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.
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)