The Khumbu Icefall and beyond

Apologies for the lack of updates as of late however I have been freezing somewhere around 6500m completely off the grid for the past week. This is a long post. I hope you can bear with it, I have tried to keep it to the bare essentials. Another will follow immediately after.

When my plane landed again into Kathmandu airport from Istanbul I quickly got through customs as I still had a valid visa. I was collected by Rajan – Tim’s fixer – who took me over to the domestic terminal where I waited a couple of hours for my flight to Lukla. The plane was tiny this time and shook all over the place as we puttered over the mountains towards Lukla and after 25 minutes, myself and all the overexcited Australian and American trekkers landed with a thud onto the Lukla landing strip. I collected my bags and jumped into my waiting chopper which took off down the runway with a sharp right towards Base Camp. I was concerned about my acclimatisation as I had left Base Camp 10 days earlier but to my surprise I felt fine all the way. The pilot got to camp and incorrectly touched down at the first pad (there are three spread out across Base Camp). I told the pilot I was supposed to go to the far pad near Tim Mosedale’s Camp. He said “You can just walk over”. I said “I have a bad ankle”. He said “What are you doing here then?!”. Rather than explain the story, I said “Fair enough” and got out of the angry pilot’s bird. I pulled out my three kit bags, put on my pack, the black chopper took off and I started to hobble the 1 kilometre of loose stones and ice over to my camp. Some of the Sherpas from our team already cottoned on to the fact the chopper went to the incorrect pad and were already on their way over to get my kit bags. Annoyingly about 2 minutes after hobbling towards camp the same chopper flew overhead and landed at our bloody pad! I scoffed at the situation and thought that it is probably better this way as I can test out these ankles.

Landed in Lukla about to head off to Base Camp in my chopper

Being very slow and careful, I arrived into my home away from home about 25 minutes later. Tim greeted me with warm drinks, chocolates, and leftover birthday cake from Jon’s birthday the day before. We chatted about my situation, the rest of the team and our plan of attack. I felt a little light headed that afternoon and slept well although expelled 4 litres of pee that night (my body quickly re-adapting back to the altitude). I ran from the mess tent and threw up my breakfast the next morning but otherwise felt great!

While I was reacclimatising to Base Camp and getting organised for what was ahead, the rest of the team were on their second rotation up the hill. They were up at Camp 2 (6400m) and getting ready to head a little higher and touch the Bergschrund, Lhotse Face or even Camp 3 (7100m) if the weather permitted.

The rest of this post is about my adventures above Base Camp but before we continue I may as well explain some of the features of the route which will become more familiar than the back of my hand over the next month.

Starting from the top and working our way down; basically Everest and Lhotse are two peaks next to each other which share a saddle (a low point between the two which is known as the ‘South Col‘). From the saddle there is a steep concave wall known as the ‘Lhotse Face‘ which drops sharply down around 1200m into a valley which is the highest valley in the world known as the Western CWM. (CWM is ‘Valley’ in Welsh). The Western CWM is a long relatively flat valley which winds all the way down from Lhotse and Everest, past the third peak Nuptse on its left and then drops down a steep section before opening out into a larger valley known as the Khumbu Valley. The beginning of the Khumbu Valley is where Base Camp is located – the end of the trek and the beginning of the climb.

On top of all these features is snow, ice and glacier. The snow falls at the top, accumulates, compresses into a glacier and this mass of ice and snow slowly grinds its way down the above mentioned features. This glacier creates its own features itself. Namely the ‘Bergschrund‘ at the bottom of the Lhotse Face which is where the glacier gets crumpled when it hits the CWM and creates a massive chunk of ice and a twisted crevasse. The glacier then smooths out down the CWM creating a nice slanted, solid route down with hardly any crevasses – a pristine valley of white. As the glacier starts to reach the end of the CWM and makes its way off the steep drop towards the Khumbu Valley, it starts to crack, twist and deform. This deformity of crumbled glacier is known as the ‘Khumbu Icefall‘ and is the most dynamic and dangerous part of the Everest climb. Every time we move through this twisted jumble of building sized ice blocks and crevasses we have to use a new route as something has fallen, crashed or an avalanche has dropped from Nuptse of the west shoulder of Everest and wiped out an entire section. Each day the SPCC Icefall Doctors – a specialist team of climbing Sherpa – go into the Icefall and fix the route with new ropes and ladders or have to find a new route all together. They are the brave experts who enter this twisted frozen labyrinth daily to ensure all climbers and Sherpa can find a way through to Camp 1 as fast as possible. It is a scary yet beautiful place and most sane people want to get through as fast as possible. For super-humans like Sherpa or a climber called Steve on our team, they can climb up and through it in about 2.5 hours. For us regular people it takes about 4.5 hours. For other non-experienced people or maybe people who shouldn’t even be here, it can take them up to 14 hours!

