Monday, April 28, 2014

Khumbu Icefall – a Brief Tour

Khumbu Icefall right above the Base Camp. Runs above 17,400ft up to just below Camp1 (19600ft)

Icefalls are called as such for a reason.  Ice, literally falls!  It’s that part of the glacier where ‘ice flows down’ like the rapids of a river.  The so-called Khumbu icefall of Mt Everest is a long stretch in the glacier fronting the base camp.  Fast climbers can traverse this in 3hours or less, slow and unacclimmatized climbers may take 10 or more.  I did 10 hours the first time (to C1), 8 hours on the 2nd,  6 hours on the 3rd . One is less exposed when acclimatized.  I passed through the icefall 8 times and a half (the latter, a practice pre-Camp1) – this is like a standard routine in climbing Everest from the south side.

Risk-wise, this icefall is THE MOST dangerous part of Everest – having the most number of by-area deaths.  As glacier moves (like a frozen river), it cracks and giant seracs (blocks of ice) falls down and from time to time,  cause avalanches.  It’s never a question of IF, but when, or rather – when’s next.
In 2006, I’ve experienced a ‘dusting avalanche’ myself.  A snow block from Lo La fell down the icefall, sending huge cloud of snow and ice particles, dusting all of us in its path.  The wind force alone was a bit unnerving, imagine if that was a real avalanche!  On the same season, after I traversed the icefall 2 or 3 times, an ice avalanche occurred killing 3 climbers.  One has just to ‘think lucky’ while going through the icefall, as everyone knows the dreadful truth – death is just waiting to happen in the Khumbu Icefall.

A bit of history
In the early 1920’s, George Mallory and his team scouted LoLa and saw the icefall and declared it ‘unpassable’ or impossible, they simply focused their climb in the North.  When China ‘annexed’ Tibet, the north route was closed down and expedition teams re-looked at the southern option. The Swiss team in 1952 successfully traversed the icefall and a whole new ‘man vs. icefall’ game had began.  Tenzing Norgay was with the Swiss team, and almost reach the summit (less than 300m); he was invited by the British team in 1953, given his route knowledge and experience, and the rest was history.  Overtime, techniques on icefall traverse improved, but the danger never went away.  
Both north/Tibet and south/Nepal are options for all climbers (the north was opened by China, realizing tourism money from it).  North was viewed as more difficult (having 3 vertical ‘steps’ before the summit vs. south’s 1), but south was always viewed as more dangerous.  And for one major reason – the Khumbu Icefall.

A long stretch of prayer flags seems to offer confidence to safely traverse the icefall.  (Climbers resting near an ice block can be seen near the end of the prayer flag line.)

A team re-grouping in one section before moving on...

Huge seracs or blocks of ice dominated the landscape. one displaced serac may trigger an ice avalanche; and in this landscape, there's simply no where to run! (More climbers can be seen mid-right section of the picture)

Team moves cautiously over crevasses, open or sometimes hidden by thin layers of snow...

Crossing several ladders are but normal part of the routine.  One needs to keep a good balance by putting some weight on the anchored rope (here Lhakpa pulling the rope tight while leaning forward).

An open crevasse, some can be walked/jumped over, others are wide enough for 1 ladder, still others are too wide requiring 3 interconnected ladders.
My own experience of 'dusting', a huge chunk of snow fell down from Lo La ridge (left top side) and sent a cloud of wet air, snow and ice particles blanketing us all over.
Here, I'm using ladder to climb over a big ice. (video grab)

An under/side view of our ladder crossing (video grab)

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