The frozen bodies poking out of the snow along the main routes up Everest are reminders of how dangerous the world’s highest mountain still is to climb and how hard it is to bring a fallen climber down from the “death zone” above 8,000 metres.
The riskiest section of the most popular route is the Hillary Step, a steep rock outcrop high above the South Col, 300 feet below the summit. The climbing is difficult, but the danger lies mainly in the altitude. To hang around here is to court disaster. No one would dawdle at the Hillary Step for the fun of it, but many have to, just to wait for other climbers struggling up and down.
In 1996 and again in 2012, bottlenecks above and below the Step played a role in multiple deaths. Delays hastened the onset of hypothermia and altitude sickness in climbers who should have been descending as fast as possible to relative safety. Even in a “good” year, the Step is a death trap.
To make it safer, Nepalese authorities are considering installing fixed ladders up the Step for the climbing season. Their motives are laudable but their solution is wrong.
Every year Sherpas already fix safety ropes all the way up the Step, mainly for the use of high-paying clients of commercial expeditions. These make it technically straightforward even for inexperienced climbers. What no amount of extra equipment bolted to the rock can do is turn amateur adventurers who spend most of the year in an office into elite mountaineers. Ladders might, in fact, fool more people into thinking Everest is no more than an arduous hike.
The chance of climbing Everest is open to anyone, and the local economy depends on those who pay to compensate for lack of experience or fitness. The way to keep the death toll in the “death zone” down is not to pretend the climb is easy. It is to remind people that it is hard.