The Camps are basically in the following locations (Altitudes can vary)

Base Camp (5250m) – in the safe open Khumbu Valley. (what happened to Base Camp in 2015 was an anomaly – it is safe)

Camp 1 (6100m) is at the top of the Khumbu Icefall where the CWM starts to smooth and flatten out. Camp 1 is still surrounded by giant crevasses but the features are so big here the camps are relatively safe between these massive yawning abysses. Camp 1 is quite close to the walls of Nuptse and the west shoulder of Everest which can avalanche but usually the results is just dusting of ice and snow, even if they reach the tents.

Camp 2 (6400m) is at the top of the CWM on the left just under Everest. It is about 2 hours before the Bergschrund and the Lhotse Face. Camp 2 is known as Advanced Base Camp and is the staging point to make summit attempts on Everest and Lhotse. Camp 2 is also fairly safe as it is wedged between the edge of the CWM glacier and the solid rock walls of Everest. There are ancient hanging glaciers perched above Camp 2 on the side of Everest but I feel they are so old, cracked and hollow that they tend to crumble into small avalanches rather massive chunks falling off and wiping out Camp 2…. I hope…..

Camp 3 (7150m) is half way up the steep, icy Lhotse face. A ridiculous place for a campsite but altitude wise, it is at the right elevation to acclimatise on the way up. The glacier which starts on the Lhotse face has a section of amassed snow which creates some precarious mounds to quickly setup some tents. When moving up from Camp 2 teams try to spend as little time as possible at Camp 3. On the way down they bypass it all together. It’s the type of place where if you pop out for a number 2 at night and take a wrong step, you will next be seen in the belly of the yawning Bergschrund 600m below.

Camp 4 (7950m) is nicely located in the large South Col saddle. Such a large open area that people can get lost in whiteout conditions and can wander for hours trying to find their tents. The infamous 1996 Everest disaster involved this situation. Luckily these days we have top notch forecasting and people have learnt from past mistakes and most teams find their way to and from their Camp 4 tents without issue. This area is safe when it comes to objective danger as there is nothing above to fall on top of you. The risks up here are the altitude as you are on the cusp of the ‘Death Zone’ as some like to call it and of course the winds can rip over this saddle from Tibet to Nepal. Oh and its bloody freezing if the wind is blowing.

After that it is the summit ridge which has a collection of its own features but we will save that for the post when I hopefully start to climb up it.

Here is a picture I found which displays most of what I have detailed

With all of that out of the way, here is what I got up to after arriving in Base Camp. I will keep it short as this post is already getting long enough.

After a couple of rest days with Tim we both woke at 4am and did a trial run half way up into the Icefall as the day started to brighten. This is a standard ‘familiarisation’ process but more importantly, a true test to see if my damaged ankles could put up with the crampon work over the steep ice.

We set off and took it very slowly and carefully though Base Camp and its loose rocks, then moved through the lower reaches of the Khumbu Glacier until we got to ‘Crampon point’ where we had to put on our spikes as the rest of the journey was on ice. There were a few rope sections leading up into the Icefall initially, then the familiar mess of ice presented itself and we worked our way up, down, over and under all sorts of mutant ice cliffs before we got to some ladders. We moved over and up the ladders without issue, refreshing my mind with the rope work and climbing hardware before we called it a success and then came back down.

Confident with my performance, we then decided that I should move up to Camp 1 the next morning to get acclimatising to higher elevations. Once again we set off at 3am into the darkness. Our headtorches lighting the way as we crunched over the ice and started to join the trail of white lights winding its way up the dark freezing Icefall. Before we got to the first ladders we saw droves of Sherpa coming down. They said ‘No Way’. We eventually found out that that there had been yet another collapse somewhere higher up and the route was destroyed. The Sherpa had dropped their loads and returned back to Base Camp to await the Icefall Doctors to get to work. We had no choice but to descend back to Base Camp with everybody else.

The team came back down later that day once the Icefall was fixed. They took way longer than they should as there were oceans of inexperienced clients and traffic jams causing massive delays, the sun was glaring down on them which some believe adds to the danger and makes the Icefall even more dynamic and crumbly but they all made it back in once piece albeit a little sunburnt and tired.

