The North Face athlete Emily Harrington filed this report on a particularly dicey in Mt. Everest’s Khumbu Icefall — yesterday, in fact.
Today the mountain warned us.
The upper part of the icefall has been a topic of hot conversation among our small basecamp community in the past few weeks. Conrad Anker referred to the act of hiking through this section as “Dancing with the Fat Lady of Fate in the Ballroom of Death.”
The seracs above and to the left of the trail hang precariously, calving off multiple times a day and dusting unsuspecting climbers below. Thus far, there have been no injuries, but these instances are mere hiccups compared to what could happen. A much more massive section could slide, dropping truck-sized ice blocks onto the trail below and killing anyone that may be in its path.
Even the Sherpas have been wary of the Fat Lady.
They said it was dangerous, the trail was too close, but that the other routes that steer clear of this danger may not be much safer. The bottom line is that the icefall is unstable and dangerous this year, and with hundreds of people passing through per day, it is only a matter of time before something bad happens.
The entire lower section was collapsing, spilling over itself and piling up below in a mass of bone-crushing ice.
Among our group, Cory was the most frightened. He stated his opinion many times, to us and to others at camp. He wanted the route to change. He even said one day that he would not go through the icefall again until it had changed. “It’s scary and I hate it,” he would say, shaking his head and casting his gaze downward.
His feelings made me scared too. I have zero experience in the big mountains, but I fear most what those who are most experienced are afraid of.
Today, the Fat Lady was active. She sang and danced throughout the morning and early afternoon, dropping sizable chunks of ice near the trail, to the point where the group of Sherpas returning from Camp 2 refused to descend.
“To dangerous. Big ice will fall. They will wait.” Panuru, our Sirdar (head Sherpa), told us this afternoon.
We are scheduled to head up to Camp 2 tomorrow at 4am. “If no ice fall before tomorrow, you wait one more day.” He told us, shrugging with his characteristic half smile that makes everything seem o.k. even when it’s not.
Years of experience, or maybe the mountain itself, had told the Sherpas that passing through the Ballroom on this day was not a good idea, something would happen. “Big ice will fall.” Panuru’s words echoed in my head. “How do they know?” I wondered.
I was sitting in my tent fitting my crampons onto my boots when I heard it. I know the sound now. Before, when the loud rumbling began I instinctively thought of a giant semi barreling down a highway. But there are no vehicles here.
Now, I am used to hearing the sound of the avalanches. It starts low and guttural and then builds and echos off of the surrounding mountains, crashing waves of snow and ice that fill my eardrums and quicken my heartbeat.
“Holy shit!” I heard someone say. The sound was louder than usual. I immediately searched the icefall, my eyes landing on the Ballroom up high. The entire lower section was collapsing, spilling over itself and piling up below in a mass of bone-crushing ice and snow. Powerful and terrifying, I felt my panic rise. I pleaded with a higher power, “Please don’t let there be anyone in there. Please.”
We hurried over to Panuru, who was already on the radio speaking rapid Nepali to our Sherpa team up high. “No one in there. They come down now. Much, much safer now.” He told us.
Safer now and no one was hurt.
The Fat Lady has fallen and there’s not as much left to collapse. The icefall is still dangerous, and requires immense caution and awareness, but one of the biggest dangers has been diluted by the avalanche this afternoon.
What could have been a terrible tragedy was instead an impressive lesson in patience on the part of the Sherpas. They had listened and heeded the warning of the mountain, and were rewarded with safe passage.
We are extremely lucky to have such competent and experienced people climbing with us.
Now that the danger has lessened, I am finishing my packing to head up to Camp 2 tomorrow morning. We will climb to Camp 3 and possibly to Camp 4 before heading back down in a week or so.