Eighteen-fold Path to Chomolungma Nirvana

- the Routes of Mount Everest - by Pete Poston

May 29, 2004 00: 30 EST

We saved the best for last. Pete Poston has created an outstanding map of all the routes on Mount Everest (including the Central North Face). Click the image to view larger, and then mouse over the route symbols and the fatality symbols for statistics (by AdventureStats). But before you do, here's Pete's story:

Eighteen-fold Path to Chomolungma Nirvana-the Routes of Mount Everest

By Pete Poston for MountEverest.net

So you've decided that you want to climb Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the World. As if climbing the mountain wasn't hard enough, now you have to decide which route you want to take to the top, because the path to Everest-Nirvana follows not an eightfold path, but is at least eighteen-fold (see accompanying routes graphic)! Depending on whether you are a professional climber mounting your own expedition, or an amateur considering joining a commercial outfit, the smart climber considers the objective dangers as part of their decision. In this article we will consider each of these fifteen routes in terms of objective dangers, successful summits, and as morbid as it may sound, fatality rates as well.

The Buddhist practice of Right Association

If you want to be guided to the top in a commercial expedition, then you need to practice the Buddhist practice of right association. In our context, this means joining a reputable commercial outfit. In terms of routes followed by commercial expeditions, the choices are basically limited to either the traditional Western Cwm-Southeast Ridge (route 1), or the classic Mallory route to the top following the North Col-Northeast Ridge (route 2). These are good choices for the safety conscious, because the routes are well-known, the objective dangers well understood, and there are plenty of guides available who have climbed them before, like Apa Sherpa who has summited via the Southeast Ridge a staggering fourteen times!

The normal routes - SE ridge vs NE ridge

According to AdventureStat.com statistics compiled through May of 2003, the Southeast Ridge has been climbed 1140 times, with 80 fatalities, for a fatality rate of 7% (fatality rate = fatalities/summits; and not all fatalities were summiters). The Northeast Ridge has been successfully climbed fewer times with 655 summits and 62 fatalities, resulting in a higher fatality rate of 9%.

The normal routes - dangers

In terms of objective dangers, the most dangerous part of the Southeast Ridge route is of course, the notorious Khumbu Icefall. Dangerous not only for climbers, but especially so for the Sherpa porters who must pass through it many times before the end of the climbing season. But the Lhotse Face has seen its fair share of fatalities as well, with perhaps the most preventable death that of Taiwanese climber Chen Yu Nan, who in 1996 fell into a crevasse while answering a call of nature -unroped and in down booties (he survived the fall but died while being helped down). Beware of falling into hidden crevasses in the Western Cwm, too. Eight climbers have lost their lives in this manner, including Babu Chiri Sherpa, who fell into a hidden crevasse at Camp 2 in 2001. On the North side, most deaths are from avalanches on the unstable snow slopes of the North Col, or in catastrophic falls from the Northeast Ridge down the terraced ledges of the Yellow Band (believed by many to be the probable fate of Mallory and Irvine).

The South Pillar

Another relatively safe route up Everest-if there really is such a thing as a “safe” route on Everest!-is the South Pillar (route 7), first climbed in 1980 by Polish super-alpinists Jerzy Kukuczka and Andrzej Czok. The route has been climbed in it's entirety a total of 17 times with one fatality. The Polish team spent 16 days establishing the route through the difficult rock barriers towards the top of the route, so many climbers opt to traverse across to the SE Ridge lower down. 28 climbers have traversed over from this route and safely summited. The one fatality that occurred on the complete S Pillar route was Josef Psotka in 1984, who after successfully summiting was killed in a fall, but it was from the Lhotse Face while descending the standard SE Ridge route. So to date there have been no fatalities on the South Pillar itself.

The South West Face

Turning our attention to the Southwest Face, there are two routes to consider, both extremely difficult, involving Class 5 climbing at extreme altitude. The original Southwest Face route (route 4), first climbed by an expedition led by Chris Bonington in 1975, placed Dougal Haston and Doug Scott on the summit at sunset. They avoided freezing to death by huddling in a snow cave just below the South Summit. A grand total of fifteen climbers have summited via the SW Face - with four fatalities - for a fatality rate of 27%. Nearby is the West Pillar (route 9), first climbed in 1982 by a Russian expedition including Eduard Myslovski and Volodya Balyberdin. There were a total of eleven summits on this expedition, and thankfully no fatalities. The route has not been repeated.

