Nepali climbers say outcrop near top of Everest is intact

Nepali climbers said Tuesday that a rocky outcrop near the top of Mount Everest known as the "Hillary Step" is intact, disputing a British climber's claim the feature had collapsed.

British mountaineer Tim Mosedale, who last week reached the summit of the world's highest mountain, said the outcrop had disappeared, likely because of a massive earthquake that shook Nepal in 2015.

Mosedale posted on Facebook that there had been speculation last year but heavy snowfall meant the collapse couldn't be confirmed then. "This year, however, I can report that the chunk of rock named 'The Hillary Step' is definitely not there anymore," he said.

The Hillary Step is a sheer 12-meter (40-foot) vertical wall that is the last highly difficult section climbers must pass before reaching the summit. It is named after Sir Edmund Hillary, who made the first successful ascent of Everest with Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953.

Nepal Mountaineering Association President Ang Tsering said the Hillary Step is "intact, except that there's lots more snow on it so the rock portion is not easily visible."

Nepali climber Lila Basnet, who was among the first group of climbers to reach the summit during this year's spring climbing season, said the feature appeared unchanged.

"It appears there was much more snow in the area but we found nothing wrong with the Hillary Step. This is the fifth time I have climbed Everest and it all appears good," said Basnet, who runs a mountaineering expedition agency in Kathmandu.

A frequent Everest climber, Pasang Tenzing Sherpa, appeared to solve the mystery by saying that he and other lead climbers who opened up the route to the summit in 2016, a year after the quake, had moved the route to go around the Hillary Step for safety reasons.

"Last year I was the coordinator of the team that opened up the route to the summit. Since there were no climbers on the mountain in two years, it appeared like a new mountain with lots of snow," Pasang told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

"I did not see any marking of the older route. For safety reasons in the Hillary Step, I changed the route a little to the right," said Pasang, who has scaled Everest 11 times.

"We decided to follow the ridge rather than traverse or cutting through the section. That is why people are confused. There is a lot of snow and the rock is buried under the snow," he said.

Pasang said the route was moved about 5 to 8 meters (16 to 26 feet) to the right of Hillary Step. He said Hillary Step was still there when he climbed the mountain last week.

Dinesh Bhattarai, head of the country's department of tourism, appeared to agree with the climbers.

"There has been no official confirmation of reports that Hillary Step is not there anymore," Bhattarai said. "We will have a clearer picture once the climbers return."

Mosedale stood by his account, telling AP that Hillary Step is "simply not there." He said its collapse would make the ascent to the summit much more dangerous.

"This year and last year a snow ridge formed which we were able to ascend with relative ease. But in future years, if the ridge doesn't form, it could be a particularly difficult area to negotiate," he said in an email.

"The loose debris —comprising some rocks that look to be precariously perched and ready to slide — could be very hazardous indeed," Mosedale said.