The first few climbers have made rotations to Camp 1 while the rest of the teams at Everest Base camp are preparing to enter the Khumbu Icefall for the first time this season. The permits for Everest continue to grow, now 321 on 34 teams approaching the 219 record of 382. Lhotse has an astounding 83 on 9 teams. Look for over 700 people on the routes this spring.
The weather continues to be a concern, not current but previous with a dry winter of little snowfall making the Lhotse Face rock hard blue ice. We are seeing this on Annapurna with a summit bid underway. Unexpected hard ice above Camp 4 caused the Sherpas to use more rope than they carried and they ran out. More was helicoptered in from Kathmandu, a first to my knowledge.
The climb times for the trip from EBC to Camp 1 were about 8 hours for some of the first climbers, about normal for the first rotation. However, this does suggest the Icefall is fixed pretty much the same as in previous years, in other words, not straighter, flatter, or faster. In any event, the first trip through the Icefall is always eye-opening, even if it’s only halfway up
First Steps in the Icefall
You set your alarm for 3:30 am knowing it was unnecessary as you have been awake for the last two hours. Over dinner, the first climb into the Icefall was announced for today. Immediately, your anxiety level ratcheted up a notch. The Khumbu Icefall. You have seen so many pictures, a few videos and recently studied it from Kala Patar, Camp 1 on Pumori, and your base camp tent, but now it was time for the real thing.
Switching on your headlamp, you pull on your real climbing clothes. This is just a trip halfway, but it still requires warm layers, gloves, boots, crampons, harness, jumar, cows tail, ice axe – the works. The 3-person tent that seemed so big when you arrived now seems like a closet as you swing your legs off the mattress to pull on your pants. Your arms hit the sides as your top goes on.
Scooting to the door, you pull your boots into the tent, cursing at not having the foresight to keep them inside so they wouldn’t freeze. Now you would pay the price with ten minutes of close combat – you against your boots. Finally, dressed for action, you stumble outside your tent only to trip over a guy-line. “Damn, and I’m going to climb Everest?”, you mutter to yourself. Standing in the cold, crisp air, you pause. Looking around you see your teammates performing the same circus act.
Glancing at the Icefall, you see headlamps, um, someone is already up there. Probably Sherpas carrying a load to Camp 1 or Camp 2. You hear the low hiss of stoves as the cooks are making breakfast. It is cold, but you are not cold. Looking at your yellow 8000-meter boots, the contrast against the white snow is vibrant. Without thinking a smile grows on your face. You are about to enter the Icefall.
The Sherpas are gathered by the cook tent eating an unidentifiable concoction of rice, milk, and sugar. They eat with the enthusiasm of a starving teenager. You walk over and enter the dining tent seeing the cooks have already brought out toast and a boiled egg for each climber. You spread some jam on your toast and stare at the egg. A teammate pushes some coffee your way. A grunt is all you can muster.
Without warning the Sherpas enter the tent calling out names. Not sure if you are being recognized or punished you stand up quickly and follow your personal Sherpa, Dawa. He sets a brisk pace through the maze of paths in base camp. Switching on your headlamp, you follow closely, still unsure of the correct turns to make. Crampon Point is your destination.
With the finesse of a lightweight boxer, Dawa bobs and weaves between the tents. He dodges a yak standing on the trail, careful not to touch the sleeping beast. You soon reach the perimeter of base camp and take a step onto a flattish section of the Icefall. You were here a few days ago to run through your gear on the obstacle course but this time it is for real.
The route becomes circuitous now, up and down small ice hills, stepping over small sections of running water, maneuvering around growing ponds. Careful not to get your boots wet, you take big steps, while Dawa seemingly floats over them.
Your breathing increases. Tiny drops of sweat form on your chest, your forehead. The doubts begin again. “Oh my God, if I’m struggling just to get to Crampon Point, what will …” you stop yourself remembering the value of mental toughness.
You and Dawa arrive at Crampon Point with the energy of an Indy race car coming into the pit for a tire change. Taking your crampons out of your pack, you now sit on your pack to attach the spikes to your oversize boots. Right, then left; thread the safety strap around your ankle and through the ring; double back the strap. You’re done. Dawa looks at your work. Feeling like a child, you look yourself to make sure you put them on the correct foot; buckles go to the outside for safety. You look at Dawa but he has already moved on.
The first few steps into the Icefall proper are steep. “Who put the route over a 30-foot ice bump at the start?” you curse to yourself. Your breathing picks back up. Dawa’s headlamp seems like a searchlight, not looking ahead but side to side using the eyes in the back of his head to see if you are keeping up. He slows down a bit.
