Exploration

Climbing Mt. Everest: Which Face Is Safer?

Both the North side and South Col of Mt. Everest are dangerous -- but in different ways.

After an avalanche left 16 people dead on Mt. Everest last year, questions about the future of climbing the mountain still reverberate.

One of those questions -- whether taking a route from the mountain's north face, long considered riskier than the popular south side, is actually safer -- has been thrust into the limelight by expedition leader Adrian Ballinger, who will lead his outfit up the North Ridge this year.

While he maintains he made the switch for safety reasons, others say the risks on the north are at least equal to those on the south.

Photos: The World's 'Eight-Thousander' Mountains

Alan Arnette, a mountaineer who runs an Everest news and analysis website out of Fort Collins, Colo., gets asked the which-side-is-safer question so frequently he's developed a pithy response: "Pick your poison," he says.

Statistically speaking, the north side appears the more daunting of the two: Statistics highlighted on Arnette's site shows that 36 people died climbing the North Ridge route over one decade, while 15 died attempting the South Col route.

Altitude is the No. 1 cause of death on the north side, whereas falling into a crevasse was the No. 1 cause of death on the south side (before last year's avalanche tragedy).

Mt. Everest: Why Do People Keep Climbing It?

Still, it's hard to get a definitive answer from anyone who spends a lot of time on the mountain.

"When you ask the Sherpas, you generally get a stream-of-consciousness answer relating the pros and cons, and at the end, they shrug their shoulders," Arnette said.

Ellen Miller, the first American woman to climb the mountain from both sides, agrees that the mountain presents very different challenges on each side.

Here's a breakdown of the unique risks of the mountain's two main routes:

South Col:

Khumbu Icefalls: As the 2014 season illustrated, "the crux of the south side is negotiating the ice falls," Miller said. "The conditions there are so capricious; you never know what you're going to get in any given season or on any given day."

Crowds: The south side usually has double the number of climbers.

Summit day more challenging: The final summit push takes slightly longer on the south side, Arnette points out.

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North Ridge:

Living at high altitude: Whereas Base Camp on the South Side is at 18,192 feet, the advanced base camp on the North Side starts is at 21,300 feet. Just day-to-day living at that elevation is challenging, Miller said.

Rock: The north side features more technical rock climbing.

Helicopter rescues not permitted: Whereas on the south side, you can count on a helicopter rescue up to Camp 2, and the possibility of a helicopter+rope rescue up to 23,000 feet, the Chinese don't allow helicopters on the north side, so any rescue operation would likely involve being carried to the end of road on the back of yak or horse, and then a several hour drive to medical help, Arnette said.

More unknowns: "Operators on the south side have been running hundreds of people up and down the mountains since the mid-'90s; there's very little that's unknown. Most would consider the south side slightly safer because knowing the routes is a really big, big deal in mountain climbing," Arnette said.

Weather: The North side is often windier and chillier, according to Arnette.

The bottom line, Miller stressed, is that both sides are extremely dangerous.

"I think the public perception has been watered down" with media coverage of commercial guides on a crowded mountain, she said. "But when things go wrong above 25,000 feet, they tend to go very, very wrong. It's an incredibly dangerous undertaking. The mountain can have a very sharp tail."

The north side of Everest tends to be colder.

The world's 14 "eight-thousanders" -- mountains taller than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) -- are all located in Asia. On one hand, they really beautify a horizon, but on the other they present a fierce, at times fatal, challenge to mountain climbers. Beauty can, indeed, be deadly. Here's the "baby" of the bunch, Shishapangma in Tibet, peaking at 8,027 meters (26,335 feet).

This is Gasherbrum II (we'll have another Gasherbrum coming up shortly), on the border of Pakistan and China. It's 8,035 meters up in the sky (26,361 feet) and is sometimes known as K4. These mountaineers are near the summit.

On the left side of this picture we see the sheer mass of Broad Peak, the 12th highest mountain on the planet at 8,047 meters or 26,394 feet above sea level.

As promised, here's another Gasherbrum: Gasherbrum I. (Gasherbrum, translated from the Tibetan language Balti, means "beautiful mountain.") It also goes by the name of K5, lives along the China-Pakistan border and is 8,080 meters (26,444 ft) high.

The Himalayan mountain range Annapurna, in Nepal, is seen here from Pkhara, about 124 miles (200 kilometers) west of Kathmandu. Annapurna is considered one of the most dangerous for climbers; first crested in 1950, it has since been climbed by more than 100 people but taken 53 lives along the way.

This somewhat unsettling photo was taken in 1931 by mountaineers at a base camp on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat, the ninth-tallest eight-thousander at 8,126 meters (26,660 feet). The area captured in the picture is known as the Nanga Wall.

Eighth-tallest of the eight-thousanders is Nepal's Manaslu, at 8,163 meters (26,781 feet).

The Dhaulagiri mountain range in the Himalayas sports a rather volcanic look in this picture, with the sun brushing its top. But Nepal's 8,167-meter (26,795-foot) monster is of course quite chilly on top. Dhaulagiri's south face is considered by mountaineers to be a next-to-impossible climb, and no one has ever topped the mountain from that side.

Clouds hover over snow-covered Cho Oyu mountain in Tibet. The sixth-tallest mountain stands 8,201 meters tall (26,906 feet), and the "Mountain Goddess" (in Tibetan translation) is considered one of less-challenging climbs among the eight-thousanders (if you don't consider climbing ANY mountain a challenge, that is!).

Next in the eight-thousander club is Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world, looming on the border between Nepal and China. It's 8,463 meters (27,766 feet) tall and is another tough climb, with 22 deaths tallied against its 206 successful climbs.

Standing 8,516 meters tall (27,940 feet), Lhotse, fourth-tallest, rests on the border of Nepal and Tibet. It was first climbed in 1956.

Kangchenjunga, in Nepal, is the world's third-tallest mountain, edging Lhotse by just 71 meters, standing 8,587 meters tall (28,169 feet). It's a prominent mark on the horizon in Darjeeling, the tea-growing region.

K2, the second-tallest mountain on the planet, is 8,611 meters up in the clouds (28,251 feet) along the China-Pakistan border. Climbers know it for its incredibly difficult ascent routes; in 2008, an ice fall on the treacherous slopes took the lives of 11 climbers.

And now we reach the Big Daddy in the worldwide mountains club. That, of course, would be Mount Everest. Its name alone is synonymous with challenging feats, as climbing it continues to this day to be a dicey endeavor, though it draws people year after year to attempt the ascent. And what a climb: Mount Everest stands 8,848 meters tall (29,029 feet). It was famously crested for the first time in 1953 by New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay.