North side vs South side
There are 2 main routes on Everest that are run as expeditions suited to aspiring Everest summiteers.
The North side is in Tibet and its Base Camp is approached by road from Kathmandu via a border crossing, or by road from Lhasa. The Tibetan plateau is uniformly above around 4,500m and is dry and arid and Base Camp is situated at around 5,200m
The South side is in Nepal and is approached by trekking along the Khumbu Valley from an airstrip at the village of Lukla. Lukla is situated at 2,820m and there is the opportunity to make a gradual ascent taking anything from 7 to 20 days to get to Base Camp which is situated at around 5,250m.
Pros and Cons
There are pros and cons for both sides when looked at objectively. There are some subjective issues that come in to effect as well which are also mentioned.
South Col Route
1. Trek to base camp in the Khumbu
Irrespective of how beautiful it is the fact that clients are trekking means that they are exercising at altitude which is one of the key strategies for getting acclimatised. Our trip incorporates a 3 week trekking itinerary, taking in 3 passes (all over 5,000m and progressively higher) as well as an easy 20,000ft peak, which means that when our group arrive at Base Camp they will have already slept higher and be very well acclimatised
2. Easy access to villages for pre-summit recovery
This is an option that may or may not be used – but at least it is an option. In the event that a full acclimatisation schedule has been completed there is the possibility to
descend to lower elevations and allow team members the opportunity to rest and recuperate at less rarefied altitudes prior to the final summit bid
3. Helicopter rescue from as high as 6,500m (Camp 2) if necessary
Hopefully not an option that will need to be used but in the event that a member becomes critically ill at high altitude then helicopter evacuation could well make the difference between life and death. This is particularly the case if someone is incapacitated by HACE / HAPE / fractures or head trauma and movement is difficult or even impossible.
4. Warmer and usually less windy
The South side of the mountain is much warmer and not as windy. To that end members are usually in a much better mental and physical state 7 or 8 weeks in to the expedition making them less debilitated by the effects of living continuously at moderate and high altitude which, in turn, makes them better prepared for the summit.
1. Khumbu Icefall instability
The Khumbu Icefall is an area of slow moving glacier that blocks the way between Everest Base Camp and Camp 1 which is situated at 6,000m. Despite its fierce reputation The Khumbu Icefall has not actually been the main cause for loss of life on The South side over the years (more figures later). It is obviously an area that does cause concern due to the constantly slow flow of the glacier but this can be militated against by having as few trips through The Khumbu icefall as necessary, and moving quickly. This is another reason why the 3 week trekking itinerary is useful because it means that on our expedition only 2 or 3 return journeys are required through The Icefall as opposed to 4, 5 or even 6 return journeys that some teams have to make to become acclimatised. Additionally, because the group will be well acclimatised they will undertake the journey quicker than less acclimatised groups.
2. Crowds, especially on summit night
The South side is definitely busier but, again, this can be militated against by being careful to observe what other teams are doing, by making sure that we avoid busy days where possible, and by carrying extra supplies of oxygen so that, in the event of being slowed down, we aren’t going to run out of oxygen.
Northeast Ridge Route
1. Less crowds
The North side is generally not as busy but, because it is cheaper, it does attract a far higher percentage of people who are trying to summit on a budget (see below).
2. Can drive to base camp
This is a plus in that it reduces the cost of transporting all the expedition equipment but it is a minus because it is much harder to become acclimatised on the way to Base Camp and there are fewer options for sensible acclimatisation whilst at Base Camp.
3. Easier climbing to mid-level camps
Whilst it is certainly true that the angle and gradient is easier to get to the mid-level camps the 22km journey from Base Camp to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) in particular does make for a gruelling trip.
Because The North side is cheaper it attracts people who are trying Everest on a budget. Additionally, if they have enrolled with a cheaper Kathmandu operator they will have less technical support and advice and may end up being wholly reliant on themselves to sort out the complex logistics, their acclimatisation itinerary and their emergency protocols. Generally these people are not as well trained and they are often trying to cut costs in other areas – namely not having Climbing Sherpas or oxygen. This then skews the fact that it is quieter because responsible members are surrounded by people who shouldn’t be there, who have no support and back up and are a liability to themselves and therefore everyone around them. It is well advised to steer clear of these groups.