The principle of Right Knowledge

Because of their difficulty, these Southwest Face - and the following routes we're about to discuss - haven't been climbed all that often, so from a purely statistical point of view, quoting fatality rates suffers from “undersampling” the “data”. This can cut both ways, so that a route that appears safe now can become a deathtrap later, or a route that presently has a high fatality rate can get statistically easier in the future. This is just another way of stating the Law of Averages. So even though a particular route hasn't resulted in any deaths to date, it seems highly likely that in the future there will be. But climbers understand the Law of Averages, because like Buddhists, they employ the principle of right knowledge.

The East Face; The Right Effort

Currently there are two successfully climbed routes on the East Face, the American Buttress (route 10 - or sometimes referred to as the Lowe Buttress), and the Neverest Buttress (route 14). The American Buttress has been successfully climbed a total of six times, while the Neverest Buttress has seen a total of seven ascents by two different parties. No fatalities to date, and we applaud these climbers for following the Buddhist precept of right effort.

The NE Ridge; the Right Mindfulness

Other routes that don't see many ascents are the complete Northeast Ridge (route 16) and Zakharov's Couloir (route 17). The complete NE Ridge was first attempted in 1982 by a team that included pre-eminent mountaineers Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker, who perished in the attempt. It wasn't until 1995 that success was achieved by a Japanese expedition led by Kiroshi Furuno. There have been a total of three fatalities on the route and six summits, for a fatality rate of 50%. Future parties are advising to practice right mindfulness on this route. It's a dangerous one, extended, very difficult, with prolonged time spent in the Death Zone. As for Zakharov's Couloir, it has seen three ascents and no fatalities. Ironically, the leader Nikolai Zakharov had to turn back only fifteen minutes from the summit searching for a lost comrade, or else there would have been four summits.

The North Face and the West Ridge

And now for the most dangerous routes to the top. The routes on the North Face and West Ridge are the most notorious on the entire mountain. White Limbo (route 11), a direct route up the Great Couloir, has seen two summits and one fatality, or a 50% fatality rate. It's neighbor is the Japanese Couloir/Hornbein Couloir (route 6). Lots of fatalities on this route-four with only seven summits, so watch out, the fatality rate is a whopping 57%. Another killer is the West Ridge Direct and it's close cousin, the West Ridge/Hornbein Couloir (routes 5 and 3 respectively).

Fatalities 100%+

The West Ridge Direct route has more fatalities than deaths, so the fatality rate is actually over 100%. There have been ten summits but eleven fatalities, for a fatality rate of 110%. Many of these deaths were descending the Hornbein Couloir, or in the catastrophic avalanche that killed five climbers on the West Shoulder in 1974, including Frenchman Gérard Devouassoux. The West Ridge/Hornbein Couloir also has a fatality rate over 100%. Five climbers have summited, including Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld who established the route in 1963, while nine have perished, for a fatality rate of 180%. The most recent fatality was snowboarder Marco Siffredi of France, who ascended the standard NE Ridge, but disappeared attempting the first snowboard descent of the Hornbein Couloir. The crux of the route is a short step where the route exits the Yellow Band, and one has to wonder if this is where Marco met his fate.


To wrap up, let's not forget that there still are routes on Everest that have been attempted but haven't been climbed yet, such as the Fantasy Ridge on the East Face. The most recent attempt was by Cathy O'Dowd in 2003, where an avalanche nearly wiped out the entire route including base camp. And the Russians are currently attempting a new route on the North Face-the Central North Face Direct (route 18) - that lies between White Limbo and The Japanese Couloir. This ultimate directissima involves technical climbing at high altitude, with the crux section through the Yellow Band starting at over 8000 meters. Right speech, right behavior, right absorption - and the right livelihood! What further Buddhist practices are left as we follow the fifteen-fold path to Chomolungma Nirvana? Climbers should practice right speech (don't yell at your sherpas!), right behavior (pick up your beer bottles, I mean oxygen bottles), and right absorption. And of course Everest climbers are all engaged in the right livelihood! May their puja ceremonies all be potent, and let's pray that none get bitten by the Dogs of Chomolungma. Namaste.


"Everest: Eighty Years of Triumph and Tragedy", Peter Gillman, ed., 2000 "Everest: The Mountaineering History", 3rd ed., Walt Unsworth, 2000

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