Climbing Mt. Everest is an arduous grind that requires months of training and the ability to function at the most inhospitable elevations our planet has to offer, but the suite of technical challenges it presents are not as difficult as nearby peaks of comparable height. It’s not, well, a hike exactly, it just doesn’t require the sort of classical mountaineering skills that K2 does.
Most climbers follow the South Col route to the peak from the Nepali side, which reserves its hardest challenge for the very end of the climb. The Hillary Step, a sheer 39-foot rock wall that sits 28,839 feet above sea level, just 200 feet below the summit, is a rebuttal to the notion that anyone can just waltz up Everest. Take one wrong step and you could fall 8,000 feet to the west, or 10,000 to the east. Except, now it’s gone.
Last month, British climber Tim Mosedale claimed that the Step was destroyed, seeming to confirm speculation that the devastating M7.8 earthquake that struck Nepal in 2015 had altered the mountain’s most iconic feature. However, Nepalese officials quickly dismissed Mosedale’s claim as a “false rumor.” It was tricky to confirm, since the Step is composed of four massive boulders and snow near the peak could have easily obscured the rocks.
Earlier this week, two American climbers returned from Nepal and told Outside Magazine that the step had indeed collapsed. Garrett Madison and Ben Jones spoke with Outside and said that the primary boulder is gone:
“The boulder formally know as the Hillary Step is gone,” Madison says. “It’s pretty obvious that the boulder fell off and has been replaced by snow. You can see some of the rocks below it that were there before, but the gigantic boulder is missing now.”
Outside had Dave Hahn, an experienced Everest guide, review photographic evidence and his conclusion was the same:
“The photos show pretty conclusively that a large mass of rock is missing. I’d say that [main] boulder is absolutely gone,” he says. Hahn also noted that there are “scars” of lighter rock exposed that didn’t exist before, but he hopes to examine higher resolution photos in the future.
The boulder appears to have been replaced with a snow face that rests at a much friendlier angle. Madison said that it made the climb easier, especially becaise it opened the bottleneck that used to pinch traffic at the most dangerous juncture. Jones and Hahn were less certain, going as far as speculating that the jumbled pile of rocks left over actually made the ascent even more dangerous. Regardless, a literal chunk of Everest history is now gone and the climb will never be the same.
Here is how Edmund Hillary described his final assault on the Step in a journal entry from his history-making ascent:
After an hour or so we came to a vertical rock step in the ridge. This appeared quite a problem. However the step was bounded on its right by a vertical snow cliff and I was able to jam myself between the rock and snow. With considerable effort I was able to work my way up this 40 foot crack and finally got over the top. I was rather surprised and pleased that I was capable of effort at this height. I brought T up with difficulty. I noticed he was proving a little sluggish but an excellent and safe companion for all that. I really felt now that we were going to get to the top and that nothing could stop us. I kept frequent watch on our oxygen consumption and was encouraged to find it at a steady rate.
I continued on cutting steadily surmounting bump after bump and cornice after cornice looking eagerly for the summit. It seemed impossible to pick it and time was running out. Finally I cut around the back of an extra large hump and then on a tight rope to its top. Immediately it was obvious that we had reached our objective [It was 11.30am]. We were on top of Everest! To the North an impressive corniced ridge ran down to the East Rongbuk. We could see nothing of the old North West route but were looking down on the North Col and Changtse.
What sets mountain climbing apart from other outdoor sports is the drastic degree to which it underscores just how small and fragile humans are. When you watch Alex Honnold free solo up El Capitan or learn about someone who ascends Mt. Everest without oxygen, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of awe. Vaulting up the most remote and imposing features the Earth has to offer is an achievement of exploration as much as it is an athletic accomplishment. The Hilary Step was the most critical facet of the planet’s highest peak, and now it’s gone. Everest might be easier now, or it might even be more difficult. But it will never be the same.