Photograph © Theo Fritsche (Nüziders, Austria)
Mount Everest the highest mountain in the world can be climbed from Nepal (South side) or Tibet (North side). Both sides have its pros and cons on reaching the summit and neither is said to be any easier than the other.
High up on the North East Ridge route from the Tibet side there are three protruding lumps of rock which must be ascended to reach the summit. These lumps of rock are called the First, Second and Third Steps.
One of the most difficult hurdles that climbers have to face is the Second Step. It is situated at a height of approximately 8,610 metres (28,250ft). It is in two sections, the lower part consists of large boulders, followed by a steep snow gully that leads you onto the fixed ladder. Overall it is about a 40 metres (130ft) in height, of which the last five are almost vertical. If this Second Step was at sea level it would be classed as a ‘walk in the park’.
What makes this a hard obstacle to over come is the altitude and the exposure. The ever presence of falling, waiting around for your turn to climb, running low on oxygen or fear of getting frostbite makes it even worse for the climber. The climber usually ascends the Second Step in total darkness after leaving there top camp at around midnight.
Having climbed the large boulders of the lower section the climber is then faced with a 30 foot aluminium ladder. This ladder is there to help aid the climber over the last section of rock and was placed there in 1975 by a Chinese expedition. The whole of the Second Step from bottom to top has fixed ropes to help the climber ascend and descend it.
The step, without the ladder was climbed for the first time in 1960, the first ascent of Mount Everest via the north route by Liu Lien-man, and Chu Ying-hua, who where members of a Chinese expedition. Both climbers tried and failed many times to ascend the last part of the step. For the last five metres of the step it was reported that Chu Ying-hua took his boots off and stood on the shoulders of Liu Lien-man, this lead to frostbite and eventually the loss of his toes. It took them three hours to ascend this section.
Since the ladder has been in place everyone makes the most of its presence and uses it to help them ascend the Second Step. Today, many people wonder if the likes of George Leigh Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine could have climbed the Second Step back in 1924 without any ladder being there. It is an interesting thought, as many of the world’s best climbers of today have had to rely on the use of the fixed ladder.
Maybe it was beyond Mallory and Irvine’s climbing capability to ascend it, then again, with the climbing skills and determination that Mallory had maybe it was within there capability and they managed to climb it with ease, who knows!
In 2007 Climbers Conrad Anker and Leo Houlding became the first people to had free climbed the Second Step. They had special permission to remove the ladder from the step before starting their climb. Using only the rock to place their feet and hands they managed to reach the top of the Second Step. Conrad rated this step as a 5.10 climb in difficulty. This climb brought out more debate as whether Mallory and Irvine could have successfully ascended the step.
Thanks to the presence of the ladder at the Second Step it has made life for the climber just a little bit easier. Nearly all those who ascend the Second Step go on to fulfil their life time dreams by reaching and standing on the summit of the highest mountain on earth.
Descending the Step on the way back down from the summit is no easier, you are basically blind to as where you are putting your feet and the climber must remember that he/she is totally exhausted from their summit bid, and any little mistake made by tiredness could be fatal. Most climbers tend to abseil down the top part of the Second Step and avoid using the fixed ladder. This is quicker for the tired climber and marginally safer than descending the ladder.
The Second Step is probably the hardest obstacle you will come across on the North side of Mount Everest.