Note: This is the post on the Khumbu Icefall that Mark Jenkins promised in his April 17 “Voicemail From Everest.”
There are two “death zones” on the south side of Everest. One is at the base of the mountain, in the Khumbu Icefall, and one is at the top of the mountain—up in the hypoxic, howling sky. Since we’re at the beginning of our expedition, our current dread is the Khumbu. It was once thought to be one of the most dangerous places on Everest, but statistical research by Professor Ray Huey at the University of Washington has shown that passing through the Icefall is far, far less dangerous than going for the summit. But that’s not how it feels when you’re inside the maw of the Khumbu!
Like a gargantuan bulldozer, the Khumbu glacier plows down off the Lhotse Face between Mounts Everest and Nuptse. Dropping over a cliff just above Base Camp, this mile-wide river of ice shatters into building-size blocks and steeple-size spires called seracs. It’s riven with cracks called crevasses that can be hundreds of feet deep. To reach our expedition’s two goals—the Southeast Ridge and the West Ridge, which both begin atop the Khumbu glacier in the Western Cwm—we must travel up through this labyrinth of raging ice.
Every year, the route through the Khumbu is set by the “ice doctors,” a small team of Sherpas who take mortal risks to navigate the safest passage through the Icefall, putting up ropes in the steep sections and stretching ladders across the abyss-like crevasses. Unfortunately, the Khumbu is constantly shifting, groaning, and collapsing—and if you happen to be there when the Icefall shrugs, you can be swallowed by a crevasse or crushed by a falling serac. Three Sherpas died in a single accident there several years ago. To make matters worse, this year, the route through the Khumbu veers left near the top, passing directly below a hanging glacier with two long teeth, nicknamed the Fangs. This hanging glacier is lodged on a steep wall directly above the Icefall, and regularly calves, shedding ship-size blocks of ice down onto our path. The Sherpas have strung a line of prayer flags at the beginning and end of this section. This is the Khumbu death zone. If you’re here at the wrong time, there’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. It’s over.
Just like all the Sherpas working for the guided teams here on the south side of Everest, our Sherpas may pass through the Khumbu 30 or 40 times this season to carry up our food and tents. We’re hoping to make just six runs through the Icefall, three up-and-down rotations. We’ve just completed our first rotation, going up through the Khumbu, spending four days at Camp 1 and 2 to acclimatize, and then scooting quickly back down through the Khumbu.
Going up, I was with our strongest Sherpa, Danuru—he has summited Everest 13 times—when we reached the first line of prayer flags, the starting gate to the death zone. He let me catch my breath, then said, “Now we go!” Then he literally took off running uphill, carrying a 60-pound pack at 5,486 meters, his crampons scraping on the blue ice.
We try to get through the Icefall in the dark, before the sun warms the ice and it begins collapsing. (As I write this, at 3 p.m., icefalls are calving and roaring down the flanks of Mount Everest.) We leave Base Camp at 2 a.m., following the beams of our headlamps on our helmets like miners.
So what does it feel like to go through the Khumbu Icefall?
Imagine walking on railroad tracks through a dark mountain. You know trains come roaring down the tracks at random times. There is no way for you to get off the tracks if a train comes. Sometimes the tracks go over a rickety bridge, with a bottomless pit below, and you have no idea if the bridge will collapse when you walk out on it. But there’s nothing you can do. So you just keep walking, hoping you’ll be the lucky one, hoping the train doesn’t come until you’ve passed through the mountain and gotten off the tracks.