The North Col and the Ladder of Death

The route up from Advanced Base Camp (ABC) to the North Col of Everest, up the North Col Wall, differs from year to year. It’s been scene of some famous accidents. The end of George Mallory’s 1922 expedition came abruptly when seven porters were killed in an avalanche on its slopes. In 1924 Mallory himself fell into a crevasse here, saving himself by jamming his axe into the walls of the crevasse after falling only ten feet. In 1935 the great mountain explorer Eric Shipton peered over the lip of the North Col and was disconcerted to see that a six foot slice of the entire slope below him had descended 400 metres and crashed into the glacier below.

These days the China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA) fix ropes all the way up the North Col Wall using the easiest and safest route they can find. The wall is riddled with crevasses, seracs and ice towers, and because snow conditions change every year the route is never the same. It was definitely easier when I came here in 2007. I was a lesser climber then, and found myself ascending 45 degree snow slopes in a series of zig-zags. This year the route is what they call ‘direct’, which means more of it is steeper and more exposed. I’m more of a walker than a climber, and the steep bits really tire me out.

On Sunday 6th I climbed up to the North Col with fellow Altitude Junkies team members Mila, Grant, Margaret, Dorje and Chedar. We climbed together, more by luck than design, mainly because I was going first and subjecting my companions to a barrage of sound effects, most of which began with ‘f’. I did offer to let them past, but it seems they were content to ascend no quicker than my exhausted scramble.

Descending the Ladder of Death below the North Col
Descending the Ladder of Death below the North Col

The crux of the climb this year lies right under the lip of the North Col, just when you think you’ve reached the end. Two ladders strapped together rest at 60 degrees over a yawning crevasse. Above this a frighteningly exposed snow gully leads steeply off to the right and up to the col. Going up it wasn’t too bad, but I wasn’t looking forward to staring down that gully into the crevasse on the way down.

We reached the North Col campsite (7075m) at 1.30, where expedition leader Phil Crampton was waiting for us as he talked to the Australian climber Andrew Lock, who is hoping to climb the mountain solo and without oxygen. We had ascended in glorious conditions, but it was now cloudy and a light snow was falling. None of us had any temptation to go any higher that day, so we had a quick snack before heading back down again.

I’m grateful to Phil for showing me a new technique for descending fixed ropes which gives me a great deal of control. I was expecting to soil my underpants descending the snow gully and ladder, but Phil’s technique made it seem relatively straightforward. Of course, I still had to take great care. I had needed several rappels on steeper sections descending the North Col Wall on our first rotation, but this time I was able to descend all the way using Phil’s hand-wrapping technique, which is much quicker than an abseil.

Our ascent to the North Col was tiring, but it’s been good acclimatisation for us. Just as importantly it has also been a big confidence boost. The North Col Wall is the most technical part of the climb, and it no longer holds any fear for us.

We’ve now completed two rotations up to around 7000m and spent ten nights sleeping at ABC (6410m). Because we will be using bottled oxygen from around 7200m this means once we’ve rested again we’ll be ready for our summit push. Our superstar Sherpa team have completed carrying supplies to Camp 2 (7800m), and we hope the CTMA will fix the ropes all the way to the summit within the next few days while the winds are still light. This means our Sherpas can complete the final piece of the jigsaw by establishing supplies at Camp 3 (8300m). Then they will join us here in Base Camp for some well-earned rest, and we will all of us await a suitable summit weather window.

Unlike on the south side of Everest, where we hear there has been much drama, everything appears to be going smoothly so far here in Tibet.

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8 thoughts on “The North Col and the Ladder of Death

  • May 10, 2012 at 4:02 am
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    Wonderful updates Mark…sounds like you are ready to go for it. Good luck!

  • May 10, 2012 at 10:24 pm
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    Good Luck Mark – hope you make. Have been following things on both sides of the mountain this year. Be Safe. Sand

  • May 11, 2012 at 6:22 pm
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    Glued to your blogs and watching every moment of your progress. Wishing you all a successful summit and a safe descent. You’re all constantly in my prayers. Please give a special hug to Mila (& Dorje &Pasang). Jane

  • May 13, 2012 at 2:26 am
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    Wow! Very informative and exciting to follow along with you. Best of luck to you.

  • May 13, 2012 at 5:44 am
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    Thanks Sand, Jane and Amanda – we’ll hopefully be starting our summit push in the next couple of days!

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