Practice Run No.4: First Summit Attempt Aborted Before It Began

In Practice Run No.4by Steve

Well, I was hoping for an early finish, but looks like this one is going to go the distance. Better settle in for the long haul….

I left Base Camp last Monday at 03:10 on what was meant to be our summit push. It was still very early in the season to be going for the summit, but it looked like we had a good weather window. It was just me and one other climber from our group heading up that morning. The rest of the group were already up the hill having left a couple of days earlier. Somewhere between Base Camp and the Icefall, I got geographically embarrassed. The route crosses the Khumbu Glacier through a maze of towering ice and crevasses. One main route has been carved but then there’s idiot tracks going off in all directions. With some fresh snow and still dark, I lost the main route and ended up on one of the idiot tracks. The footsteps I was following were proof I was not the only idiot that morning. After a half hour detour I made my way back to the main trail and was on my way up through the Icefall.

It was a quiet and relatively uneventful morning. I got to Camp 2 at 07:45, just over 4hrs if you deduct my earlier detour.

The route through the upper sections of the Icefall had changed substantially since my last rotation. A very dynamic environment. At one point, the rope which I’d followed just a week or so earlier disappeared under an ice boulder the size of a large car and surrounding that was a mass of ice rubble. Glad I wasn’t in the vicinity when that collapse happened. A new route had been established around the collapse. At another section in the Icefall there had previously been two ladders lashed together spanning a horizontal crevasse. Crossing this time it became apparent that the crevasse had opened wider and the double ladder no longer reached the far side. Instead of lashing a third ladder to bridge the gap, the Icefall Doctors had simply left the far end suspended in mid-air and tied it off with rope. Traversing this ladder was like walking on a springboard with the loose end bouncing, supported only by the rope. Once at the end of the ladder it then required a small jump to reach the other side. Nice and safe.

The plan was to have two days at Camp 2, then push on to Camp 3, then 4 and then summit. That schedule would have put us one day behind the Sherpas who were installing ropes and protecting the route. Unfortunately, the day we were at Camp 2 there was quite heavy snow and rope fixing up high was aborted. The weather for the next few days still looked good, but with loose snow up high and increased risk of avalanches, rope fixing was put on hold indefinitely. For us there was nothing to do but return to Base Camp and wait.

It was still very early in the season to be going for the summit. It would have been a dream had it come off, but it didn’t so now it’s back to waiting.

The second evening we were at Camp 2 a serac on the West shoulder of Everest collapsed triggering an avalanche which washed into the Western Cwm, only about 50m down from where our Camp was. Another close call. Camp 2 stretches for about 200m along the side of the Western Cwm, directly under the West shoulder of Everest. Our group is right at the bottom of Camp 2. The reasoning being, supposedly the further up you go, the more exposed you are to wind. But conversely, the further up you go, the face behind is much cleaner, free from ice/snow fields. Down lower where we are, the face behind is coated with hanging ice and snow. Personally I’d take the wind over the avalanche risks.

With our dreams of an early summit dead, this morning we packed up at Camp 2 and descended back down to Base Camp. With very few people heading up, I was able to make good time. I always try and get through the Icefall as quick as I can, just to minimise exposure time. I was nearing the bottom, starting to relax, when I heard a loud crack to my right. I turned to see a large avalanche gaining momentum down the steep face to the side of the Icefall, probably triggered by a falling serac from the hanging glacier above. The avalanche was powering down and washing across the Icefall. My mind was racing. Which way will it go? How far will it travel? Should I run? Should I take cover? Should I just stand and enjoy the spectacle? Should I take my camera out and film it? Yes, that last one probably wouldn’t have been the smartest, but it did cross my mind.

Fortunately the avalanche ran out of steam before it got to me, but I still dusted by the plume of snow that was blown ahead. Avalanches are a daily occurrence but most are small or distant. I’ve had a couple of up close and personal encounters, but this was by far the scariest. Anyway, it was only 30min from there back to Base Camp, straight in for a hot shower and a feed.

Oh, and once down at Base Camp with internet access, I found out that yesterday I became an Uncle for the third time. I am so happy for my brother and his wife, can’t wait to get home and see them and my new niece. But for now, I still have a job to finish.

When I set out to head up the hill last Monday, I was hoping it was going to be my last time up and down through the Icefall, for this year anyway. Now, with summit plans changed, it looks like I’m going to have to run the gauntlet up and down once more. At least I’m getting good practice at it.

We’re going to get an updated weather forecast this evening and then reassess the next summit window, but it looks like it could be 7 to 10 days until I’ll get another shot. For now, it’s back to the waiting game. The rest of my group are heading down the valley to rest in the thicker air and warmer temperatures, but I don’t see much point in that. I want to stay up here where I can react quickly if things change. To kill time, I’ll return to my daily fitness regime with walks up and down Kala Pattar.

“Go with the decision that will make for a great story”.