Icefall Collapse Delays Departure

Posted by: | April 21, 2009
Categories: *Expedition Dispatches *Everest
Elevation: 17,530 ft.

The juniper and incense were lit; the smoke was going up to the gods, the prayer flags were waving. I buckled the chinstrap on my helmet, stuffed my big down parka and threw my pack on my back. It was just light enough, at 5 a.m. on the button- that I could turn off my headlight to look around at my partners. Erica was ready, her harness was done up correctly and her pack looked nice and neat. Kent had his gear good to go as well; Seth was coming up from his tent, looking loaded for bear. We were about 12 seconds from walking toward the Khumbu Icefall and Camp I. But then I saw Tendi talking urgently into his radio as he walked toward me. He paused, looked up and told me -with that classic slashing motion of the finger across the throat- “Icefall is finished.”
There’d been a collapse somewhere up high on the route. My gut tightened as I then asked Tendi if anybody was trapped or injured. He talked into the radio a bit more in the Nepali which I surely should understand after so many years spent in Nepal… but sadly do not. Tendi finished and translated, “Nobody was in the collapse as far as we know… all of our team is safe, but the Sherpas have all turned around. They can’t get through.” I then looked up at the dots spread out along the route in the dim pre-dawn light. Sure enough, most of the dots were now moving the wrong way… or at least the dots with radios.

We took off our packs and loosened our helmets. It was an odd moment, emotionally. We were keyed up to go climbing; to take on some risk and discomfort… and now it was clear that the morning wouldn’t involve either, so there was relief. But there was also disappointment. We each wanted to get an important mission accomplished. I felt like laughing at the situation as I undid my harness. I’d spent the last half hour wolfing down sugary porridge and strong coffee… I was wide-awake and jacked up. And now all there was to do with all that energy was gaze out at another spectacularly beautiful morning coming on. Kent Harvey didn’t waste a second; he started shooting sunrise shots and counting himself lucky to be up to see it all. In fact, thirty minutes later I looked at Kent next to his tripod and he still had his helmet on. He was capturing everything and fully captivated himself.

I told Erica not to worry about the last minute change to our schedule. She has been on some big mountains; she does know that these things happen. I just wanted her to see it all the way I do, in a positive light. A day’s delay doesn’t hurt us in any way… unless of course we should spend that day fretting. There is no sense fretting. A collapse in the Icefall is beyond our control, like a lot of things that might happen on a big mountain. I always figure that if some feature in the Khumbu needs to come crashing down, then by all means it should come crashing down -when nobody is under or on it. Get it over with. And the Icefall Doctors are great at cobbling together alternative routes. They’ll just need a day, most likely. And we really can rest on this day, now that we are all prepared, packed and ready. We’ll be stronger and more ready tomorrow.

At 8 a.m., Linden Mallory got through to ABC on the radio, informing Peter Whittaker and his team of the “closed” route below them. As expected, this information did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm for their own plans well above the trouble zone. Peter and Ed Viesturs were setting out to help pioneer the route to the base of the Lhotse Face. There are usually some crevasses to be probed out, marked and avoided in this uppermost part of the Khumbu Glacier. If they are successful at getting a safe set of tracks up to the “Bergschrund” (the giant crevasse separating the live ice of the moderately angled glacier from the static ice of the steep Lhotse Face) then it will be a big help to the teams of Sherpas intent on fixing rope on the Face in the coming days. Melissa Arnot had gotten an early start out of Camp I and had reached ABC without any apparent difficulty shortly after the 8 a.m. call.

The trip goes on. Take #2 for us tomorrow… the alarm is already set for 4 a.m.

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