Reaching the beginning of the fixed line, you take the carabiner attached to a piece of webbing that is attached to your harness and clip-in. This act will be repeated several hundred if not thousands of times over the next few weeks. Seeing more people ahead, you silently send a plea out, hoping they will slow down your Super Sherpa.
Moving steadily you gain altitude in the Icefall. The wee hours of the morning are cold, it is dark; there is no moon tonight. Maybe for summit night? The Sherpas often say a full moon is an auspicious sign. Headlamps show the way but so do the line of climbers ahead of you, and the thin white nylon line; another part of climbing Everest you will get to know.
Soon the conga line comes to a halt. Actually, it is just you and Dawa because Dawa has no patience for slow climbers and he passed each of them pulling you along in his slipstream. While you struggle to breathe, you know this is a good sign as he will get you to the summit and not let anyone, or anything slow you down.
Looking ahead, the emerging sunlight shows the reason for the sudden stop – a ladder. A ladder? A ladder! Suddenly your mind becomes focused, no more idle thoughts, no more complaining, no more breathing. You are staring at a single ladder stretched across a crevasse. In the dawn light, you cannot see how deep it is. Just as well.
Dawa looks at you as you take a second carabiner off your harness. He goes first. Clipping in both ‘biners to the two safety ropes on either side of the ladder he steps onto the first rung, then the second, and without so much as a pause he is across standing there staring at you. You can almost hear him in a deep John Wayne voice “OK kid, I showed you how to do it, now get on with it.”
You lean over and grab the safety line, left one first. Clipping in you feels secure. then the right; now more secure. Moving your right boot off the snow your front crampon points touch the first metal rung. A metallic clink provides the feedback. Your left foot follows but goes to the second rung. You are on the ladder. Now it is time to move.
The death grip on the safety line hurts even through your thick gloves. Your right foot inches forward, not too high off the ladder. You make a sudden decision to take it one rung at a time, not two or three like Dawa. Your front points make a successful landing.
You feel good, proud of your baby step but then everything changes. Feeling panic, you sense something is wrong. You stop with your right foot ahead and your left behind. You look ahead at Dawa, then it occurs to you – breath.
Welcome to the Icefall
The permits for Everest contunie to grow approaching the 219 record of 382. The Nepal Ministry of Tourism posted these foreign permit tally thus far. As I’ve noted, many teams are still arriving, and some are planning to come in mid-April, relatively late. This is probably due to the massive confusion around Nepal’s COVID quarantine and testing rules. Even with this slow start, over 350 Everest foreign permits are expected, with the Tibet side closed to foreigners.
- Everest: 321 on 34 teams (350 expected)
- Lhotse: 83 on 9 teams
- Nuptse: 23 on 3 teams
- Manaslu: 1 on 1 team (over)
- Annapurna: 44 on 4 teams
- Dhaulagiri: 30 on 4 teams
- Pumori: 5 on 1 team
- Makalu: 20 on 2 teams
- Ama Dablam: 27 on 2 teams
- Tukuche: 1 on 1 team
- Tilichho: 8 on 1 team
- Tengkangpoche: 2 on 1 team
- Barun Tse: 12 on 1 team
Tough climbing conditions required more fixed rope than planned and the 35 person summit push had to retreat to high camp awaiting more gear (rope, food, fuel and Annapurna is up first where the summit push is underway aiming for tonight, Thursday, April 14, 2021. Mingma G said, “14 April is Nepal’s New Year 01-01-2078 and on this auspicious day, the team will make Annapurna summit.” Pakistani climbers Sirbaz Khan and Abdul Joshi are reported on this push. You can follow progress at these trackers:
- Badía Briseida Luna: share.garmin.com/C7VXD
- Mexican climber Viridiana Alvarez: share.garmin.com/Viridiana She got Everest on May 16, 2017, then K2 on July 21, 2018, and Kangchenjunga on May 15, 2019.
- Pakistani Team of Sirbaz Khan and Abdul Joshi: share.garmin.com/PakTeam
Climbers are arriving at Dhaulagiri but the route fixing hasn;t begun. Among the climber is 82-year-old Carlos Soria is on this 12th (yes twelfth) attempt of Dhaulagiri. He only has it and Shishapangma to complete climbing all fourteen of the 8000-meter peaks.
Carla Perez and Topo Mena have now changed plans from the northwest ridge to the normal route after Cory Richards left the expedition for unannounced reasons. Meanwhile, the Slovak-Romanian team lead by Peter Hamor with Marius Gane and Horia Colibășanu will attempt the North-West ridge and then descend along the North-East ridge.
I’m updating team location table and tracking climber’s blogs (see sidebar). If you have a team not listed, please let me know, and I will add them if I can track them. If you prefer not to be mentioned, please contact me.
Memories are Everything
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