One of the unique challenges of Everest and one of the things keeping me up at night in the run-up to this expedition was the Khumbu Icefall. So it was with some trepidation that I ventured into the icefall for our team dry-run early FridayAM – a 6 hour round trip, stopping short of camp 1 – in order to familiarize ourselves with the terrain.
My chest cough has been lingering (no better, no worse) and I have also been dealing with mild stomach issues – so needless to say, I wasn’t overly excited when 2AM rolled around and I had to get up. With my backpack ready from the night before, I only had to get out of my sleeping bag, put on my boots and make my way to the dining tent and try toforce down some breakfast before we hit the road at 3. Sounds simple – but at 17,300 feet – not always!
Of course – as always, a huge thank you has to go to our Sherpa guides – who even at this time of the morning were cheery and funny – their good nature is infectious.
That said, my stomach was rolling in concert with the trail out of EBC and about 30 mins later we arrived at crampon point, where – no surprise – we donned crampons and made our way intothe icefall proper. This was like walking on to the set of a sci-fi movie, with each step taking me further into a living, moving, groaning jumble of ice blocks, each bigger than a building – one of the most surreal places I have ever been. Thankfully, just about all the groaning was done during the day, while we were not in the icefall, as that usually accompanies an avalanche. Happy to report not the slightest movement during our time within.
We started off in darkness, only able to see the small area illuminated by our headlamps – the immediate slope in front of me, the rope, the steps kicked into the ice – literally following my Sherpa Sonam in front of me, step by step through a tunnel of darkness. Gradually, over time, the darkness lifted and I could make out more of the incredible surrounding landscape, beyond the immediate focus of my next few steps.
The icefall doctors (expert Sherpa that set the route each year) had already threaded their way through this 3D maze of ice and set the fixed ropes up & down, left & right, back & forth through the ice, employing ladders where necessary to bridge various horizontal and vertical spans. Relatively speaking, all we had to do was to play join-the-dots and just follow the ropes – bu t on our first trip into the icefall – still no small accomplishment.
After about 3 hours in we arrived at the end of our upward motion for the day – a location called the “football field” – approx 1,500 feet above EBC – a large and relatively stable section of ice. Here we took our bearings, enjoyed the view – as it was now daylight – and eventually turned around and headed back down to EBC.
My Sherpa for the day – Sonam (Jangbu) was just as good as Mingma was on Lobuche. He motored up the icefall, all the while paying attention to my every move, providing advice on each section and offering encouragement at every turn. Seriously – these guys have the patience of saints! He set a pace just on the edge of comfort that had my thought process fluctuate from “ok I can do this” to “shit, I am not sure how long I can keep this up” and then back to “thank god, caught my breath – ok to go for another bit”!! Sonam tells me that I was strong for my first time in the icefall – I know these guys aren’t much for BS – but I still don’t know whether to believe him! I didn’t feel very strong. Let’s see how next time goes.
By this point however, I was quite excited – all the weeks of trekking, our summit of Lobuche – all behind us now and we were actually, finally climbing the foothills of Everest. Add to that we were in one of the most unique landscapes on the planet. Between the excitement and probably a reduction in anxiety, having now made our way over half way through the icefall, my guts started relaxing too – and for the first time that day I didn’t feel nauseous. Result all round!
Make no mistake, I was working hard the whole way – between the terrain, contemplating the unknown and my nausea. I have no doubt that proceeding above the football field to camp 1 will be an exhausting effort. I am also informed that on previous years at least, the truly monster crevasses and cliffs requiring 3-5 ladders to bridge, came after the football field – so it remains to be seen if there are some jaw-clenching crossings still in store for us.
So, first impressions of the icefall – definitely as unique an experience as I was led to believe from friends who have been here before. Thankfully, not quite as daunting as I expected – although given my imagination, reality is rarely worse than my imagined worst case scenario! We did have some spans utilizing ladders – several horizontal (1 ladder wide) and one vertical (2 ladders high) – but none particularly hair-raising. We traveled through the icefall during the night as with the cold temperatures, the frozen bonds keeping the icefall together are more intact than during the day, hence there is less chance of an avalanche. Happy to report this proved the case for us, but there were definitely more than a few spots where the Sherpa advised us to traverse quickly due to increased exposure to potential objective hazard.
The good news however – until now an unknown quantity, the icefall is no longer so. I am confident in returning through it the three remaining times we have on the expedition – and hopefully my speed will increase as I continue to acclimate.
Tomorrow (early Sunday AM) we will once again head into the icefall, this time making our way to camp 1 (somewhere close to 20,000 feet) where we will stay Sun/Mon and then move up throughwhat is known as the “western cwm” to camp 2 (above 22.000 feet), staying there Tues/Weds and finally returning back to EBC Thurs, completing our next rotation. As before, I will be off the grid during this time, so next update will be toward the end of next week upon my return- at that point, hitting the notable milestone of being one full month into the expedition.
Before I go – one more reminder to anyone wanting to donate to the American Kidney Fund (the reason for this whole expedition), please click here. We are north of $23k – so every little helps in reaching the final goal of $25k.