Leave the Hillary Step Ladderless Urges American Mountaineer
“Sixty years ago this week, as Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay approached the summit of the world’s highest mountain, they were stopped by a 40-foot wall of rock and ice,” American mountaineer Ed Viesturs writes for The New York Times. “It was, Hillary later wrote, ‘a formidable looking problem … We realized that at this altitude it might well spell the difference between success and failure.’ Employing the skills he had learned in the New Zealand Alps, Hillary jammed his feet, hands and shoulders into a thin crack between a ridge of ice and the rock and, as he put it, ‘levered myself’ up the wall. Then he brought Tenzing up on a tight rope, and together they climbed the final 300 feet to become the first humans to stand on the summit of Mount Everest. Today, that 40-foot wall is called the Hillary Step. Each May, large numbers of climbers line up to attempt it, causing a lengthy – and dangerous – backup. But this past week, it was reported that the Expedition Operators Association, a Nepali organization that manages teams climbing Everest, has proposed a solution to this final obstacle on the standard route to the top: putting a permanent ladder on the Hillary Step. Between 1987 and 2009, I went on 11 expeditions to Mount Everest, reaching the top seven times. I’ve climbed both up and down the Hillary Step six times. I think the ladder is a bad idea. It won’t solve the real problem, which is overcrowding on the most famous route in mountaineering. At its best, installing a permanent ladder to surmount the Hillary Step would be like slapping a Band-Aid on an artery that’s hemorrhaging. A ladder isn’t the answer. Nor can the government of Nepal be expected to regulate how many climbers are on Everest, let alone how many go for the summit on a given day. It will be up to the climbers themselves to coordinate their schedules to avoid overcrowding. This is going to be very hard to do. Personal ambition, a herd mentality and summit fever all too easily overwhelm good judgment. Aside from these practical concerns, there’s an aesthetic issue at stake. The Hillary Step is a crucial part of the majestic challenge Everest still poses. Just when you think you’ve got the summit in the bag, the mountain throws one last roadblock across your path. It’s the final test you pass to earn the summit. Let’s leave the Hillary Step as close as we can to what Hillary and Tenzing confronted at 11 a.m. on 29 May 1953.