Dispatch—Day 20: April 15, 2009
Close Call With Avalanche at Camp I
Photo: Avalanche cascades onto the Western Cwm
By Seth Waterfall
Photograph by Jake Norton

Everest Base Camp—17,530 feet (5,343 meters)
N 28º 00.336' E 086º 51.504'

Base Camp is a busy place these days as all of the teams have arrived and the route through the icefall is now open. In the daytime climbers and trekkers are constantly milling about camp, checking in with friends and other teams to see what everyone's plans are. It's quite a scene.

Since the Icefall Doctors completed the route to Camp 1 teams have been busy staking claims to the prime sites. At least one team has sent climbers to spend the night there, thus starting their first acclimatization "rotation." The Sherpas in our team went to Camp 1 the day the Icefall Doctors completed the final leg of the route and marked off an area for our camp there. Today our team carried loads of gear to the camp. This accomplished two things. The first and most obvious is to transport some of our gear farther up the mountain. The second is to aid our acclimatization by climbing to almost 20,000 feet [6,100 meters] before returning to Base Camp to recover.

This was my first trip through the icefall in its entirety. Of course I've heard about it, read about it, and have had plenty of time to obsess about it over the last six days. But there's no way to really get a feel for it other than climbing through it. I have climbed on plenty of glaciers. In fact I've spent weeks on end living on glaciers. But climbing through an icefall, where the glacier drops off of a steep slope, picks up speed, and breaks up into crevasses (you can fall in these) and ice towers called seracs (these can fall on you), is not a normal or common thing, even for a mountain guide.

So we got up at 2:15 a.m. this morning and started our climb at 3 a.m. There's two reasons to start this early. One is to get ahead of other people that may slow us down in dangerous sections. The other is to climb in the nice, cool temperatures of the night and avoid the oppressive heat of the day. Well, I must admit the "cool" nighttime temps here are really ridiculously cold, so getting out of my sleeping bag was the first crux of the day.

From our camp it's about 45 minutes to the first big crevasses. The Icefall Doctors use aluminum ladders to bridge crevasses. On Rainier we also use ladders to cross crevasses. The only difference is that on Rainier we'll use two to three ladders in a season; here there are about 35 ladders crossing crevasses and climbing up and down seracs. The Doctors do a great job of making things as safe as possible in the icefall. Of course there are the ladders, but they also place tons of rope on the route so you can always be clipped in and safe from a big fall.

Once in the Icefall itself there are precious few places to safely stop for a break. The glacier is always shifting and moving so you really don't know when a chunk of ice may come crashing down. Your best bet for safety is to move quickly and in climb in control. Fortunately our team was able to stay fairly close together owing to our early departure. There were not many people for us to get caught behind and separated. We did manage to sneak in a couple of rest breaks, though we did make excellent time and we arrived at Camp 1 at the top of the Icefall just before 7 a.m.

Camp 1 is a tricky place to camp. It is sandwiched in between the steep faces of Everest's West Ridge and the north face of Nuptse. Both sides of the valley are prone to ice and snow avalanches. The trick there is to position your camp so as to mitigate the danger from both sides of the valley. Also the climbing route from Camp 1 to Camp 2 currently avoids the big crevasses in the center of the glacier but passes directly under some avalanche paths on Nuptse.

We were discussing the relative merits of two different campsites and where the climbing route will be the safest when a large avalanche came ripping down off of the summit of Nuptse. To our shock there was a large group of people on the climbing route, directly under the avalanche. Fortunately most of the snow and ice from the avalanche landed in the moat between the glacier and the steeper slopes of Nuptse, and the folks on the route, including some Sherpas from our team, were only blasted with a powder cloud from the avalanche. Still, this was a scary event and a reminder to be ever respectful of the power of the mountains.

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