On the morning of April 23, a helicopter hovered over Everest Base Camp then ripped northward through the air, flying over the great Khumbu Icefall, which creaked and groaned under the warming sunshine. As the dust settled and the helicopter engine din grew faint, many Nepali mountain workers back at Base Camp breathed a sigh of relief.
After years of denied requests from both international guides and local mountain workers, Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism finally granted permission to use a helicopter to transport rope-fixing gear from Base Camp to Camp 1 on Everest’s South Col route, bypassing the treacherous Khumbu Icefall and thereby sparing the mountain workers some of their time exposed to the deadly zone this season.
It’s currently unclear whether this is a one-time occurrence or if using helicopters to ferry loads will become standard protocol in the future.
On April 23, a helicopter made six trips to Camp 1 (6,035 meters, or 19,800 feet) in the Western Cwm to deliver ropes, anchors, and oxygen for the Nepali workers—a total of roughly 2,866 pounds of equipment.
Sherpa and Nepali mountain workers typically carry 33-pound packs on each trip through the Khumbu Icefall, and they might make as many as 18 trips per season. It is estimated that the six helicopter flights—which transported no people and no commercial-guide equipment, only the gear needed to fix ropes to the summit—will save between 80 and 90 carries through the icefall.
“We have been pushing for permission to do this for years,” wrote mountain guide Garrett Madison in an email, which he sent from Camp 2 on Everest while acclimatizing to the altitude. Madison is the expedition leader for Madison Mountaineering, based in Seattle, Washington, and his website states that he has personally led 37 climbers to the summit of Everest over the last seven years. “I’m glad the Nepal ministry finally got on board with the sensible decision.”
“This decision, in terms of risk management, is a good call,” says Conrad Anker, a professional climber with three Everest summits to his name, including a no-oxygen ascent. Anker is currently stationed in Nepal and recently spent four days at Base Camp while taking a break from overseeing reconstruction of the Khumbu Climbing Center, which educates Nepalis in technical climbing, in Phortse. “The ask came from the operators—29 on the mountain this year—as a way to avoid what happened in 2014.”
On April 18, 2014, an avalanche resulting from a falling serac crushed 16 people, all working Nepalis, in the Khumbu Icefall. Nine others were injured.
Thanks to more accurate weather forecasting and more prudent guiding practices, Everest’s deadliest zone has dramatically changed over the last ten years. Previously, most deaths occurred above 8,000 meters—the so-called Death Zone. Today, a majority of deaths on Everest occur in the Khumbu Icefall, right around 5,400 meters. Further, a disproportionate number of those deaths are Nepali mountain workers, who typically make between three and five times as many trips through the icefall as the climbers themselves.
The Khumbu Icefall is a serac- and crevasse-laden stretch of glacier that’s constantly shifting, advancing forward about a meter every day. It’s so menacing that Jon Krakauer, in his 1997 book Into Thin Air, compared each trip through it to playing a game of Russian Roulette.
“Sooner or later any given serac was going to fall over without warning, and you could only hope you weren’t beneath it when it toppled,” he wrote, presciently.
Navigating this one-mile section of glacier without equipment would be virtually impossible. Each season, a large team of Nepalis known as the Icefall Doctors first prepare what they determine to be the safest route through the icefall by installing upwards of 200 ladders across crevasses, and fixing hand lines and other ropes for safety. With 30-pound packs, these mountain workers expect to take around four or five hours to navigate the icefall.
Some outfits pay their mountain workers around $100 per load-carrying trip into the icefall, while others offer a flat rate. Most of the workers on Everest, however, are reportedly happy to outsource this particular job to the choppers.
Says Madison, “The lost wages for Sherpas carrying these loads through the icefall are negligible. I pay my Sherpas a flat fee for the season rather than per individual load, so for them it’s less work for the same guaranteed pay.
“But not all companies subscribe to this policy.”
While the use of helicopters on Everest’s South Side has offered some marginal improvements in risk management, many still see this popular route as being too dangerous to be justified, all because of the icefall. After the 2014 tragedy, some commercial outfits moved their operation to the North Side in Tibet, which is managed by China. The North Col route does not have a dangerous icefall that must be crossed. However, gaining access to Tibet through China can be challenging and unpredictable, and the North Col route is slightly more difficult above 8,000 meters, adding to a slightly lower summit rate and a slightly higher mortality rate.
Adrian Ballinger of Alpenglow Expeditions, based in Tahoe, California, stated that the use of helicopters on the South Side is “a great first step but only that.”
Ballinger has summited Everest seven times with clients via the South Col, but has since moved his operation to the North, where he and Cory Richards are attempting to summit without supplemental oxygen this season.
“The helicopters are saving only 84 (or so) loads of a thousand or more,” he said. “I think they could cut 50 percent of loads via a mix of helicopters, storing gear at Camp 2, and requiring teams to cut all the luxuries and ridiculous bullsh** from Camp 2 like carpeting, chairs, tables, huge kitchens and kitchen staff, and solar panels.”
Others see this event as a precursor to simply shuttling everything and everyone over the Khumbu Icefall, so no one has to walk through it at all.
In an online video, mountaineer Ed Viesturs, the first U.S. citizen to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen, said, “That will be a lot safer in terms of the number of times the Sherpa have to go up and down through the icefall, but it’s a very contrived way to climb the mountain. I think that would be a sad way to climb Everest.”
Others welcome that change, and see it as no different than the way many other popular mountains around the world are climbed.
“In the future I think climbers might all just fly to Camp 1,” says Madison, “just as climbers who aspire to climb Denali now fly into the Kahiltna or Muldow glaciers to begin their climbs rather than walking up from lower elevations. It just makes more sense sometimes but requires government authorization to become a reality.”