Paul Pottinger’s Adventures from the Top of the World

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Half an Icefall

Everest 2015  •  April 20

What an amazing day!  Up at 2:30 AM for breakfast, than we got geared up and went out the door into the crisp, cold, clear night.  We walked a short distance with our sherpa team to the puja stupa, where the juniper fire was lit again.  A brief prayer was said and sung by the sherpa, then we all tossed rice onto the altar in a sign of respect for the mountain.  They lost colleagues and friends here almost exactly one year ago, and yet they head up with us again into the same terrain.  We know that the route is different this year—by reputation, the fastest, safest route anyone can recall, away from Everest’s steep west shoulder by a hundred feet or more.  Still, everyone knows this is serious.

We marched for about half an hour through the cold to the start of the glacier, called “crampon point.”  On go the spikes, on goes they avvy beacon, and on goes my spot beacon.  (By the way, you can always follow my movements above EBC on my SPOT account: http://share.findmespot.com/shared/faces/viewspots.jsp?glId=04qiodh1p5b9GXWqvbbuOhcZYZkhqty8p As always, please note that SPOT signals in the Himalaya are, well… spotty, so do NOT be alarmed if the track looks broken or stops in an odd place.  This is for fun, not for jaw-clenching action!)

The icy moraine undulated for about 30 minutes’ worth of walking before we reached the start of the ascent proper.  Up and down ice hills in the ghostly predawn light.  Then, the Khumbu Icefall: A lifetime’s ambition, the focus of my anxiety and dreams nightly for the last few years.

A string of headlamps shows the route above, while we get the 'pons on at crampon point.  (Photo: Blake Penson)
A string of sherpas’ headlamps shows the route above, while we get the ‘pons on at crampon point. (Photo: Blake Penson)

No time for distractions… Focus!  This is tough work!  Steep in places, but with superb (truly, superb) footholds and a solid track to follow.  We clipped to static Korean-made ropes that have been fixed to the route with ice anchors by an elite team of SPCC sherpas, commonly called the “icefall doctors.”  We ascended very bizarre, beautiful landscapes that defy description.  I was impressed with the quality of the route, at least when I was able to catch my breath to appreciate things.  This is not a spot for sightseeing; quick, efficient movement through the route is called for, to reduce risk of exposure if ice seracs should decide to topple over.  Only one small section of the route was in disarray due to recent ice shifting, and this we jogged through in under a minute.  Everything else felt surprisingly solid.

Starting up the icefall, Base Camp in the distance.  Does my expression capture how painful this was?  (Photo: Blake Penson)
Starting up the icefall, Base Camp in the distance. Does my expression show how painful this was? (Photo: Blake Penson)
Near the start of the steep section, route above visibly more to the right than last year.  (Photo: Blake Penson)
Near the start of the steep section, route above visibly more to the right than last year. (Photo: Blake Penson)
Saddling up after our first break.  (Photo: Justin Merle)
Saddling up after our first break. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Kim's expression says it all.  "This is what we came for."
Kim’s expression says it all. “This is what we came for.”

The Sherpas’ prayer chanting during tough sections was ominous.  They have tremendous respect for this place, which makes them top-notch in my book.  They are here by choice, and are proud of their skills… My job is to climb HARD and not screw up, so that we can get this done swiftly, together.  I kept this in the front of my mind the whole time.  I am climbing with Pasang Kami, and we are a team.

Pasang Kami, super strong mountaineer and my climbing partner.
Pasang Kami, super strong mountaineer and my climbing partner.

Again, TOUGH WORK on these steep sections, but not as tough as Lobuche felt.  We are a bit lower here, but more than that, our acclimatization seems to be working!  Plus, the route is in great shape.  My amazing sherpa Pasang Kami did a super job for me, helping in a hundred tiny ways, but overall I held my own on the way up and then down again.  Because the route takes us up, down, and around seracs and crevasses, it prevented me from developing a true “rhythm”  of ascent, which makes climbing easier and more fun.  But, this was a special day.  You’re climbing the icefall.  This is real.  Dawn came soon after we began making our way up in earnest, revealing the ghostly seracs all around us, a creepy color of deep blue, almost like sea ice.  A few times I paused to catch my breath, and I appreciated how still and quiet it was.  Freaky, but mind-bendingly beautiful.

