The road to Everest is paved—and, at least in terms of this feat of engineering, it is magnificent.
China has completed a pristine asphalt highway across the Tibetan plateau, with views of 8,000-meter mountains, all the way to Everest Base Camp North.
“If this road were anywhere else on the planet, it would be the most unbelievable road-biking stage of a race you could possibly imagine,” said Adrian Ballinger, a mountain guide from California, who is currently attempting to climb Everest without oxygen from the north side with his partner Cory Richards, a National Geographic photographer from Colorado. “Millions of switchbacks, going over 17,000-foot passes. Unbelievable views of everything from Shisha Pangma to Cho Oyu, Everest, Makalu, and Lhotse. As a tourist attraction, it’s one of the coolest roads I’ve seen anywhere on the planet.”
The road literally goes right to base camp. Tourist buses must stop about a mile back from the 14,000-foot camp, but climbers are permitted to drive right to their tent spots. This is a stark contrast to the South Side Base Camp in Nepal, which demands a ten-day trek up the Khumbu Valley.
The completed road is just one of the many recent China-led developments that is widening the disparity of experience between climbing Everest from the north versus the south. What’s interesting is how China appears to be paving the way, literally and figuratively, to creating a more progressive Everest.
“There are a lot of issues with China,” says Ballinger, “and getting into the country is one of them. But over the last five years, they have become more forward thinking in their management of Everest. They now have strong government ranger presence on the mountain, not only at base camp. They regulate trash. They fix the ropes all the way to the summit. And they’ve done things like remove all the dead bodies from the north side of the mountain. They’re very proud that Everest is part of China, through Tibet. I really see a change here.”
Ballinger, 40, is a veteran high-altitude IFMGA-certified mountain guide who has reached Everest’s summit seven times, though never without oxygen. He began cutting his teeth on Everest by first working for the renowned guiding outfit Himalayan Experience (HIMEX), but now he runs his own company, Alpenglow Expeditions, in Squaw Valley, California.
“If you look at the Seven Summits,” Ballinger says, referring to the highest mountains on each of the seven continents, “every single one has gone through this process of becoming popular and becoming a complete trash-heap disaster. Denali, for example, was a disaster of human waste until the U.S. government stepped up with their climber ranger program and started managing the climbers. Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua have also gone from dirty and chaotic mountains to pristine, incredible places. The same needs to happen on Everest, and it will only happen through government regulation. Because as long as low-budget companies are able to come in and make money, it will continue to go down hill. China seems to be taking that on. Nepal has not yet taken that on.”
A Tale of Two Everests
The summit of Mount Everest sits exactly on the border between Nepal and Tibet; officially, the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. One of the first decisions to be made, upon committing even to try to climb the tallest mountain in the world, is from which side you shall launch your ascent.
The variables that might factor into that decision are constantly evolving, now more than ever. Travel time, the political climate of China, the cultural experience you might be seeking, a preference for one commercial guide outfit over the other, ethical questions about Sherpa labor, and, of course, the climbing route itself—its difficulty, crowdedness, and statistical success rate and mortality rate—all might affect whether one chooses to climb Everest from the south, Nepal side, or from the north, Tibet side.
Ballinger and Richards are currently looking to add their names to the relatively short list of folks who have summited Everest without using supplemental oxygen. Since Reinhold Messier and Peter Habbler became the first people to climb Everest without oxygen in 1978, nearly 200 other people have also achieved this impressive goal; compare that to the more than 4,000 individuals who have reached Everest’s summit using oxygen.
Due to the fact that some individuals, mostly hired Sherpas, have reached the summit multiple times, Everest has been climbed just over 7,000 times, with only 282 deaths, a relatively low (4 percent) mortality rate for Himalayan mountaineering. How that breaks down is over 4,400 summits and 176 deaths on the South Side, and over 2,580 summits and 106 deaths on the North Side.
In the early 2000s, most guides staged their operations through Tibet. However, acquiring climbing permits from China soon proved itself to be unreliable, and most operations abandoned the north for the south.
By going through Nepal, guide companies enjoyed more reliable access to the mountain and lax regulation. In return, Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, began collecting well over $3 million annually from the growing business of Everest tourism. As a side note, Nepalese Sherpa workers on Everest, who might earn at most $5,000 per season, have become some of the country’s wealthiest residents.
One major obstacle to climbing Everest from the South Side is the notorious Khumbu Ice Fall, where most deaths on Everest have occurred over the past 15 years, with a majority of those deaths being Sherpas. In 2014, a falling serac crushed 14 Sherpa/Nepali workers in the Ice Fall. The disaster raised ethical questions about how Sherpas are taking disproportionate risks while fixing ropes through the Ice Fall, fixing ropes to the summit, and carrying hundreds of loads up the mountain, compared to the actual “climbers,” those who pay upwards of $65,000 to reach to the top of the world and spend relatively limited time exposed to the objective hazards of the mountain.
