NOVA Online
Everest
Site Map

The Way to the Summit
by Eric Simonson and Jochen Hemmleb

Base Camp | Camp II | Advance Base Camp | ABC to North Col | North Col | North Col to Camp V | Camp V | Camp V to Camp VI | Camp VI | Yellow Band | First Step | Beyond the First Step | Second Step | Third Step | Summit Pyramid | Summit

Base Camp
See Base Camp QTVR
Base camp occupies a site on the gravel plain below the Rongbuk Glacier at approximately 17,000 feet. Tents are set up on the sandy gravel valley, which carves out a north-south swath in the high Himalayas.

Camp II
See Camp II QTVR
As you approach Camp II you must hike up the medial moraine of the East Rongbuk Glacier. Both sides are marked by ice towers or "shark fins," as they've been described. These ice towers, some up to 100 feet high, are the remnants of glacial ice as it stagnates and melts and slowly moves its way down the East Rongbuk Glacier. The historic site of Camp II is located at the base of Changtse at approximately 20,000 feet.

Advance Base Camp (ABC)
Advance Base Camp is located at about 21,300 feet on the lateral moraine of the East Rongbuk Glacier below the North Col. The site extends for several hundred yards up and down the moraine, and various expeditions' camps are scattered along the terrain. It's rocky and broken ground, requiring a lot of work to create tent sites. From the camp you look directly up the North Col, but what really dominates the view from ABC is the Northeast shoulder of Everest with its famous Pinnacles.

ABC to N. Col
From the ABC Camp at 21,300 feet, the route to the North Col takes anywhere from two to three hours. Initially you move up scree and rock until you can climb out onto the head of the East Rongbuk Glacier. At this point crampons are required. Another kilometer of glacial ice leads to the foot of the Col, where the fixed ropes begin. In places the route is near vertical, although most of the terrain requires steep to moderate cramponing. Climbers ascending to the North Col do not tie physically to each other. Instead they use several thousand feet of fixed rope. The rope is strung from the head of the glacier to the North Col itself, with anchors every hundred yards or so. The climbers clip to the fixed rope and also attach a mechanical ascender, which permits them to climb up the rope.

North Col
The North Col (Col is a Welsh word, which means saddle) is the low point of one of the three great ridges that emanate from the summit of Mount Everest. In this case the North Ridge drops thousands of feet to a saddle between Everest and Changtse. The North Col sits at approximately 23,000 feet and from this low point the ridge climbs back up to over 25,000 feet.

North Col to Camp V
The route from the North Col up to Camp V starts with several thousand feet of moderately steep snow and ice up the North Ridge. It is usually battered by exceptional crosswinds from west to east and it is not unusual for climbers to be knocked off their feet here. At 25,000 feet the terrain changes from snow to rock. We have established fixed rope on this entire route from the North Col to Camp V. The last 600-800 feet into Camp V is predominantly rock with mixed snow.

Camp V
Camp V is not just one campsite. Historically, Camp V has extended for nearly 1,000 feet up the ridge. Our Camp V site is at about 25,500 feet and is in an area commonly used by expeditions. The terrain is predominantly rocky on the North Ridge. Campsites are located on small ridges that must be manually freed of rock. Our site is located on several small ledges that have been cleared by hand. You'll occasionally find old oxygen bottles here and other remnants from past expeditions. This is probably the windiest campsite on the mountain, open to all the wind coming from the west and northwest. The site is spectacular—from the tents you can look all the way down to ABC. We intend to start using oxygen at Camp V, which is about the elevation of the South Col on the south side of Everest (26,000 feet).

Camp V to Camp VI
The route from Camp V to Camp VI leaves the North Ridge and continues on the North Face. The terrain here is sheltered from the wind. Climbers normally take three to six hours to cover this terrain. The route follows the snow as it winds through small gullies. We will establish fixed ropes the entire way. As you approach Camp VI, the terrain steepens and you begin to encounter downsloping, slabby terrain. While the rock climbing is not difficult, the terrain is loose and it is difficult to keep from slipping.

Camp VI: Like Camp V, Camp VI occupies several different sites starting at about 26,900 feet—where the 1975 Chinese expedition established Camp VI—and then extending up to where our camp will be established, at about 27,000 feet. It typically consists of very small sites for tiny high-altitude tents. The sites are dug out of the rock and dirt built up around the old shale debris. The camp is located just below the Yellow Band. From here, we can look up to the Northeast Ridge and see the First and Second steps up to the summit and then look down into Tibet. The view from Camp VI is expansive.