Blake and Kim, with the West Shoulder above.
Blake and Kim, with the West Shoulder above.
This section knocked the wind out of me for a minute.  Andy & Kim, not so much.  (Photo: Blake Penson)
This section knocked the wind out of me for a minute.  Andy & Kim, not so much. (Photo: Blake Penson)
Kim makes progress on a thin sliver of ice.  (Photo: Blake Penson)
Kim makes progress on a thin sliver of ice. (Photo: Blake Penson)
LC climbs one of several ladders on this portion of the route. (Photo: Justin Merle)
LC climbs one of several ladders on this portion of the route. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Siva rocks the fixed lines.
Siva rocks the fixed lines.
Some ladders are fixed horizontally to cross wide crevasses.  (Photo: Justin Merle)
Some ladders are fixed horizontally to cross wide crevasses. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Pasang Kami, Andy, and Siva on the route.
Pasang Kami, Andy, and Siva on the route.
Pumori in full sun, but the route remains in shade, which makes the going more pleasant for us.  (Photo: Kim Hess)
Pumori in full sun, but the route remains in shade, which makes the going more pleasant for us. (Photo: Kim Hess)
Our buddies ascending the last steps before the football field.  (Photo: Kim Hess)
Our buddies ascending the last steps before the football field. (Photo: Kim Hess)
Siva, Andy, and two IMG sherpas pull into the football field.
Siva, Andy, and two IMG sherpas pull into the football field.

We were in shadow all morning, and even when the sunshine blazed on Pumori across the valley, it was cold at our position.  After a brief rest at a relatively wide and safe spot called the “football field,” about halfway to Camp 1, my hands started to feel the bitter chill.  I was glad when we turned around and headed down, almost exactly 3 hours after leaving camp.  I turned to Pasang Kami and said, “Let’s go home.”  And off we went. 

A small cache of gear marks the "football field," our turnaround point for today.  (Photo: Justin Merle)
A small cache of gear marks the “football field,” our turnaround point for today. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Fatima is indefatigable.
Fatima is indefatigable.
Blake's moustache seems to keep him warm at the break.
Blake’s moustache seems to keep him warm at the break.
LC sports a GoPro.
LC sports a GoPro.
Kim.  Need I say more?
Kim Hess, powered by Snickers.
Keeping warm during the short break at the football field.
I keep warm during the short break at the football field.
Andy never runs out of steam.  How does he do it?
Andy never runs out of steam. How does he do it?

Descending was fun.  When I came to one vertical section I started to face in and use a traditional arm wrap, but Pasang Kami suggested I face out and trust my grip.  He was exactly right, and we used this technique in which our leather-palmed gloves serve as brakes on the line, and we pretty much point straight downhill and let fly.  The ladders serve as bottlenecks, but we had very little traffic up there, almost had the place to ourselves.  As my buddy Doug will tell you, I am usually fearless on descent, and this was no exception.  I wanted to get the hell out of there.  We went down safely, with a touch of class, in about 54 minutes.

LC descends three ladders lashed together, crossing a deep dark crevasse.  (Photo: Justin Merle)
LC descends three ladders lashed together, crossing a deep dark crevasse. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Base camp in the distance, from near the bottom of the icefall.
Base camp in the distance, from near the bottom of the icefall.
Negotiating the ice fins near the bottom of the icefall.
Negotiating the ice fins near the bottom of the icefall.

I shot the whole descent with my helmet-mounted 4K go pro action cam.  Far as I know, this has not been accomplished before.  The footage is… evocative.  Looking forward to sharing with all of you once I am back in the states and have access to my YouTube channel  (OSM Adventures).

Looking back, we can just see the football field at the top of the visible icefall, which appears to be just below where Everest meets the glacier on the left.
Looking back, we can just see the football field at the top of the visible icefall, which appears to be just below where Everest meets the glacier on the left.
Upper icefall in telephoto... football field is on top left, just below a horizontal string of prayer flags.
Upper icefall in telephoto… football field is on top left, just below a horizontal string of prayer flags.
Ice tortured by sublimation into otherworldly beauty.  (Photo: Kim Hess)
Ice tortured by sublimation into otherworldly beauty. (Photo: Kim Hess)
We shed layers upon reaching the sunshine near crampon point.  (Photo: Justin Merle)
We shed layers upon reaching the sunshine near crampon point. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Phinjo at the bottom of the route.
Phinjo at the bottom of the route.
Justin always keeps cool.
Justin always keeps cool.

Rest, smiles, and relaxation in EBC, which we made by breakfast time.  Now, we wait for camps 1 and 2 to become established.  Once they are, we will head up again for the next rotation.  A hurdle jumped, a rite of passage accomplished.  We can do this.

Blake chillaxes after the climb.  (Photo: Justin Merle)
Blake chillaxes after the climb. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Kim savors camp apres climb.  (Photo: Justin Merle)
Kim savors camp apres climb. (Photo: Justin Merle)

6 thoughts on “Half an Icefall

  1. Unbelievably beautiful and, at the same time, terrifying. I am glad you got to realize that part of your dream. Great reporting.

  2. wonderful pictures!! I am so glad I found this post– I am technologically challenged…. As Kim would tell you!!

    1. Great work Mama Hess! Thanks for raising such an awesome posse of kids. Delighted to get to climb with them!

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