The full fury of the ice fall proved more than anyone in the team had expected. It is an ever changing space of moving glacial ice slowly but surely tumbling towards the ground. Formed between the steep faces of Lhotse, Lhotse Shar and Nuptse, the massive sheets of ice roll menacingly slowly down the Western Cwm. They move so slow that people might think the whole area is a static and safe place to trod on but they’re soon to realize how wrong they are when they take their 1st few steps into the ice fall. Accompanied with the benign slow drifting ice is the terrifying avalanches and collapse of giant seracs which make the whole landscape a dynamic, ever changing and extremely dangerous one.
As we climbed deeper into the ice fall, the pace started picked up. The Sherpas who knew the dangers of the ice fall were more jittery and were hurrying us along the dangerous segments where huge seracs were outcropping from the main ice blocks overhanging our routes of travel. It was just a matter of time before these seracs collapse on the route but everyone sure prayed that the moment would not be when we were walking under them. After the ‘popcorn field’ was the ‘football field’ – a relatively flat section of ice where everyone would stop for a break. We were receiving news that part of the seracs on ‘Lho La’ peak had collapsed over the ice fall and had wiped out the fixed lines on a certain segment on the route spanning more than 50 vertical meters. We were to climb over the collapsed ice without any fixed lines onto relatively safe territory. Once a serac collapses, the surrounding area becomes unstable and is prone to further collapses. Everyone was rushing through the segment of unfixed lines. As we looked up, the half collapsed Lho La ice seracs seemed perched in extremely precarious positions ready to collapse once more. As my Sherpa mumbled Tibetan Buddhist prayers, he fixed my safety line onto his harness and together we rushed through the dangerous segment. Breathless as I could be after keeping up with Sherpa pace for just 5 mins, I was just glad the sercas didn’t go as we passed them. Click here to see the video of the avalanche ice debris in the ice fall we had to walk past as we were returning back to base camp. (http://youtu.be/oKrXr01f29c)
Up and down and through narrow segments we climbed and jummared ensuring that our safety line was always clipped in. Traffic sometimes becomes a concern when teams going up and down the ice fall encounter each other at narrow sections. Ladders were another concern. Horizontal, vertical, down sloping, multiple ones tied together, ladders with broken rungs, you name it, they were present in the ice fall. There was one ladder segment that I’ll never forget. My Sherpa kept mentioning that this was the area in which the ‘accident’ had happened. A Sherpa who carelessly had gone past this ladder without clipping in his safety line 2 days ago had fallen into the crevasse and had died instantly. His body had to be long roped on a helicopter and flown back to his village down the Khumbu valley. When I peered over to the other side of the crevasse on which the far end of the long ladder was resting on, I saw blood multiple blood stains on the ice and a backpack deep inside the crevasse. As I tried my best not get concerned with the fact that a person had actually died there, there was this still this deep sense of fear that arose as I was nimbly maneuvering the ladder. I was extra cautious and took my time to cross the ladder. I have this ‘Go-Pro’ helmet mount camera, kindly sponsored by my title sponsors Cerebos and BRAND’S(r) which I have been using while crossing the ice falls. Here is the video of this particular ladder crossing that I caught using the Go-Pro camera. (http://youtu.be/QwzFdngXXK8)
The cold was also something that I had underestimated. The temperatures are way below zero every night and everything freezes. Water bottles, contact lens solution, pee inside the pee bottle. Even water inside bottles placed inside our jackets while walking can freeze. My fingers had been constantly cold through the climb in the ice fall. I thought that frost bite would be a concern during summit day but never did I prepare myself for frostbite so early in the climb. I warmed my hands beside the stove the Sherpas were using to melt the ice immediately once I reached C1. EBC to C1 took me 5h. I was very worried on how I was going to go on further up the mountain when I was already experiencing problems down in the low camps.
