’/7000m). There are 4 camps in total; the first two have climbers acclimatize for a few days at each. The first is a 2,200 ft. climb, and a relatively taxing one at that. Almost an entire mile of vertical gain is spent on a fixed rope, ascending at 60 degrees. This portion of the climb generally takes anywhere from four to seven hours, depending on the individual’s ability to acclimatize and their experience climbing.

From Camp 1 to Camp 2 (24,750’/7500m) begins the area called the “High Camps”, and from this point is where many expeditions decide to take drastically different approaches to the rest of their ascent. Reaching this camp usually takes 3 to 5 hours, and is sometimes used as the last camp for acclimatizing. This decision varies based on the climbers.

Consistent with the mentality towards Camp 2, Camp 3 is sometimes skipped altogether, considering it’s only another 300 meters from Camp 3 to Camp 4. Again, this decision varies on the expedition and the members of the group. Once at this point, Camp 3 or Camp 4, very little rest is taken until the push for the summit. Spending too much time at this altitude can be dangerous for a variety of reasons, so many expeditions push on through camp four after a couple hours of rest, rehydration, and nourishment.

After Camp 4 begins the most difficult climbing section of the ascent, and speaks to the aforementioned technical difficulty unique to the North Side ascents. After leaving Camp 4, expeditions will encounter a series of 3 “steps” on the Northeast Ridge that stand between them and their summit. Although steep and incredibly difficult at this altitude, the three steps are equipped with ladders and fixed ropes. Once through the three steps, climbers spend an hour navigating the Summit Pyramid that leads to Summit Ridge, the final 500’ of horizontal traversing to the summit 2 . These last two sections are not to be trifled with, and if you’re complacent at this point in the journey, be sure that the 10,000 ft drop-offs on either side will jar your senses with a fresh reminder of your mortality. 

South Col Route

The South Col route is accessed from Nepal, and is regarded as the technically easier, yet slightly more dangerous route in which climbers choose to ascend Everest. The Khumbu Ice Fall is the source of this danger, due to its frequent instability. Unlike the North Side, it’s much easier to obtain a climbing permit for the South Col route through Nepal. For this reason, there is significantly more climber traffic along the route, especially as one approaches the summit. The South Col route is the one Hillary and Norgay took to make the first summit back in 1953.

The Ascent: The South Col Route

There’s an entirely separate adventure to be had just to begin the ascent from the south side. In order to reach base camp, climbers have to take a uniquely sketchy plane right to Lukla, Nepal, where the plane is almost literally flown into a mountain. The runway is actually built on a slope so gravity can assist in decelerating the plane upon landing, and accelerating the plane when you’re taking off. Once there, one must trek 35 miles from Lukla to get to the base camp 4 . Below you can see the preferred route from the south side of Everest.

A graphic showing the South Col route to the Everest summit with various landmarks and reference points

The South Col Route. Photo credit

Beginning from base camp (17,500 ft), and after a few days of acclimatizing, hikers will begin their ascent early in the morning after a quick breakfast, so to avoid the havoc of a deteriorating Khumbu Ice Fall. In recent years, more people have died on this section of the climb than any other on the south side. “Icefall Doctors” work to keep climbers on routes where seracs and avalanches most frequently occur, however, this isn’t always possible. Climbers proceed through areas heralded as popcorn and football field, to describe the nature of the landscape. This section generally takes 3-6 hours depending on acclimatization.

It’s this point where the climbers begin progressing through the camps on what’s known as the Western CWM. With the reflection of the sun off the ice, temperatures can easily reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and if that isn’t enough to thwart us thrill-seekers, perhaps the crevasses that are barely covered by layers of snow will. If not, let’s proceed from Camp 1 to Camp 2, which is about 1.74 miles one way (1,500’ gain in altitude), and takes roughly 2-3 hours to complete. Hikers, if they are smart, are generally clipped into the fixed rope for the entirety of the journey from here-on.

The next step is to scale Lhotse Face (as pictured above) to proceed to Camp 3. This section usually involves a 40 to 50 degree incline. What’s worse is climbers ascending often have run-ins with climbers descending, which can greatly alter the length of this section, but at least you can meet some fellow climbers in their natural habitat, right? At 1.64 miles, this point of the trip takes about 3-6 hours, the last bit of it being the most physically exhausting.

To proceed from Camp 3 to the actual South Col trail (beginning with Camp 4), expeditions must take the Yellow Band to the Geneva Spur. It’s at this juncture where climbers implement the use of their oxygen tanks. At these altitudes, any section of climbing is going to be difficult, and these areas are no exception, however, depending on the amount of snow, the latter portion of this hike (Geneva Spur) is fairly easy 5 .

Sitting from your resting point at Camp 4 you can actually see the summit 1.07 miles away if the weather is clear. This section is generally the most crowded and is completed at night. After several hours into the hike, clipped into their fixed lines, climbers will reach what’s referred to as the Balcony. They’ll stop here for a little nourishment and some fresh tanks, then proceed up the southeast ridge to the summit. 

Comparison of the two Everest routes

Both the routes have certain advantages and disadvantages which we will list in brief below:

The South Col Route via Nepal is the more popular route. It has been chosen by thousands of climbers since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay used it in 1953. There are many villages in Nepal along the route to the base camp and these help tremendously in recovering for the summit attempt. The base camp itself isn't accessible by road, but features a beautiful trek, with travellers staying in Guest Houses each night till they reach Khumbu. The weather is also slightly warmer when comparerd to the alternate, which helps . The Nepalese route, being more tourist friendly ( since the economy depends a lot on tourist spending ), also has better safeguards in place, like mandatory insurance which features a Helicopter rescue from Base Camp if necessary.

The Nepalese South Col route also has some backdraws. The most well-known of which is the Khumbu Icefall instability. This makes the route a little more unpredictable. The other aspect is that    being a more popular route, there are more people attempting to reach the summit. This can be especially disadvantageous on summit night, which is also longer as compared to the northern routes.

The Northeast Ridge route is slightly easier because it has lesser crowds, and you can drive right upto the base camp, which means that you will be well rested when you make it upto the higher camps. The summit night is also shorter. On the other hand, the northern routes have appreciably colder temperatures. The winds are also harsher and more unforgiving than their southern counterparts. The camps are at higher elevations and the route is a bit more tricky with smooth and loose rocks on the path. There is also no helicopter rescue available when you climb from the Northern route, which in my opinion, is a pretty big disadvantage. 

Right until 2007, it was also cheaper to climb via Nepal, but that is no longer the case.

I hope you enjoyed this short insight into the routes that trekkers use to successfully summit Everest. In case you require any help, or any information, you can always contact me here .

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