2. Difficulty acclimatising
Partly due to the drive in, and partly due to the fact that the Tibetan plateau is uniformly above 4,500m, it is more difficult to become well acclimatised to the rarefied atmosphere on the North side than on the South. This, in turn, can have repercussions later in the trip when going to extreme altitude.
3. Colder temps and harsher winds
There is less exposure to the sun on the North side making it a colder and windier environment to live and survive in. This can have a massive detrimental effect not only on the physical state of clients but also their mental state and general demeanour.
In a debilitated state people are also much more prone to illness which, in turn, can affect performance.
4. Camps at higher elevations
The respective camps on the North and South are much higher on the North side. For instance ABC on the North side is at around 6,400m which is the elevation that Camp 2 is at on the South. Combined with the cold I personally found ABC on the North side a challenging place to be existing whereas Camp 2 on the South was a pleasant, warm place to be resting and acclimatising.
5. More difficult summit day terrain with smooth or loose rocks
The terrain on summit night on the North is particularly challenging. The nature of the mountain is that on the South side you start from 7,950m whereas on the North side the top camp is at a very high 8,300m. The top camp on the North is also further from the summit meaning that once the exit cracks have been negotiated there is then a long technical traverse making little gain in altitude. The terrain is rocky and precipitous and the chances of rescuing anyone on this section are greatly diminished due to the nature of the route. On the South side if anyone becomes incapacitated they can be slid back down to the South Col and on down to The Western Cwm where they can then be transferred to a helicopter if necessary (still a huge effort, but achievable).
6. No opportunity for helicopter rescue at any point
If, at any stage on The North side, a climber becomes injured or incapacitated, the only option is for them to be carried on a stretcher, or on the back of a Yak, 22km to Base Camp and then be transferred to a vehicle for a 6 to 8 hour drive to the border. After overnighting at the border there is a further 6 to 8 hour drive back to Kathmandu before professional medical assistance can be reached. This doesn’t include the difficulty of getting the injured person down to ABC in the first place. This could well become a multi-day evacuation and if the client needed medical supervision along the way a very difficult undertaking.
Taking all the evidence and facts in to account The South side is deemed to be a far safer side to be undertaking an expedition on Everest and the success rate of those attempting the mountain is far higher as well. When this is combined with a much higher mortality rate on The North side one can easily conclude that the South side, despite the increased cost, is the more pragmatic side to be on.
Deaths and causes on Everest.
Unbelievably it is difficult to get 100% accurate records for deaths and their causes on Everest. There can be a lot of confusion involved with why people have perished, particularly if they are on the mountain as part of a budget operation. Sometimes information is hard to come by and assumptions have had to be made.
Based on recent tables, the north side fatality rate is more than 2:1 over the south with altitude issues, exhaustion and falls noted as the primary reasons.
Generally speaking when people succumb to problems caused by extreme altitude and / or exhaustion this can often be tracked back to the fact that they are with a budget operator with no leadership, poor logistical support, little or no oxygen and poor (or no) Sherpa support.
Here is the summary update with statistics relating to deaths on Everest in the last decade:
Reason NE Ridge S Col Route
Altitude 9 2
Exhaustion 8 1
Fall 7 3
Exposure 4 0
Avalanche 1 3
Crevasse 0 4
Unknown 6 1
Heart 1 1
Totals 36 15
That the north side death rate is higher is not surprising. The north is traditionally considered slightly more dangerous given the exposure to the cold and harsh winds plus the technical nature of the Steps and exposed rock on the summit ridge.
Due to lower costs, more independent climbers are on the north thus sometimes finding themselves alone in the event of a problem.
Also, it seems that more climbers do not use supplemental oxygen on the north than on the south which also can accelerate altitude issues especially in the harshest of conditions.
Traditionally commercial operators have focused on the south thus fielding more Sherpas.
In spite of the Icefall dangers, most operators will say the south side is safer and slightly easier.
The sobering statistic backs up this advice – more climbers, by a 2:1 ratio, have died on the north than the south since 2000.
This has been further updated with another comparative study here.