We stayed in C1 for 2 nights. We could see Lhotse, the Lhotse face and the whole stretch of the Western Cwm from our campsite. We took a short walk for about 1.5h towards C2 for acclimatization on the 2nd day we were at C1. From where we turned around, we could see the summit of Everest from the Western Cwm, this time from a totally different perspective that I had never seen before. Being already breathless from where I was, seeing the massive summit made me wonder how in the world I was ever going to get there in just 2 weeks time. The consolation was that there was going to be another acclimatization cycle and that supplemental oxygen would be available during the summit push.
We then trekked over the Western Cwm towards C2 and spent 2 nights there. C1 to C2 took me 3.5h. C2 was massively sprawled with tents just like EBC. Our guide told us that some consider C2 as the advanced base camp of the south side. Seeing the Lhotse face up close was more intimidating than ever. 1.5 vertical kilometers of 60 deg blue hard ice stood between C2 and the south col (C4) and we knew that we had to scale that treacherous face on our next rotation. The rope Sherpa team started fixing the lines on the Lhotse face that same day and even for them, the route was slightly tough.
I have started taking Aspirin since about 1 month ago. Strokes, deep vein thrombosis, central retinal vein obstruction are some blood disorders that are very common here in high altitude. Due to the over production of red blood cells (polycythemia) due to the oxygenless environment (hypoxia) and dehydration during exertion, there is more chance of blood stasis and clotting. The dangers occur when these clots dislodge from the blood vessels and travel to different parts of the body. Aspirin thins the blood and is usually taken by people with previous strokes and heart disease. Since these blood disorders are common here and many famous climbers and Sherpas have suffered stroke here, I’m not taking any chances and will be taking Aspirin at least till the end of the expedition. There seems to be one other benefit from taking the aspirin. Staying here at high altitude day after day, one looses track of time and which day of the week it is. There are days of the week printed on the back of the Aspirin packet (to indicate which tablet you should take on which day) and every morning when I pop the tablet from the packet, it keeps me in check of the day of the week.
Coming down from the ice fall, personally seemed to be more dangerous than ascending. They always say that most of the fatalities on the mountain occur during the descent. This is due to the sheer exhaustion and lack of concentration one experiences once they give it all they’ve got to reach the summit. One false step, or one moment of being lazy by not clipping in your safety line is all it takes to plunge into one of the deep crevasses in the ice fall. Even though I just reached C2 during an acclimatization climb, I was feeling extremely exhausted as I tried to keep up with my Sherpa who was rushing down the dangerous segments of the ice fall. My crampons did get caught with each other and I did trip during the descent but thank my lucky stars, I was clipped in and was saved by the safety lines. It sure woke me up during the early morning descent. The ice fall is a place where no climber or Sherpa feels comfortable traversing but it has to be done to reach the upper camps from the south side of Everest. Thus IMG is taking as much precautions and minimizing our travel to and from the ice fall.
Just as we reached base camp, there was a huge avalanche up between C1 and C2. One of the giant seracs hanging off Nuptse along the Western Cwm had broken off and slid down into the valley which sent a huge gust of wind and ice on the floor of the Western Cwm. One Sherpa from another team got swept into a crevasse and had broken a few of his ribs and vertebrae. He had to be heli-evacuated back to Kathmandu for treatment. A few camps in C1 were taken out during this avalanche as well. IMG’s C1 campsite was safe as with all the other climbers in the Western Cwm at the moment. Once again, we were lucky to not have been at the wrong place at the wrong time.
There will be 1 more rotation on the ice fall before the summit push and we are resting at base camp now. We are awaiting the high altitude jet stream winds to shift to the south of Everest before we embark on our 2nd rotation to C3. Tentatively, we’ll be moving off on Wednesday. Its nice to be back resting in the relatively warmer conditions in EBC with the good camp cooked food. Taking about warmth, food and familiarity, I miss home a lot and can’t wait to get back. I’m already making a list of food I want to eat when I get back.