Six months from now, climbing season begins in the Himalaya. Hundreds of climbers with varying levels of experience will attempt to summit the premier 8000 meter peak: Mount Everest. Many will make the top, others will turn back, and some will die. Will installing a ladder on the Hillary Step save lives? Or will it encourage the oxygen starved neophyte to take unnecessary risks?
The idea began with Dawa Steven Sherpa, prominent member of the Expedition Operators Association in Nepal. He believes that adding a ladder for descent only will reduce crowding and waiting at the Step, a 40-foot rock bottleneck right before the summit. He believes this will save lives, particularly Sherpa lives.
There is precedent for ladders. They are used to cross crevasses, particularly in the Khumbu Icefall, and a ladder is the only way to summit via the North route. High altitude mountaineers agree that no ladder is needed at the Hillary Step; skilled climbers use ropes or free-climb this area. It is the less-skilled that cause the delay, especially when multiple groups try to summit on the same day in a narrow weather window. The ladder idea obscures the more important problem on the mountain: unprepared climbers and greedy operators.
Everest is big business. Although most reputable outfits require prior 8000 meter experience (Manaslu or Cho Oyu), the situation on Everest is such that some groups are offering classes in basic mountaineering skills in Everest Base Camp. It would be impossible to limit ladder use to descent only; there are no climbing police and an easier
climb would appeal to all but the hardiest climber. The real problem, says Ed Viesturs, the only American to summit all fourteen 8000 meter peaks without oxygen, is overcrowding and lack of experience. He says a ladder at the Step would be like “slapping a Band-Aid on an artery that’s hemorrhaging.”
Ed looks to the mountaineering community to solve this problem, but he acknowledges that “personal ambition, a herd mentality, and summit fever all too easily overwhelm good judgment.” The Hillary Step is the final test, the place to recognize one’s limits, and understand that the summit is optional, but the descent is mandatory. A ladder will only entice those who should turn around to go forward, risking their lives and the lives of others.