Earlier this year, an October expedition to Mount Everest encountered what is known as an “objective hazard.” Thanks to an aerial reconnaissance acquired by a drone, a Mountain Hardwear team spied a 300-foot-tall block of ice, detached and cantilevered out from a wall high on one of Everest’s lower flanks. The sight of this looming catastrophe, positioned above the already treacherous Khumbu Ice Fall, was enough to call off the entire expedition.
That decision was certainly tough for the climbers. You have to imagine that months of training and lots of money were spent to do basically little more than get a team to base camp to hang out for a couple of weeks.
Of course, such is the nature of mountaineering and every serious alpinist has a story about spending a summer camping in a tent on a faraway glacier and doing virtually no climbing at all.
Tim Emmett, one of the climbers on this trip, described lying awake all night, wrestling with the question of whether this large serac posed enough of a threat to call off the whole mission.
On Facebook, Tim wrote, ”For sure I am totally gutted to miss this chance to experience something I have been curious about for much of my life, but when you see a red flag, take note and make good choices.”
The team rightly received a lot of praise and status for this demonstration of prudence in the face of a major red flag.
The decision to Not Go was widely lauded in the climbing world. In an age in which literally no one cares if you summit Everest, the choice to not even risk trying to climb the Big E suddenly appeared to be interesting and worth celebrating. The team rightly received a lot of praise and status for this demonstration of prudence in the face of a major red flag.
I think the team made the right decision here. But I was also curious to see this story so widely applauded across the usual climbing sites and social media feeds. Specifically, I wondered whether this particular objective hazard was really categorically different from all the other objective hazards that Everest climbers normally, if begrudgingly, accept when choosing to climb through the Khumbu Ice Fall.
After all, isn’t being crushed by falling ice precisely the nature of the risk involved through this section of the South Col route? Whether that ice is 30 feet tall or 300 feet tall theoretically makes no difference if it all just comes down to the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So, what is the argument for the decision? And what does that say about the decision to go through the Ice Fall under otherwise “normal” circumstances?
Mountains move when they want, and we have only our best guesses as to when and where those movements will appear next. Indeed, as far as we know, a month after this Everest expedition ended, that serac is still there.
This is true to some degree whether you’re looking at icy mountains or even climbs with loose rock. You could take this same argument to slower-moving rock formations as well.
Consider Boot Flake on the Nose of El Capitan. We know that, one day, Boot Flake will exfoliate off the mountain. Whether that happens today, tomorrow, or a million years from now, experts only have their best guesses. If someone walked up to the base of the Nose and decided not to climb it because Boot Flake represented an unjustifiable risk in their mind, would they receive the same round of applause?
Climate Change is Here
An important underlying context to this story is the fact that we’re in an era in which mountains are becoming even more volatile, dangerous, and less predictable due to climate change. Ever-increasing prudence might be a necessary new norm for climbers given that glaciers and seracs are melting off at frightening new levels.
At best, our climbing seasons will shift, and at worst, some classic routes have already become too risky to consider.
A recent meeting of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation in Cyprus addressed this exact issue, presenting one example after another of how our mountain environments around the world are changing. The meeting raised concerns that, at best, our climbing seasons will shift. At worst, some classic routes are going to be too risky even to consider.
The nature of climbs from the Cascades to the Austrian Alps to New Zealand’s Southern Alps are changing. The entire Italian side of the Mont Blanc glacier is poised to collapse soon. We’ve already seen what can happen when a giant serac, like the one spotted by the recent Everest expedition, melts off and crashes through the Khumbu: in 2016, this exact scenario killed 16 Sherpas.
Falling seracs are only going to get more frequent. A falling serac was very likely the cause of the deaths of David Lama, Hansjorg Auer, and Jess Roskelley.
And yet, I wonder if this knowledge that mountains are getting more dangerous will fundamentally change anything for climbers going forward?
On Everest, I think changes might be on the way. I foresee a scenario at some point in which no one even bothers going through the Khumbu Ice Fall anymore. Instead, people will just use helicopters to land at Camp 1 and begin their ascents from there.
If you’re relying on Ice Fall Doctors to pave the path for you, and in doing so expose themselves to upwards of 40x the risk that you are taking yourself, that’s unjustifiably unethical too.
The argument for making this transition becomes all the more urgent when you consider just how unethical the current situation is, in which the Sherpa “Ice Fall Doctors” spend 40x the amount of time exposed to objective hazards than paying clients simply because they are the ones who have to put up all the ropes and ladders for the hordes.
Climbing Everest through the Khumbu Ice Fall might already be unjustifiably risky … But if you also rely on the Ice Fall Doctors to pave the path for you, and, in doing so, watch them as they expose themselves to 40x the amount of risk that you are taking yourself, well, that’s unjustifiably unethical too.
Helicopters would easily solve this problem. (Though they might also create their own, new environmental problems.)
How we calculate risks in the mountains has always been complicated by our emotions, ignorance, ego, and all the clever stories we tell ourselves. Rational thinking sometimes makes a short-lived cameo, too (though if it hangs around too long, we might never climb in the first place).
To Go or Not to Go is always the crux question in mountain climbing. And so long as you don’t die, get hurt, or come back as enemies, it is widely believed that there are really no wrong answers to that perennial dichotomy.
But I wonder, are some answers better than others? And how will those answers fundamentally change going forward? I fear we remain deeply confused about our justifications for risk—and now that mountains are changing, those justifications are getting even more complicated too.
I’m not sure I have the answers to any of these questions, perhaps because climbers have never had good answers to these questions in the first place. But if this recent Everest trip is any indication of what’s to come, more and more it seems like the smarter choice will be to Not Go at all.
For many melting routes in the mountains, that choice has already been made for us.