After the 2014 disaster, a few guide companies, such as Ballinger’s Alpenglow Expeditions, switched operations back to Tibet, if for no other reason than to avoid the treacherous Khumbu Ice Fall.
The difference in safety of the two routes became very apparent in 2015, when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal. There were quite a few climbers on Everest when the earthquake struck; a couple hundred on the south side at Camp 2, around 6,500 meters.
Meanwhile, on the north, Tibet side of the mountain, there was a small team of working Sherpa climbers who were fixing ropes at well above 8,000 meters, just shy of the summit.
As the tremendous massif shook and trembled, incredibly, no climbers who were actually on the mountain were injured. It was a different story in Everest Base Camp, however. The earthquake sent a massive avalanche tearing through the Khumbu Ice Fall, which destroyed the network of ladders and ropes needed to navigate this section, and ultimately blasted through Base Camp, killing 18 people.
When the tremors stopped, the 160 to 180 climbers who were stationed at around 6,400 meters at Camp 2 on Everest’s South Side needed to call in a helicopter rescue as they were unable to descend through the avalanche-ravaged Khumbu Ice Fall.
The climbers on the North, above 8,000 meters, however, simply walked down the mountain.
On The North Side
There seem to be only a few downsides to climbing Everest from the North. Acquiring permits through China can be hit or miss. The climbing skills of Tibetan Sherpas are, in general, not as well developed as their Nepali counterparts. And while you can now drive right to Everest North Base Camp, the camp itself is much windier and a big higher than the South Side.
We caught up with Ballinger and Richards to hear more about how things have changed on Everest North.
You left the U.S. 18 days ago, and just reached Everest Base Camp. What was it like?
AB: It’s been quite a journey. Compared to trekking through the Khumbu, it’s so much faster to come here. It’s possible to reach the North camp in three to six days, compared to 10 to 12 on the South side. But this is an entirely different experience. Now, you drive on this beautiful blacktop road. We were in a brand-new bus, and staying in nice hotels with good WiFi and clean sheets and hot water. IT’s changed so much since 2007. Back then, I remember rats in my hotel bathroom, cockroaches under my bed, and just unimaginably dirty bathrooms. Now, eight years later, I could take my parents across the Tibetan plateau.
Has China had a heavy hand in this development?
AB: Yeah, for sure China is responsible, but hopefully it has been in some sort of partnership with the Tibet Autonomous Region. Certainly, we’ve seen a lot of Tibetan businesses along the way, we’ve eaten in Tibetan-owned restaurants, and all the hotels we’ve stayed i have been primarily Tibetan owned, although we’ve seen a number of Han Chinese officials around as well.
What else is different?
AB: Certainly, all these new creature comforts of coming across the Tibetan Plateau and up to base camp. It used to be a dirt road and take five brutal days. But now, even base camp is different. There’s a strong liaison-officer presence here as well, and I find that really refreshing after being on the Nepal side. The liaison officers are a mix of Tibetan and Chinese, and they’ve been coming by our camp every day, giving us updates on things like rope-fixing on the mountain, and helping us organize our yaks for reaching advanced base camp. Overall they seem very professional.
CR: There’s an interesting sidebar here as well, because people can criticize, “Well, how much of an adventure can it be when you’re driving to base camp?” But the fact that you can drive here has allowed the Chinese government to manage this base camp much better, simply by virtue of the road. Also, this camp feels empty and even cleaner compared to the South Side, and I think that’s based on how it’s structured. People don’t really clean up after themselves the South Side, but it feels much more kept here.
What are the drawbacks to being on the North Side?
AB: Wind is intense here. Every day, we are dealing with 30- to 50-mile-per-hour winds.
CR: There’s also something to be said for the South Side experience, where you walk into Base Camp up the Khumbu Valley. You’re adding money into the region and supporting all these businesses, and having this great cultural experience. There’s something special about that.
AB: I guess I can offer a counterpoint to that, which is, if you want to have a cultural experience, do that after you climb the mountain, or do it separately. I’ve seen so many climbers get really sick during the trek into the South Side base camp, and it can ruin people’s climbs. Another thing is that there’s no helicopter rescues here on the North Side. The Chinese don’t permit helicopters on the mountain, so that’s a big amount of responsibility for guides and medics.
CR: On the other hand, that fact increases the self-sufficiency you need to have to climb Everest, which is a good thing. If shit goes wrong, you have to deal.