It was the final obstacle, the 12m of technical climbing up a near vertical rock face that pushed Sir Edmund Hillary to the limit. Once climbed, the way to the summit of Mount Everest lay open.
Now, almost exactly 60 years after the New Zealander and his rope-mate, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, stood on the highest point in the planet, a new plan has been mooted to install a ladder on the famous Hillary Step, as the crucial pitch at 8,839m has been known since it was first ascended. The aim is to ease congestion.
“We are now discussing putting a ladder on the Hillary Step, but it is obviously controversial,” said Dawa Steven Sherpa, who runs commercial expeditions on Everest and is a senior member of the Expedition Operators Association in Nepal.
This year, 520 climbers have reached the summit of Everest. On May 19, about 150 climbed the last 914m of the peak from Camp IV within hours of each other, causing lengthy delays as mountaineers lined up to descend or ascend harder sections.
“Most of the traffic jams are at the Hillary Step because only one person can go up or down. If you have people waiting two, three or even four hours that means lots of exposure [to risk]. To make the climbing easier, that would be wrong. But this is a safety feature,” said Sherpa, who co-ordinates the work to prepare the traditional route up the mountain for clients who pay between US$45,000 and US$75,000.
The plan has received some support from the world’s mountaineering authorities.
Frits Vrijlandt, the president of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation, said the ladder could be a solution to the increasing numbers of climbers on the mountain.
“It’s for the way down, so it won’t change the climb,” Vrijlandt told the Guardian.
It is unlikely, however, that tired ascending climbers close to their ultimate goal will spurn such an obvious aid at such an altitude.
There are also plans to introduce more rigorous traffic controls on the so-called fixed ropes, which run almost from base camp to the summit and are fixed by specialist sherpas. One rope for climbers on the way up and one for those descending are to be installed.
Though such innovations are anathema to many purist climbers, they are welcomed by some Sherpas. Paid around US$7,000 for guiding a client to the summit, the Sherpas are regular casualties on the mountain. Nine people have died on Everest this year, including two veteran Sherpas.
Many Sherpas and other Nepalis want to develop the industry of guiding clients to the top with minimal risk to all involved, while many mountaineers want to preserve Everest as a climbing challenge that demands a significant level of experience, technical competence and acceptance of risk.
In related news, two climbers, a 67-year-old Japanese woman and a Spanish man, 50, and their guide have died on Mount Dhaulagiri, expedition organizers said yesterday.
Chizuko Kono from Japan, Spain’s Juanjo Garra and guide Dawa Sherpa went missing on Friday as they attempted to climb the world’s seventh-highest peak.
Garra slipped and broke his ankle, organizers said, but it was not immediately clear what happened to Kono and Dawa Sherpa.
The trio, who were part of a larger group of 21 climbers, were confirmed dead yesterday.
Additional reporting by AFP