Our 4 team member perspectives on the Icefall
Going from basecamp at 5400 m, through the Icefall, to Camp 1 at 6100 m is the hardest thing I’ve done in a long time.
We left at 3am and had scouted the route out the day before and knew where to put crampons on and where it would get tricky. Because we had heavy loads and would sleep high that night - which is bad for acclimatization - I was walking as slow as possible. Teams would come along and pass us and I would step aside so they didn’t get in our way.
The Icefall itself is actually really safe if you are a decent climber and no avalanches hit you. Ropes have been ‘fixed’ or anchored to the entire route and so all you have to do is attach your rope ascender and pull yourself up the vertical walls. If you would fall, the rope would catch you and if you didn’t stab yourself with your crampons or break the rope, you could keep going.
I slowly kept climbing the steep broken ice. The heavy pack and low oxygen became this fiery hell for my body - especially my back and shoulders and it went on for hour after hour. And the terrain would break your spirit with endless false summits that would inspire you for 20 minutes and then break your heart. It was just an endless uphill climb through purgatory.
As we walked, I could see the overhanging icefall that killed Asman grow closer. I was puzzled that we came so close, but saw that the ice gave us few choices in the route selection. I stood for a brief moment where so many had died before I hurried to safety. It was surprising cleansing and cathartic to be there and pay my respects. It is such a harsh place of brutal stone and ice that screams death. I’m glad I only have to pass that place a few more times before I can summit.
This is also the location where the angle of the Icefall changes. We’ve been fighting our way up near-vertical walls and now we’ve reach the top where it sort of flattens out. Sort of was the operative term. The ice was flatter as a whole, but we still had to fight our way up and down each of the dozens of deep crevasses. It got no easier with each false summit.
And now a new hell emerged as the sun rose. I saw it coming as a huge bright force engulfing the ice. In basecamp, I had feared it because it would loosen the ice, but I forgot to fear the raw radiation as it reflected off of the ice mirrors all-around me and was among the worst sun blasts I’ve ever encountered. I was sunburned within minutes in spite of my spf50 slathered everywhere.
I tried to hurry, but in fact just got slower and slower as my energy levels bonked, I got more and more dehydrated, the altitude affects just increased in force.
And that’s what I did for the next hours - how many each section took was a blur but the total was 8 or so of unending battle. The last couple of hours would have taken a fresh me with no pack maybe 30 or 45 minutes. But I could only stagger for maybe 10 steps before I stopped to pant and catch my breath. And then 10 more.
I’m not sure how I made it to my tent. I felt terrible from the altitude - no matter how slow I’d gone to fight it.
I laid there for a couple of hours, utterly spent. Then I drank some tea. And felt my legs flex. And I began to recover. And I’m so much stronger for having overcome the ordeal...
Half our team made it up the icefall on their first try for an acclimatization rotation. The rest of us had false starts and went up for the second time two days later early in the morning when things are nicely frozen in place. The icefall doctors have done an excellent job of setting the route to avoid most objective hazards like serac fall and avalanche. My challenge has been finding a good consistent breathing pace. The icefall terrain is so jumbled - up, down, around, clip, lock, jumar, unlock, unclip - it’s hard to stay focused on good breathing. When I don’t, I’m reminded instantly - stop, pant, try to catch breath, calm down. It’s clear to me why meditation and mantra chanting (om ma ni pad-me hum) have become a central part of the high mountain religion here, Buddhism - regular breathing and staying calm are critical where oxygen is so precious.
This second time, we made it up the icefall in fine form. I think a good part of its challenge is the unknown. From a distance, there is no discernible route through the jumbled mess of ice. Once through, the route becomes clear, and the fear starts to melt away. This was especially true on the descent six days later when I felt as strong as ever and had the knowledge of where we are and where we’re going. My strength was bolstered by the fact that we were finally able to take snow samples on the way down through the Western Cwm and icefall. Six weeks of effort at high altitude and we finally have our first data on Everest to show for it. The relief was thrilling.
During my first run through the icefall I packed too ambitiously, and didn't pay enough attention to my body temperature as the day grew later and the sun grew hotter. Once I caught up to our small group I was extremely dehydrated and probably experiencing some form of heat exhaustion, as I almost passed out multiple times during that break. Dizziness and fatigue hit me hard as I lay on my pack. I decided to turn around at that point with James.
During our journey from camp 1 to camp 2 I developed an air bubble in my neck. Everytime I coughed - which was very often - the bubble would make an alarming gurgling noise. Needless to say it really freaked me out. I was worried it could be an edema and would potentially close off my throat, or anything similar. Again I was dehydrated and heat exhausted. Combined with the newly developed gurgling bubble in my neck, my anxiety and inner conversation was at a borderline panick. I remember during one high point of fear I was kneeling on the snow, praying not to die to whomever was listening, and a huge avalanche passed not 20ft in front of me, crossing the trail perpendicularly. At that point I ditched my pack beside the trail and carried on, enlightened by the passing avalanche and reminded not to break for too long on the trail.
Later Everest-ER informed me the strange bubble phenomena was due to dehydration, altitude, and past respitory illness from Gokyo Valley flaring up. Even more reason to pay attention to my hydration more. Overall the icefall taught me that my biggest obstacle is the sun; in order to be a sucessfull climber and team member I need to moniter my energy and temperature very closely, and need to really take responsibility for stopping and hydrating more often.
My first attempt at the icefall was not an ideal experience. My main fault was being overzealous and attempting to bring too much stuff with me. Through miscommunication and poor planning, I also ended up separated from my climbing partner about 30min into the fixed ropes. I had figured I would just take it slow and slog my way up, but my lack of acclimatization caught up to me (I could barely catch my breath) around 3/4 of the way up and I made the decision to turn around. I ended up spending a total of 11hr in the icefall.
My next attempt at the icefall was a few days later- I took much less stuff, took my time, and made it to camp 1 no problem. After a days wait due to weather, three of us made it to camp 2 meeting the rest of the team on our main acclimatization rotation.