Everest cornice collapse

As spring climbing season closes, climbing guide says deaths are a warning to reduce overcrowding

Two climbers climb their way back onto the path to the summit after a cornice collapsed below the Hillary Step on Mt. Everest on 21 May. All photos courtesy of Vinayak Jaya Malla.

Besides traffic jams in the Khumbu Icefall and a spat between Nims Purja and the government over fixed ropes, it should be the cornice collapse near the summit of Mt Everest last week that killed 2 climbers that should be focusing everyone’s attention. 

It was a busy week on Chomolungma as climbers pushed for the summit in the narrow weather window 20-22 May. More than 500 climbers reached the top this season, most of them last week. 

Inevitably, there was a bottleneck on the knife-edged southeast ridge near the top. Videos showed climbers queuing up on the fixed rope on top of an ice overhang that seems to have collapsed under their weight. Of the six climbers who were caught in it, two (a British and Nepali climber) probably died in the long fall down the Kangshung Face. 

Climber Vinayak Jaya Malla was on the summit at 6:00 am on 21 May 21, and witnessed the collapse on his way down. He wrote on Instagram: ‘The Everest summit ridge felt different than my previous experiences on the mountain. There was soft snow.’

Everest expedition 2024
Vinayak Jaya Malla at Everest.

Malla’s post has a series of photos and videos that shows a line of climbers making their way down the Hillary Step. Another longer line is inching up on the same rope on top of the cornice, a hardened overhanging mass of ice.

After the collapse, some of the climbers are seen to be hanging by the rope and helped back up by others. They eventually self-rescued, pulling themselves up as can be seen in the video.

The collapse could have been much worse, with delays causing climbers to run out of oxygen, had Malla not helped break a new route that allowed traffic to start moving in both directions.

Malla is a veteran rock and ice climber and is one of only about 75 IFMGA/UIAGM (International Federation of Mountain Guides Association/Union Internationale des Associations de Guides de Montagnes) certified guides in Nepal, a process that takes six to eight years and one of the few non-Sherpas with that certification.

Many of the comments on Malla’s posts despaired at the traffic jams on the mountain, and called on the Nepal government to reduce the number of permits. 

Malla has a more pragmatic view, and told us: “There is so much money and so many people employed on Everest expeditions that reducing permits would reduce income. How do you tell one Sherpa he can climb and support his family but another that he cannot?”

Everest expedition 2024
Vinayak Jaya Malla is a veteran rock and ice climber.

Malla has other solutions like a two-way fixed rope, and also government flexibility on fixing rigid dates of the climbing season. If guides had been allowed to set up fixed ropes from 1 May instead of 11 May, as was the case on the North Face of Everest, there would have been a wider weather window.

Malla also things there is no reason for the climbing season to end exactly on 29 May just because it is historically set, and it would be safe to extend it till mid-June. A proposal from other mountaineers is to spread climbs around other Himalayan peaks by pricing Everest higher.

Malla had to work hard for his certification, and says: “It is the equivalent of a PhD in the mountaineering world. With it, guides will always have work in Alaska, the Alps and the Himalaya.”

Many high-end Everest expeditions only hire certified guides, and some request one-on-one guiding too. Malla grew up below Dhaulagiri, and had no intention of being a mountaineer. 

But in the third year of his Bachelor’s of Business Studies while completing an assignment related to tourism that Malla wrote a report comparing three mountains, and was instantly hooked.

After working six frustrating months as an investment intern, Malla decided that a desk job was not for him. He faced initial resistance both from family and friends when he started climbing.

“When I proved my capability and started making money, those doubts fell away,” says Malla. He has summited Everest twice, Lhotse, Dhaulagiri, and Manaslu. 

Everest expedition 2024

His most memorable summit, however, was a first-ascent of the 5,911m Sisne Himal in remote Rukum based only on Google images. Just getting to the base of the mountain takes as long as climbing it. 

There are a lot of hurdles climbing in western Nepal, he says, adding: “Permits are never cheap, we need to assemble a team. Route conditions can change, and locals think the mountain gods will be angered. Yarsagumba hunters wonder if we are there to steal their business.” 

Due to his certification and skillset, Malla is often called upon on rescue missions. Some climbers have insurance, but no other financial rewards for rescues. 

Malla was also involved in the retrieval of 22 bodies when a Tara Air flight to Jomsom from Pokhara crashed into a cliff in Mustang in 2022. He says, “It has become a pretty normal thing for me to see a dead body, but I can’t let it get me emotional when I am carrying out a rescue.” 

Vishad Onta

writer

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