With Everest season just around the corner, the Nepalese government announced yesterday that it will be changing the route through the Khumbu icefall in response to last year's avalanche that killed 16 Sherpa climbers — the single deadliest event in Everest history. Many are saying that the new route will be far more arduous and will take more time, but that it is much less prone to avalanches. The Khumbu icefall, which sits between basecamp and Camp 1, accounts for more than 15 percent of all Everest deaths, across all routes.
The official Sherpa statement that came out of Nepal said "the route through the centre part will be difficult and time consuming but it will be relatively free from the risk of avalanche, as the ice cliffs and hanging glaciers [along the west shoulder] are comparatively far away from it."
Everest guide Dave Hahn, who has summited the world's highest mountain 15 times, says he's encouraged by the news, but hopes it reflects a much broader change. "Finally the focus isn't on labor relations or east versus west or rich clients and poor workers," he says. "Finally the focus is on something that will have practical value on the mountain: keeping, not just climbers, but Sherpa and cooks and everybody safer."
More specifically, Hahn hopes the announcement reflects changes in the support and resources Sherpa are given doing what is widely considered the most dangerous work on the mountain — fixing the route through the icefall with ropes and ladders that enable paying clients to move through it more easily. Every year in March an elite team of Sherpa known as the Icefall Doctors bring climbing hardware into the maze of ice blocks and seracs the size of SUVs to prepare it for the arrival of hundreds of guided foreign teams.
"I just hope this means they will be equipping the Icefall Doctors better," says Hahn. "I hope it means there will be more of them, and they get paid better. I hope it means there will be a better crew to fix the route rather than just pointing to the same six guys and saying 'Here, take on more hazard.'"
Throughout a typical climbing season, a Sherpa or porter might pass through the icefall 30 to 40 times.
The route up the center of the Khumbu Icefall is not actually a new one, and had been used as recently as five or six years ago. The route has, in fact, moved around the icefall several times since the mountain was first climbed in 1953. It diverted up the left side a few years ago when the central route was deemed too broken up.
After last year's disaster, Sherpa climbers boycotted and made new demands about pay, working conditions, and compensation for families, in the event of their death. This latest announcement is likely the result of those ongoing negotiations. The Icefall Doctors are due to begin their work fixing the new route through the Khumbu next month.
Hahn is cautiously optimistic. "The news coming out of Nepal could easily misinterpreted to mean 'problem solved'," he says. But Hahn says Mother Nature ultimately dictates the safest route through the Khumbu: "Directing the route more toward the center might be a good thing, but we really need to just wait and see how the Khumbu breaks up this year."