Everest Base Camp—17,530 feet (5,343 meters)
N 28º 00.336' E 086º 51.504'
There were lots of heavy boots trudging by the tents in the dark this morning. Climbers and Sherpas bound for the Icefall, naturally. Not from our camp today, though. It was another packing/rest day for our team. Seth Waterfall and I took the opportunity to get our climber out on the ice pinnacles after breakfast for some more training in rope techniques.
Erica is looking more comfortable with each session of rappelling down and jugging up the lines we fix. While out there in the middle of the glacier, we heard (and felt) a few big rumbles as ice avalanches cut loose in various places. One tumbled down off Everest’s West Shoulder and obviously crossed the Icefall climbing route, luckily missing any climbers in the process. That one certainly pointed out the need for a slightly better and more protected route in the region, and I was encouraged to hear that Willie Benegas may have found just such a route a little farther out toward the middle of the Khumbu Icefall. We shall see whether his discovery is accepted and improved by the Icefall Doctors responsible for fixing ropes and ladders.
The Ice Docs are a great bunch of guys. We had them over for a small gift of hats and T-shirts yesterday evening, and we heartily thanked each of the seven men who have been risking their lives to find us safe passage through the big jumbled glacier pouring out of the Western Cwm. We were all astonished when Ang Nima mentioned that he’d been climbing on Everest since 1975, when he worked for Chris Bonington’s famous Southwest Face expedition.
Since Gerry shot that beautiful and frightening footage of an avalanche crossing the climbing route above Camp 1 [see video] we have received lots of questions and comments about such events. That particular event was likely the result of a snow cornice breaking up near Nuptse’s summit at 25,000 feet [7,620 meters]. The cornice—an overhanging snow deposit—may have built up due to strong prevailing west winds in the night and then busted loose when the first strong rays of the sun hit it in the morning, causing it to settle and fracture. Due to that type of process, we have to worry about “new snow” avalanches even when there hasn’t been any “new snow” falling from the sky.
An ice avalanche, by contrast, is a piece of glacier breaking loose and cascading down. These are scary. They are also a very normal part of the way glaciers move. One cannot predict when a chunk of glacier has decided that it has hung around long enough and that it is now time to thunder down on whatever is below (chunks of glacier—more properly called seracs—are not made of light, fluffy snow, but instead of dense ice the consistency of concrete). There are a number of “hanging glaciers” threatening the West Shoulder side of the Khumbu Icefall, as I mentioned, but we also need to be quite careful of the seracs that make up the Icefall itself... a hundred-foot-high [30-meter-high] tower of ice collapsing a hundred feet [30 meters] upslope can be difficult to get out of the way of.
To most of us, there is something slightly more menacing and inescapable about an avalanche dropping in near freefall for 5,000 feet [1,524 meters] off the West Shoulder, though. I suppose that it is like choosing to get hit by a slow bus rather than by a sports car at top speed, understanding that both bring a fair amount of discomfort. Our various routes do get “dusted” from time to time, as Gerry’s video showed, with no actual debris crossing the climbing route, just a big and dramatic powder cloud engulfing those on the track and likely causing them to hit the deck and cover up for a minute or two.
Our best strategies for dealing with avalanches on the lower part of the mountain involve moving as quickly as possible through known hazard areas and looking for alternate routes (as Willie apparently did today) when we can. We go early in the day, before sunrise, because this affords us some protection from certain types of avalanches, but it doesn’t solve our problems with serac fall. Glaciers move in the night, just as they move in the day, and so their chunks continue to get pushed off randomly rather than when we’d like them to. Getting an early start just feels a lot safer in a world of frozen bridges and towers. The footing can get sloppy later in the day and the heat can get oppressive when the high-altitude sun gets bounced around enough in a concave valley.
So when our first team of climbers (Ed, Melissa, and Peter) moves up tomorrow, they’ll go early and they’ll try to move at a businesslike pace... and they’ll look after one another on the move to Camp 1, in addition to checking in by radio with those of us at Base Camp. We take the hazards of this lower mountain seriously, which is why we’ve waited a week before setting sites on sleeping at Camp 1. Best to be acclimated and ready to use all of one’s fitness for this particular push.
We built up that fitness a little more this afternoon by hiking down to the approaches to Base Camp for a building project. Many teams gathered, perhaps a hundred climbers, in order to build a helipad. We don’t want to use the helipad for helicopters... they tend to crash up here in the thin air and hard rock, and we all live in soft shelters that perform poorly when subjected to shrapnel. But of course, if there is an emergency evacuation in which a helicopter is needed, we want the pilots to enjoy a flat and stable pad of rock. So we all moved rock around for an hour while laughing, breathing heavily, and catching up with long-lost pals from the mountains.
Plenty more Pujas took place today... the gods have to be at least a little bit impressed with all of the offerings and pretty flags and fragrant smoke. Perhaps they’ll mind those seracs and cornices for us while we get the safest possible routes established.