Fearing the Icefall: On Everest, dangers are clear

2014-04-22 21:42
Relatives prepare for the cremation of a Mount Everest avalanche victim in Kathmandu. (Prakash Mathema, AFP)

Relatives prepare for the cremation of a Mount Everest avalanche victim in Kathmandu. (Prakash Mathema, AFP)

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New Delhi - On Everest, everybody knows that the Icefall is dangerous. They've known it for generations, since the first great Everest mountaineer, George Mallory, turned away from the Khumbu Icefall in 1921, insisting it was impossible to pass.

It is a river of ice, a kilometre or so of constantly shifting glacier punctuated by deep crevasses and overhanging immensities of ice that can be as large as 10-storey buildings. It can move two meters in just one day. Crossing it can take 12 hours.

In the Khumbu Icefall, crevasses can open - or close - without warning. Ropes can be snapped by the moving ice, ladders broken, bodies crushed. Those looming glaciers can break off in a moment, setting off avalanches that send thousands of tons of ice down the mountain.

That is what happened last week, when a piece of glacier sheared away from the mountain, setting off an avalanche of ice that killed 16 Sherpa guides as they ferried clients' equipment up the mountain.

The South African climbers, Saray Khumalo and Sibusiso Vilane, are waiting to hear if their trip has been called off after they had to return to the base camp after the avalance.

Saray Khumalo, seeking to be the first black woman to summit Everest, told the newspaper she and Sibusiso Vilane were at base camp on Friday morning when the avalanche occurred around 500m further up the mountain.

According to their updates on Facebook, the Sherpas are rioting and demanding that no one climb the Icefall by removing the ladders.

A decision to cancel the trip will be made on Wednesday.

Khumalo and Vilane are still awaiting further news on whether they will continue their summit this season, or abandon the climb.

"It's always something we fear," said Adrian Ballinger, a high-altitude mountaineering guide who has climbed Everest six times, and who is taking clients up the mountain again this year through the Icefall.

"This [disaster] didn't surprise those of us who spend a lot of time on Everest," he said. "We've been living on borrowed time."

But if you want to get to the summit of Mount Everest, you probably need to go through the Khumbu Icefall.

That is because the Icefall is the only way to reach the comparatively easy South Col route up Everest. That makes it impossible to resist for plenty of people.

Hundreds of people now pass through the Icefall every year, pushed along by a mountaineering machine designed to take wealthy amateurs to the summit, with climbing trips costing upwards of $75 000 per person.

"If it wasn't the tallest mountain in the world, you would never put yourself on a glacier this active," said Ballinger.

Safety - at least relative safety - comes only with speed.

"We look up at these chunks of ice blocks, pray and then try to get out of the area as fast as we can," said Nima Sherpa, 34, an experienced Everest guide from the tiny Himalayan community that has become famous for its high-altitude skills and endurance.

Nima Sherpa did not climb this season, and with the deaths of his friends and colleagues - the bodies of 13 guides have been found since the Friday avalanche, and three more are missing and presumed dead - he now insists he'll give up high-altitude climbing completely.

"It is not just the Sherpas but also the foreign climbers are also scared," he said.

'Like playing Russian roulette'

But not so scared they won't go. And the more people there are, the slower the route through the Icefall, as the line of climbers backs up.

While top guides can cross the most dangerous sections of the Icefall in less than a half hour, beginners could take a few hours to go the same distance.

That means more time standing on shifting ground, and more time exposed to the seracs, the huge chunks of ice that can tumble down on climbers from above.

Most climbers have to make multiple passes through the Icefall, moving up and down the mountain as they acclimatise and prepare for their summit attempt. Sherpas can go more than two dozen times, carrying supplies and helping clients negotiate the maze of ice.

It's a trip that can terrify even hardened climbers. Jon Krakauer, a mountaineer and writer, has described each pass through the Khumbu as "a little like playing a round of Russian roulette".

Special teams of Sherpas, known as Icefall Doctors, fix ropes through what they hope to be the safest paths, using aluminium ladders to bridge crevasses. But the Khumbu shifts so much that they need to go out every morning, before the climbers, to repair the parts that have broken overnight and shift the climbing route where they need to.

But Icefall Doctors and fixed ropes and experienced guides don't mean it is safe. Almost 30 climbers have died on the Icefall, most killed in avalanches or when they were crushed by falling seracs.

Ballinger is part of a new wave of Everest guiding, planning his approach to reduce the time spent on the Icefall.

For up to eight weeks before his clients even arrive in Nepal, they sleep in enclosed "hypoxic tents", simulating life at high altitudes by limiting their oxygen. Then, once they get to Nepal, they acclimatise further on other Himalayan mountains, to avoid the Khumbu.

In the end, he says, his clients will make only two passes through the Icefall - once up to the summit and once down - and the team's Sherpas will go between five and eight times. That is one-third the number of trips that Sherpas make on normal climbs.

It's all about exposure. "How long will the Sherpas be exposed, how long will the guides be exposed, how long will the clients be exposed," he said.

But, he warns everyone on his team, the risk is still there. "Every person has to make their own choice," he said.

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