Has the Hillary Step Disappeared?

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The Hillary Step is one of the most iconic features on Mount Everest. Located just below the summit at around 8,770 meters, this near-vertical rock face has challenged generations of climbers aiming for the top of the world’s highest peak. But in 2017, veteran mountaineer Tim Mosedale claimed that the Step had partially collapsed, sparking debate about the validity of his assertion and the potential impacts if true.

The Hilary Step

What is the Hillary Step?

The 12-meter tall Hillary Step is a limestone band that juts out along the standard Southeast Ridge route about 150 meters from Everest’s 8,850-meter summit. First climbed by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953, the rocky outcrop poses a significant challenge so close to the top, especially with fatigued climbers battling high winds, cold temperatures, and low oxygen levels.

The Step requires climbers to haul themselves up the sheer rock face using fixed ropes. On the way down, the Step becomes even more dangerous as climbers must carefully rappel down while exhausted. Bottlenecks frequently form as teams slowly negotiate their way up and down this obstacle.

Geologically, the Hillary Step is composed of resistant limestone dating back over 400 million years to a time when the Himalayas were an ancient tropical ocean. Fossils of ancient sea creatures can be found embedded in the rocks.

The Claim of Collapse

In May 2017, veteran Everest climber Tim Mosedale reported that the Hillary Step was no longer there after he successfully summited Mount Everest. He speculated that the 2015 Nepal earthquake had destabilized the rock formation, causing it to collapse.

Without the 12-meter vertical challenge, Mosedale noted that the area was now a relatively easier snow slope. However, he warned that the absence of the Step could cause dangerous overcrowding as climbers speed up, no longer impeded by the obstacle. Bottlenecks could form both above and below where the Step once stood.

Several other mountaineers in recent years have also commented that the Step seemed smaller, but Mosedale’s report brought mainstream attention to the possibility of the iconic obstacle’s disappearance.

Refuting the Claim

Mosedale’s assertion set off a flurry of debate within the mountaineering community. Many experts sharply dismissed his claim that the Hillary Step had collapsed.

Santa Bir Lama, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, stated that he had received no confirmation that the Hillary Step had changed. Russell Brice, renowned expedition leader, maintained that the Step remained unchanged based on recent photographs he had seen.

They argued that Mosedale might have simply been confused due to variations in snow cover and lighting conditions which can make the Step seem altered. Others noted the inherent subjectivity of visually assessing whether the formation seems reduced in size or height.

Without clear photographic evidence or geological surveys, definitive conclusions are difficult. The Nepal government also expressed skepticism and did not launch any scientific investigation to confirm whether the Step still existed or not.

Impacts If True

If the Hillary Step has indeed collapsed, even partially, it could significantly impact climbing conditions on Mount Everest’s Southeast Ridge route.

Removing this major bottleneck could increase risks of dangerous overcrowding above the Step as climbers speed up, no longer slowed by the obstacle. More traffic jams mean more time spent in the death zone, raising risks of hypothermia, frostbite, and altitude sickness.

On the other hand, the absence of the Step would make Everest slightly easier and faster to climb. This could benefit inexperienced mountaineers who would face one less major obstacle on the route to the top.

The Nepal government might also have to reconsider requirements and permit fees if the mountain is altered. Everest permits are a major source of revenue, so any changes could affect the local economy.

The Ever-Changing Mountain

The debate over the Hillary Step highlights the variable and ever-changing nature of Mount Everest itself. The world’s highest peak continues to be shaped by powerful geological forces.

The Himalayas are still growing as the Indian tectonic plate continuously collides and pushes into the Eurasian plate. This results in an average uplift rate of 3-4 millimeters per year. At the same time, erosion from wind, ice, and gravity wears the mountains down. Rockfalls and avalanches constantly reshape the rocky faces and ridges.

Massive changes can occur suddenly, such as the 2015 Nepal earthquake which triggered huge landslides and altered several climbing routes on Everest. More gradual shifts also transform the mountain over time. Glaciers expand and contract, modifying terrain and exposing new ridges or cracks.

If verified, the collapse of the iconic Hillary Step would be just one more change on an ever-evolving peak. Mountaineers may mourn the loss of this historic obstacle, but Everest will continue to challenge climbers with its inherent risks and dangers. While the mountain itself changes, the fundamental allure of climbing the world’s highest summit persists.

Conclusion

The alleged disappearance of the Hillary Step remains hotly debated within mountaineering circles. Clear photographic proof or geological surveys are still needed to confirm whether the iconic outcrop has collapsed or merely been covered by shifting snow and ice. If verified, the loss of this landmark feature will modify Everest climbing conditions and the mountain’s challenges. But the debate highlights that Everest, shaped by ongoing tectonic forces, is always transforming and reinventing itself. Whether the Hillary Step exists or not, Everest’s magnificence endures as an ultimate symbol of adventure and human aspiration.