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Safety Fears Force Changes To Mount Everest Route


Mountaineers are gearing up for the spring climbing season on Mount Everest.


And this year, the government of Nepal is pushing for a new route through what is known as the Khumbu Icefall. That's a treacherous part of the mountain where 16 Sherpa guides were killed last year in an avalanche. The deaths triggered a boycott by Sherpa climbers and the cancellation of the rest of the season.

MONTAGNE: Pete Athans is a veteran of Everest who's reached the top of the mountain seven times and a guide with Alpine Ascents International. He just returned from the mountain where he's been working with climbers developing the new route.

INSKEEP: Athans says it will stay towards the center of the icefall, following a path commonly used 20 years ago when there were fewer fatalities.

MONTAGNE: Still, he says, there are risks.

PETE ATHANS: I think that you're not really going to find in looking at the Khumbu Icefall any route that's going to be unexposed to avalanche danger. It's like a river of ice that falls over several cascades. It is notorious for being incredibly broken up. There's not going to be any really easy way to do it. There may be a way in the center that's more difficult to install, but might be more stable and less prone to more frequent slides. That said, you're looking for the least bad of the bad options.

MONTAGNE: For people who don't know that much about what's involved here, what does it mean to create a new route?

ATHANS: It really involves having several teams of three or four people moving through the icefall. The teams in the rear are carrying aluminum extension ladders and fixed line and the teams that are ahead are troubleshooting and trying to find the least obstacle prone way through the icefall. You know, it's basically going through this labyrinth of ice. You may not be able to see more than 50 to 60 yards ahead of you at any given time because there might be ice towers over your head.

MONTAGNE: You know, separately from this, I understand that the Sherpas want more helicopter shuttling so they don't have to carry as much weight between base camp and higher levels, camp one. Do you expect that to happen in your view? Would that be positive or negative, helicopter shuttling?

ATHANS: It's a great question whether helicopter shuttling would actually help the situation. I mean, obviously, you're not going to have humans having to bear the freight of carrying all that material through a hazardous place. But having a team of helicopters going back and forth with really no type of air traffic control other than radio could lead us into a place where there are different types of risk.

MONTAGNE: It would seem that this would make for a very different experience.

ATHANS: Absolutely. And, you know, there has been a helicopter that's touched down on the summit of Everett, albeit, briefly. What's to say that people shouldn't be helicoptered to the last camp on Everest? Where does it stop?

MONTAGNE: I'm wondering what you see in the future for Everest.

ATHANS: Well, the popularity of climbing Everest doesn't seem to be diminishing. I think the crucial issue right now is, is it possible to put in an icefall route that's going to be safe overall? I think this coming season, we'll probably have an excellent answer to that question. We had a much colder season this year. We had more snow, and I think that that bodes well, actually, for the icefall. If there's greater coverage, if there's greater snow, I think we actually see the icefall route be somewhat more predictable.

MONTAGNE: Pete Athans is a guide with Alpine Ascents International. Thank you very much.

ATHANS: Oh, it's my pleasure, Renee. Have a great day.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.