Everest deaths: Is it time to make climbing the highest mountain safer?

After the deaths of 16 Sherpa guides in an avalanche last week, the British climber GRAHAM HOYLAND, who has twice cheated death on the world’s highest mountain, asks the key question.

Perhaps it’s now time to stop climbing Mount Everest through the lethal Khumbu Icefall. I know the place only too well, having been nearly killed there not once but twice.

Now 16 Sherpas have been crushed to death in the cascade of giant ice blocks that tumble down the Khumbu glacier. If this kind of death rate was going on at a Western tourist destination there would be no question: it would be shut down.

This is a relatively low stretch of the world’s highest mountain, from Base Camp to Camp One. The typical climber crosses the icefall only twice, once on the way up and again coming down. The average Sherpa passes through this area 20 to 30 times during the spring climbing season, carrying loads for Western clients. For this they earn around $8,000 (£4,800), about 10 times the Nepali average wage.

You start from Base Camp at dawn and put on your crampons as soon as the bare ice starts. Puffing hard in the thin air, you start climbing up and down the frozen waves of glacier. You skirt around ponds and haul yourself up icy crests. Soon you are jumping over crevasses and then you encounter your first ladders. Balancing over three ladders tied together across a bottomless void is nerve-racking. Then the fixed ropes start. These are woven up the icefall by a group of Sherpas called the “ice doctors”.

Thin ropes are attached to the ice by stakes and ice screws, and the idea is to clip yourself in – a sort of extreme stair rail. If you fall off the ladder, they might just hold you. After the three ladders, there is a collapsed section of ice we call Popcorn Alley, because the metre-wide blocks do look like a vast popcorn spillage down some giant staircase. It is hard to find something solid to stand on here. This is where the 16 Sherpas were killed.

Next comes the Hammer, a 50-tonne beam of cracked ice bridged across the route. As you try to rush under this, you know that one day soon it is going to fall. Then comes Happy Valley, a collapsed section of such terrifying insecurity you dare only whisper for fear of dislodging the tottering blocks around you.

Graham Hoyland believes the growing number of climbers on Everest needs tougher regulation by authorities in Nepal Graham Hoyland believes the growing number of climbers on Everest needs tougher regulation by authorities in Nepal
Climbing as hard as you can, in air that contains only half the normal amount of oxygen, you eventually come to the Great Slices: the top of the icefall. Here you can relax a bit, but Camp One is still hours away. Base Camp radios a warning of bad weather, so you pull on extra clothes and climb up into a snowstorm.

As I plodded along this path to Camp One, I thought about the first time I nearly came to grief in this dreadful place. We were filming the actor Brian Blessed. There was an explosive crack from the West Ridge, high above us. The leader yelled “Run!” and we jolted into the dream-like stagger that is all you can manage with crampons on your feet and thin air in your lungs. There was a roar behind us and the surging snow licked at our boots. We ran up to Camp One and collapsed, panting. We gazed at where we had been climbing. Thousands of tonnes of dirty ice now covered the route.

The next time it happened I was descending, seriously ill, and wearing an oxygen set to help my starving brain to survive until a rescue helicopter arrived. As we approached the top of the icefall, one of my companions clipped into the fixed ropes. At that moment, a huge block fell off with a roar and a cloud of white ice smoke. It was no more than two metres from us; it took out a section of ropes, and my heart sank: of all days to have to start abseiling down the bloody icefall! Ten seconds later it would have killed us.

Sensible friends ask: why indulge in such a crazy sport? The answer is simple: I was inspired by a family story.

I was 13 – he was 81. He was my cousin Howard Somervell, “Uncle Hunch”, who had been on the first attempt to climb Everest in 1922. In 1924, he had loaned his camera to his friend George Mallory and watched him disappear into clouds near the summit. He never returned. I was gripped by Mallory’s tale, and wanted to find out if he had actually climbed the mountain first.

I eventually got to the summit in 1993. I was working for the BBC by then and persuaded it to back my expedition to search for Mallory’s camera in 1999. We found Mallory’s body, as recounted in my book Last Hours on Everest, and I tried to figure out what happened to him.

I am now fairly confident that I know what happened on that fatal day in 1924 to George Mallory, the man who first set eyes on the infamous icefall. He was also the first man to see and name the Western Cwm, the valley that feeds the icefall, during the reconnaissance of 1921. He had spotted the route by which the British eventually climbed the mountain, but it looked dangerous to him.

In 1953, experienced mountaineers considered the risks acceptable to “knock off” (as Sir Edmund Hillary put it) the highest unclimbed summit, but the danger remains and now, with climate change, it seems to be getting worse.

 Amateurs who cannot walk straight in crampons or even tie knots stagger to the summit every May. Today, Everest is a tourist destination with 300 clients a year paying up to $90,000 (£54,000). The Nepali government makes millions of dollars in peak fees each season, so it will never close the mountain. But surely it is time to stop throwing away lives?

The most obvious measure is better regulation, which requires the Nepali government to get serious. Denali, the highest mountain in North America, is rigorously policed. Aconcagua, in Argentina, the highest peak outside the Himalayas, has a strict series of controls.

If Nepal won’t make changes, mountaineers should. There are safer ways up the mountain: the North Ridge route in Tibet has fewer unpredictable dangers. And helicopters could be used to shuttle climbers and stores directly to Camp One, above the icefall. Purists will hate the idea, but it would save lives.

Critics might say: “It’s OK for you – you’ve climbed it, and now you want to stop the rest of us.” My answer is that we can make climbing Everest safer – and we must.

Graham Hoyland’s book ‘Last Hours on Everest’ is published in paperback on 8 May (HarperCollins, £8.99)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game