Has Everest’s landmark Hillary Step really “disappeared”? Climbers can’t agree

Climber Time Mosedale posted this photo on Facebook in May 2017, claiming that the iconic Hillary Step was "no more". Climbers have had divergent opinions on whether the rock has changed or not.
Climber Time Mosedale posted this photo on Facebook in May 2017, claiming that the iconic Hillary Step was "no more". Climbers have had divergent opinions on whether the rock has changed or not.

It was a bombshell for the mountaineering world. A climber who had just summited Mount Everest posted on Facebook that the Hillary Step — a famous rock face that is the last hurdle for climbers before they reach the summit — “was not there anymore”. The problem is… many other climbers who have reached the summit of Everest since 2015 vehemently disagree.

The Hillary Step is a sheer rock face on the south side of Mount Everest. The Step, named after the first Westerner to reach the summit, Sir Edmund Hillary, is an important landmark because it’s the last hurdle before the home stretch.

“Once you make it over the Hillary Step, you know you are going to reach the summit,” Everest climber and mountain guide Bill Allen told the Observers. “It’d take really gnarly weather to turn you back after that.”

This has given the Hillary Step a firm place in mountaineering lore. For the past few years, climbing circles have been rife with reports and rumours that this landmark may have been altered by the 2015 earthquake that struck Nepal.

In recent years, mountaineers have been able to get around the Hillary Step by going up a snowy path on its right — which is easier than climbing sheer rock. Veteran climber Bill Allen took this photo in 2016 and posted it on the Mountain Trip blog

This year, veteran climber Tim Mosedale, of Everest Expedition, didn’t mince his words. After reaching the summit on May 16, he took to Facebook, writing “It's official — the Hillary Step is no more”.

Answer #1: “It was totally different”

Many media sources leapt on Mosedale’s account as the ultimate “proof” that the wall had collapsed. But he is far from the first person to take pictures of changes to the mountain.

The Observers team spoke with Bill Allen, the owner of Colorado-based Mountain Trip, a company that leads Everest expeditions every year. He made his first Everest climb in 2011, and also went up in 2016. He blogged about the differences that he saw between the two years and described them to the Observers.

A big piece of rock had definitely fallen off the Hillary Step. It was totally different from what I saw in 2011.

Hillary’s Step used to be a spot where you had to stop and really use your skills. I actually remember it being a fun piece of climbing in 2011. Last year, though, it was a steep snowy section and was less technically difficult.

BEFORE: In this photo, which Bill Allen took in 2011, climbers have to scale the rocks of the Hillary Step. 

AFTER: In this photo, which Bill Allen took in 2016, climbers can make their way up the snowy path and avoid the rocks. The question is... is this path a result of more snow or a shift in the rocks? 

Allen said that he felt really sad seeing the changed landscape.

The Hillary Step has been a prominent feature in the culture and lore of climbing Everest. It’s always in your mind, it’s this thing you’ve heard about. It’s an important part of history.

Nobody who climbs Everest wants an easy ride. It’s nice that there are some challenges and you don’t just walk to the top without using your mountaineering and climbing skills.

Even without Hillary Step, it remains tricky, rocky terrain and it’s not like the lack of the step is going to open the floodgates to inexperienced climbers. Still, I’m glad I got to see it before it was gone. A lot of people will wish they could have experienced it.

Answer #2: “It’s just a rumour”

But not everyone who’s climbed Everest agrees. The Observers spoke with Eric Simonson, who works at International Mountain Guides (IMG). A group of 27 climbers from IMG made it to the summit of Everest on May 21, arriving a few days after Mosedale. His team didn’t signal any changes.

Our understanding is that this was just a rumour about the Hillary Step…there is a lot of snow up there this year covering things up a bit, but that there has been no actual change to the rocks.

Nepalese officials say the same thing. On May 22, Gyanendra Shrestha from the Nepal Tourism Board and Ang Tshering Sherpa, the president of Nepal Mountaineering Association, disputed Mosedale's suggestion that Hillary’s Step has disappeared.

"This is a false rumour," Ang Tshering Sherpa told CNN. "After this news surfaced, I checked with Sherpas, climbers, and officials at the Base Camp. Hillary Step is intact."

He said "excessive snowfall” had covered the landmark, making some people think it had collapsed.

Answer #3: “The Hillary Step presents itself differently every year”

The Observers team also spoke with Wally Berg, at Berg Adventures International. He has scaled the peak four times – though not since 2015. Nepalese authorities issued 289 permits to climb Everest during the 2016 season.

Of all the people who climbed Everest last year, very few reported changes. Others just said that there was a lot of snow and that it was easier to climb. Well — relatively. Nothing is easy at almost 9,000 metres. But, generally, we prefer climbing firm snow and glaciers than rock.

I think it is possible that a block of rock collapsed. But not the whole Step. In my experience, the Hillary Step presents itself differently each year, depending on how much snow is on the route. I’ve climbed it multiple times and it was very different every time.