The Hillary Step – Hidden or Gone?

May 25, 2017

There has been a lot of interest over the past week or so on the current status of the Hillary Step on the South Side of Everest.

The Hillary Step is a 12-metre (39ft) rock face, considered the last significant challenge for climbers en-route to the summit of Everest.

Definitely Gone?

It has been widely reported that this iconic section of the route had disappeared after confirmation from British mountaineer Tim Mosedale, who reached the summit on 16 May for the sixth time.

He was left in little doubt that the step was gone and that it would eventually have an impact on the route to the top of Everest.

He stated that it “definitely not there anymore”, and was most likely a victim of Nepal’s 2015 earthquake.

Then after his successful summit on 12th May, the Mexican climber David Liaño published before and after photos of the Hillary Step showing numbered rocks 1, 2 and 3 which do indeed appear to have moved.

HillaryStepDavidLiano

The Hillary Step this year (left) and the Hillary Step as it was previously (right)

Speculation of the collapse of the Hillary Step first appeared last season.

Those reports were quickly dismissed, with Nepali officials saying that it was still there, it just happened to be covered in snow and ice, making it appear different than it had in the past.

Confusion Reigns

Again this year the chairman of the Nepal Mountaineering Association Ang Tshering Sherpa is among several Nepalese climbers to cast doubt on Mosedale’s claim, stating “the Hillary Step is in its old position”.

Hillary Step Location

Graphic showing the location of the Hillary Step

“[It is] intact, except that there’s lots more snow on it so the rock portion is not easily visible,” he told the Associated Press.

According to The Guardian, Lila Basnet, a climber from Nepal who was among the first to reach the summit this year, agreed the feature was unchanged.

She said: “It appears there was much more snow in the area but we found nothing wrong with the Hillary Step. This is the fifth time I have climbed Everest and it all appears good.”

This hasn’t swayed the opinion of Mr Moseday who on Monday evening, via Facebook, stated: “there’s not enough snow to cover what was a MASSIVE block.”

British climber Kenton Cool, who made his 12th ascent of Everest this year, also tweeted a photo of the step, but said he simply climbed it to the right, making no mention of a possible rock collapse.

Historical Landmark

The step was named after New Zealand’s Edmund Hillary, who, along with local Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, became the first to successfully climb to its top in 1953.

It took Hillary some time to find a solution to the near-vertical 12m rock step on the South-East Ridge, a short distance below Everest’s summit.

He eventually climbed it by leaning back on a snow cornice as he edged his way up with his feet. It was a hazardous manoeuvre that could easily have ended tragically had the cornice broken off behind him.

We were now fast approaching the most formidable obstacle on the ridge – a great rock step. This step had always been visible in aerial photographs, and in 1951 on the Everest Reconnaissance, we had seen it quite clearly with glasses from Thyangboche. We had always thought of it as the obstacle on the ridge which could well spell defeat … Search as I could, I was unable to see an easy route up to the step or, in fact, any route at all. Edmund Hillary, High Adventure

Commercial operators now fix ropes up the step, which means it can be climbed by means of a jumar, a device that clamps to the rope, allowing climbers to haul themselves up.

Due to the number of climbers now present on Everest, the site became known for a bottleneck, with climbers sometimes waiting two or three hours to pass.

Watch This Space

It’s not unknown for a natural phenomenon to suddenly change the topography of a mountain.

As climbers return from the summit and post their reports, we will hear more details of the route above the South Summit.

Only then will we know for sure whether one of the most iconic elements of the most iconic mountaineering challenge has changed for good.