Yellow Band
From Camp VI the climbers must find the route through the Yellow Band. Normally this is done by following a snow-filled gully to a ledge at half height from where an ill-defined ramp leads to the crest of the ridge. Fixed rope runs up through the cliff bands and most climbers are loath to put a lot of weight on the old ropes, as they are often of dubious quality. It takes a couple of hours to make your way up through the Yellow Band and up onto the Northeast Ridge.

First Step (27,890 - 28,000 ft)
The First Step is the terminal prow of two gray limestone bands lying on top of one another, which are separated by a wide sloping ledge. To circumvent this obstacle, a traverse of its northern face is made along the junction between the Grey and Yellow Bands until a shallow gully (or snow couloir) allows access to the ledge above. The upper gray band, forming the true top of the First Step, is then skirted on the right side and the ridge regained beyond the Step. Recent descriptions of the initial pitch have hinted at a surprising degree of technical difficulty: The shallow gully—more like a concave rock wall—is very steep and loose. Eric Simonson, who led several expeditions to the route and summited himself in 1991, compared it in difficulty to the Second Step.

Beyond the First Step
A ramp leads past a tower and a short, horizontal, but very jagged and broken section ending up on a platform marked by a curious rock bollard (mushroom rock). This is the site of the former Camp VII is at approximately 28,000 feet. Direct access from there to the Second Step is barred by a snow crest some 50 to 65 feet high, the most prominent feature on the ridge between the two steps. This is avoided by an awkward and exposed horizontal traverse of the northern face over discontinuous ledges and steep slabs. The foot of the Second Step is thus reached beneath the ridge crest. The foot of the Second Step is thus reached beneath the ridge crest at approximately 28,120 feet.

Second Step (28,140 - 28,300 ft)
The initial climb up the Second Step itself involves a 10-foot-high slab to the right of a narrow chimney, surmounted by way of a narrow ramp and a short rock step interspersed with ledges. A prominent snow patch, some 23-30 feet high and lying at an angle of 50 degrees, leads up to the foot of the final 16-foot headwall. During the first confirmed ascent in 1960 this was climbed by a crack on its left side. The 1975 Chinese expedition placed a ladder on this pitch which is now commonly used for the ascent. While the ladder is only 15 feet high, it is dead vertical and tends to move while climbers ascend it. From the top rung of the ladder, a tricky mantle move onto a ledge leads to easier terrain below the top of the Second Step and close to the crest of the Northeast Ridge. At this point the exposure is incredible, with the entire North face at your feet, literally 10,000 feet of exposure.

Third Step (28,510 -28,610 ft)
The Third Step—about 100 feet of blocky rock rising from the vast boulder-strewn plateau above the Second Step and situated immediately under the steepening of the final pyramid—appears rather diminutive. Like the other Steps it is usually skirted on the right, through shallow gullies and over broken rocks. Meanwhile, it has become quite common to tackle the Third Step head-on, along the crest by a series of open chimneys and ledges.

Summit Pyramid (28,540 - 28,870 feet)
Once a climber is beyond the Third Step, the Summit Pyramid remains as the final obstacle. The summit snowfield occupying the northern aspect of the final pyramid is steep, 50 degrees and perhaps even 60 degrees in the upper part. It is crowned by a bastion of rock, the summit tower, which is usually bypassed on the right along the uppermost part of the North Face. A ramp involving three rock steps leads back left onto the summit ridge. The summit pyramid takes at least an hour to ascend, but parties are known to have taken as much as four hours on this section. Summit Ridge (28,870 - 29,028 feet): An undulating snow crest some 500 feet in horizontal distance, the summit ridge leads up to the highest point of Everest. The ridge is not steep, but is exposed, with a 10,000-foot-drop on either side. Enormous cornices overhang the Kangshung Face (East Face) on the left, so climbers are forced to stay on the northern side of the final ridge.

Summit (29,028 ft)
"And there you are on the highest note, transfixed in the sky, with the spindrift banner streaming miles back from your feet."—Andrew Greig



Lost on Everest | High Exposure | Climb | History & Culture | Earth, Wind, & Ice
E-mail | Previous Expeditions | Resources | Site Map | Everest Home

Editor's Picks | Previous Sites | Join Us/E-mail | TV/Web Schedule
About NOVA | Teachers | Site Map | Shop | Jobs | Search | To print
PBS Online | NOVA Online | WGBH

© | Updated November 2000

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site