Mount Everest (Chomolungma) - the north ridge route
The route following the north ridge is one of the two "normal routes" of Mount Everest. Historically, it was the first route where serious summit attempts took place (1922 and 1924). After the first successful climb in 1953 from the Nepal side, the second successful expedition was the Chinese team on the North Ridge in 1960. Although there are several variations known, the route of 1960 is the most frequently used one on the north side. Conditions change from year to year, but normally this is also the easiest route from the north.
Travelling to the mountain
Coming from Lhasa or Kathmandu, one leaves the main road near Tingri (from where also Cho Oyu is reached). Via Lamna La Pass (5100 m), we enter the Rongbuk valley which leaves the Everest region northward. Here, at an altitude of about 5000 m, Rongbuk monastery is located.
The base camp
The base camp is located in the valley about 8 km south of Rongbuk monastery at about 5170 m. This is the furthermost point which can be reached by vehicle. Unfortunately, the distance to Mount Everest is still twenty kilometers as the crow flies.
It would be desirable to have the base camp no higher than 5300 m, since one cannot acclimatize completely above this height. The long and very flat way from the base camp to the mountain, however, would even more use up the resources. Therefore, an advanced base camp ABC will be established closer to the mountain. Here one spends most of the time. In case there are acclimatization problems, one has to return to the base camp for a couple of days. Also for a better recovery before a summit attempt one might want to spend some days at base camp.
The long way to the ABC
From the base camp we follow the Rongbuk Glacier for some five kilometers until the valley of the Eastern Rongbuk Glacier joins. Then we follow this valley; it soon levels off. The junctions of the Far East Rongbuk Glacier and Changtse Glacier are passed by around several curves, until - having made about 13 kilometers in the valley - the place of the ABC is reached. It is situated at about 6400-6500 m on the northwestern side moraine of East Rongbuk Glacier, under the slopes of Changtse. On the travel towards the mountain, this stretch will be made on two days with yaks carrying the heavy baggage. Mountaineers stay the night at 5820 m at the intermediate camp where the bigger expeditions install a kitchen tent for the whole time.
ABC - Camp 1
From the ABC, the route follows the moraine for an hour, then the flat glacier is crossed to the base of the steep slope which leads up to the North Col. The conditions are different every year; about 400 meters of height difference are steep, between 30° and vertical depending on the state of the crevasses. Usually the whole slope is equipped with fixed ropes; in spring 2002 it was no problem, only two pitches required using the ropes (PD). At the end of this headwall, the North Col (7066 m) is situated. Here the first high camp is established in a wind-protected depression. From here on, the rest of the route is exposed to the west winds which are often extremely strong in this altitude. The characteristic snow banner which is often seen at the summit of Everest is caused by these winds which settle only a couple of days each year.
The other side of the North Col is a steep wall down to the upper part of Rongbuk Glacier. The access from East Rongbuk Glacier is definitely easier, also because the other side cannot be reached by yaks.
Camp 1 - Camp 2
A more or less pronounced ridge stretches from the North Col up towards the Northeast Ridge which is met in P. 8383 m. The lower part until 7560 m is an easy snow ridge. Further up, there is a mixed rock/scree terrain with a trace of a trail. In this area, there are several possibilities to pitch a tent. They differ in the amount of space available and the exposition to the winds. The usual places for camp 2 are at about 7560 m and at 7700-7800 m.
Camp 2 - Camp 3
From camp 2, the route follows rocky terraces rightwards in the northwest flank. After some small rocky steps (technically quite easy) the place of camp 3 is reached at 8200-8300 m. This is the last place where one can reasonably pitch a tent - except for exotic places at the Mushroom Rock. 8300 m is quite high, though.
Camp 3 - Summit
The route to the summit is basically given by the long northeast ridge. On a horizontal distance of about 2 km, the height gain is only 700 m. On the ridge, there are three characteristic obstacles (the three "Steps") which comprise the technical difficulty of the route.
From camp 3 one climbs up the rock flank rightwards towards the ridge which is reached at about 8500 m. A couple of small steps must be climbed in the flank, all being not difficult (F/PD). After a short descending traverse, the route comes back to the ridge crest which is snow-covered and strongly corniced to the east (attention!). After a while, one leaves the crest to the right, traverses scree slopes and reaches the base of the First Step.
The First Step (8530 m) is a short climb at large boulders (PD, II). After that comes a traverse through rocky and very exposed terrain above the huge northwest face. The rock at Mount Everest is stratified descending to the northwest - thus all of the route follows a rock shaped like roof tiles, often covered with snow or scree. This makes walking a little delicate. Briefly the crest is touched again where a mushroom-shaped rock is standing - the Mushroom Rock. Behind there is a small depression which is well suited for a rest. Most climbers change oxygen bottles here.
After the traverse one encounters the base of the Second Step (8610 m). The Step has two parts: The lower part consists of large boulders, in free climbing it would be around grade III. Above a steep snow gully stands the famous ladder, four or five meters high. The ladder had been put up here in order to ease the vertical gripless slab. The traverse from the end of the ladder upwards to the right, without good grips or footholds, is the most difficult part of the route, though it is only three steps far. After that, the slope decreases, and the route follows a path a little right of the crest towards the Third Step.
The Third Step is clearly easier (I-II) than the other two Steps; it is about 10 meters high. Afterwards one goes up the triangle-shaped summit snowfield, but leaves it to the right at 3/4 height. The snowfield is not at all the summit snowfield, but this fact cannot be seen from below. So, a horizontal traverse about hundred meters to the right must be done, then limestone bands lead leftwards up to the proper summit snowfield. The snowy ridge leads to the summit which is found beyond a couple of hillocks.
The departure from camp 3 normally is around midnight (1 am Nepalese, or 3 am Chinese time), a big portion of the way must therefore be made in darkness. Most of the climbers who reach the summit need about 8 to 12 hours to the top.
The overall difficulty is about PD-, not considering the altitude. Except for the three Steps, there are only short sections where one needs the hands for climbing; the rest is walking terrain. On the summit day, this walking terrain is rather exposed over the complete length.
The big expeditions attach fixed ropes continuously from the base of the steep slope below the North Col to the summit. For this work, they charge a lump sum for the usage from every mountaineer.
© 2002 Hartmut Bielefeldt
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