Go time! 5AM this morning it was time to start walking to ‘crampon point’, the official start of the Khumbu Icefall and the climb up Mt Everest. 40mph winds, bitter cold and a lack of breakfast (my schoolboy mistake!) could not dampen my enthusiasm!
The Khumbu Icefall is the lower part of a glacier which runs between Everest, Lohtse and Nutptse. As the glacier reaches a steeper section it breaks into a vast mass of ice and cravasses, balanced precariously beneath the avalanching slopes of the mountains on either side. It moves fast, over 3ft per day, creating instability which topple the huge blocks of ice at random. It is the most dangerous part of the journey to the summit, and many, many people have tragically lost their lives here.
That said, it is a truly magical, mystical place, a wild ocean of ice. A route through this maze to Camp 1 at 6,000m is found each year by specialists, the ‘Icefall Doctors’, who run a rope almost the entire distance. You walk, scramble, rope climb, cross cravasses on ladders, and climb building-size blocks, also with ladders. It is hard work, and genuinely not easy. The rope helps, but often times it is an illusion – a fall even on the rope can be fatal.
Today was a trial run up to a relatively flat and shielded spot 2/3 the way up the icefall, called the ‘football field’ at 19,000ft. About 500ft short of this goal Ang Karma, my Sherpa companion, stopped.
‘No more rope’.
An avalanche or collapsed ice tower (called a serac) had buried the route ahead under thousands of tones of ice. A few hours earlier and maybe we would have been under it – a sober and very real reminder of the danger here. Nothing for it but to turn around. Our goal, to dust off the cobwebs, was done in any case.
Climbing today was hard work, and at times I wondered at my ability to even summit. But then I saw the time – perhaps 20-30% faster than the good pace our group set last time in 2014. Maybe that is why it hurt! Either way I’m much stronger this time round. Optimism restored!
The route down was easier, and hence more fun. I enjoyed the view, just a magical place.
We were back in time for breakfast, a little tired (me, not the Sherpa!) and happy. An encouraging start!