The next morning at 3am Tim and myself yet again got up, put our headtorches on and set off into the darkness. This time we made it through. The upper reaches of the Icefall were just plain scary. So much had crashed and crumbled that despite my gasping for air and lack of energy, we could not stop. We topped out of the Icefall after about 4.5 hours which I was pretty happy with but then I seemed to bottom out of energy as I had not eaten enough. The relatively benign portion of the route from the top of the Icefall over to Camp 1 killed me. I had trouble walking down slopes let alone up. Clearly half a bowl of cereal was not enough fuel for me at this new altitude. I made it into Camp 1 about 2 hours later (unacceptable) where Tim and I chilled (or boiled depending on the cloud/sun situation) for the rest of the afternoon.

Tim woke up early the next morning and headed back down the Icefall to Base Camp as he had to continue working with the rest of the team. I spent the whole next day by myself in my tent at Camp 1. A few of the Sherpa in our team stopped in for some water, snacks or a chat as they moved up and down ferrying their loads. Despite having absolutely nothing to do, I quite enjoyed myself. I had a small Jetboil cooker and regularly got out of the tent to go chop ice out of the glacier to boil. Basically my mission for the day was to boil ice into water, drink, eat, rest and repeat as my purpose at Camp 1 was to acclimatise and I followed my instructions to the letter. Some epic winds blew down the CWM in the afternoon pushing the whole tent flat onto my face. I have experienced this before so didn’t worry too much. When the tent started to lift up from underneath me I did worry a little as I imagined being blown into a crevasse and how I would attempt to get out of the tent and climb up out. I was keeping my boots, layers and climbing hardware nearby in case. The winds and my wild imagination dissipated, the evening was calm and I slept well.

My ankles were sore. No major swelling but definitely felt used and bruised – nothing serious though. A days rest would do them good.

I woke up the next morning, packed my kit and moved up to Camp 2. Once again I was stupid with the food and water in the morning. I had a few chocolate raisins and a swig of water for breakfast and left with about 800ml of water on me.

The problem with the CWM is despite being an ever so gentle slope, it destroys all who move up it for the first time. If the sky is clear and the sun is out it is hotter than the Sahara. I took off well, moved up the last of the ladders and climbed up the last small steep rope sections and started to move up the flattened path. Then I felt my stomach drain like the last bit of water leaving a sink. I imagined my fuel gauge drop to empty. I couldn’t take another step. Yet I had thousands to go. No people with me, a few chocolates in my pocket and now about 600ml of warm water hanging from my pack. All I could do was breathe, step, wait. Breathe, breathe, step, wait. Dizziness set in. I would hang my arms off the pack which seemed to be getting heavier and heavier. I stripped my layers off to base layers in the burning heat. I applied suncream to my exposed face but the constant running nose just washed it away. I could feel my face burning. I had nothing. The white glare of the trail seemed to go on forever. The worst bit was that it was pretty much flat yet taking another step felt like it required the energy of lifting a car over my head. This continued for hours. Multiple times closing my eyes, hunching over and swaying in the sun’s rays, I seriously contemplated dropping to the ground and accepting the dehydration, sunburn and starvation. It would have been easier.

The view down the Western CWM from Camp 2 to Camp 1. This was taken a different day but demonstrates how innocent it looks.

I eventually radioed into Camp 2 and asked the guys where the hell camp was. Luckily it was one of the first of this long outstretched campsite. A young Sherpa named Tashi from our team who I had watered and fed earlier when he stopped by my Camp 1 tent, came running out just by camp and could see I was a wreck. He offered to take my pack. I tried to say no but my body dropped it. I thought that would take the load off. It did nothing, I still took probably 20 minutes to complete the last few metres into the mess tent. I dropped to the floor and just laid there trying to breath. I sipped the hot water with pineapple powder (tang) and ever so slowly regained energy. It took about 2 hours before I could move.

Total time from Camp 1 to Camp 2 was 5 hours – completely unacceptable. When I moved up the CWM in 2015 there was cloud and the sun was not so fierce. It was difficult as I was less acclimatised than this year but nothing like what I was currently experiencing. I believe it took about 2.5 – 3 hours in 2015. This year’s appalling performance all boiled down to lack of food. I hope I have learnt my lesson!

I will cut this post off here and continue the story of Camp 2 and above in my next update.

One thought on “The Khumbu Icefall and beyond

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *