Practice Run No.4: First Time Through the Icefall and Up the Lhotse Face

In Practice Run No.4by Steve

Well, the Lhotse Face lived up to its reputation and some.

Last Friday we set off from Base Camp at about 03:45 and headed up through the Khumbu Icefall for our first acclimatisation rotation. If you’ve ever read/seen any books/documentaries on climbing Everest South Side, you would have heard of the Khumbu Icefall. It is the first major obstacle and often quoted as being the most dangerous part of the mountain. I was keen to see what it was like first hand.

The Khumbu Icefall starts just out of Base Camp and extends to Camp 1 some 700m above. The analogy would be a steady flowing river suddenly dropping over a waterfall and turning turbulent through steep rapids, only the Icefall rapids are frozen. It is a mess of seracs, crevasses and ice rubble, constantly moving and deforming as it carves its way down the steep slope.

The route through the Icefall is maintained by the Icefall Doctors, a group of Sherpas who establish fixed ropes and ladders to navigate the maze. We go through in the early hours of the morning when it is coldest and most stable. While the hazards and objective dangers were obvious, it wasn’t too bad. You just move through swiftly trying to minimise exposure time. I reached Camp 1 in just under 4hrs which wasn’t too bad for my first time, and considering I was held up at times with other slower people in front. Although I did hear of people taking 12 to 14hrs and climbing through the heat of the day. That increases the risk exponentially. I’d seriously question what I was doing here if I was that slow.

The ladder crossings were interesting, and I will admit, I was quite nervous on my first few. Beneath are massive crevasses, some of which fade into blackness and you can’t see the bottom. Narrow crossings with a single ladder were relatively stable and not too bad. But once you started getting 3 or 4 ladders lashed together in order to span across, these got quite unstable and would bounce and sway as you tentatively walked across. To add to the difficulty, you’re doing this in big clumsy boots with crampons on. Each foot needs to be carefully placed to ensure the metal spikes engage over the ladder rungs. You don’t want to look down but you have no choice. You have to focus on your feet to ensure each foot placement is secure.

Camp 1 was pitched on the glacier at the top of the Khumbu Icefall at approximately 6000m. We spent 2 nights there for acclimatisation and walked up to Camp 2 and back in between. The 3rd day we were due to move up to Camp 2 and sleep, but there was a minor collapse in the Icefall and our Sherpas couldn’t get up to meet us. Apparently someone from another group who was caught in the collapse sustained a broken arm, so quite lucky it wasn’t worse. I was carrying my own gear and food, not reliant on the Sherpas, so together with Scott, our assistant leader, pressed on to Camp 2 while the rest of the team stayed at Camp 1.

The route from Camp 1 to 2 follows a relatively gradual slope along the glacier up through the Western Cwm. Pretty straight forward and took less than 2hrs. Camp 2 is then pitched on rocky moraine on the side of the glacier at about 6400m.

That evening at Camp 2 was magic. From where we were, the Western Cwm, a massive natural amphitheatre spreads out in front. At the head of the Western Cwm was the Lohtse Face. Towering above was Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse forming a large horseshoe enclosing the amphitheatre. At the foot of the Western Cwm was the Icefall plunging back down to Base Camp. Then towering above Base Camp on the other side of the valley was Pumori. After sunset the stars were so clear and bright, I’d never seen them so close. I could even see clearly two satellites tracking each other in a trajectory across the sky, moving quite quickly. I couldn’t enjoy it for too long however, the freezing temperatures forcing me back in to the tent.

The following morning while the rest of the team came up to meet us at Camp 2, Scott and I, wanting some extra acclimatisation attempted the Lhotse Face to Camp 3. We set off from Camp 2 at about 06:30. It was a clear, cold morning. It took about an hour to reach the base of the Lhotse Face. From there we had a tricky, steep, little climb to cross the bergshrund before getting on to the Lhotse Face proper. The winds had been progressively picking up and on the Face itself, it was howling. Picking up loose snow and spindrift, you could see the winds tearing down from Everest, across the Face, and up the other side towards Nuptse. I’d heard of these notorious conditions on the Lhotse Face, but to be out in it and experience it was something else.

There were a couple of other teams out that morning also attempting to reach Camp 3. While they all turned back, we stopped to put extra gear on and pressed ahead. We kept telling each other, “If it gets any worse, we’ll turn back too”. Which we continued repeating as it got worse and worse. With my hardshell jacket on over my other layers, hood pulled up over my helmet and zipped up over my mouth, and goggles secured over my eyes, I actually felt well protected and relatively comfortable. Although I still had to turn my back and bury myself in to the icy Face when the worst of the gusts hit.

The Face was steep and covered with hard, smooth, blue ice. Any loose snow was blown away. Trying to get purchase with crampons and axe to make upward progress was challenging to say the least. Thankfully there was one fixed line in place which we could clip in to for security and jumar up. We pressed on for several hours, finally reaching a small levelling. There were no tents erected yet, still too early in the season, but there were caches of gear dumped by other team’s Sherpas in preparation for establishing Camp 3. We were at an elevation of about 7200m and elated to have made it that far. But there wasn’t any celebrating. After tagging the site of Camp 3, we promptly clipped back in to the ropes and started abseiling down. It wasn’t until we started descending, abseil after abseil, re-clipping around each anchor in the rope, that I finally realised how far up we had climbed. Once we got back down to the Western Cwm, the conditions eased off a bit and we made our way back to Camp 2 in time for a late lunch. Both of us agreed not to discuss the conditions on the Lhotse Face with the others. We knew we probably should have turned around, but “all’s well that ends well”.

After a second night at Camp 2, we descended back to Base Camp for a hot shower and warm meal. First acclimatisation rotation done.

These few days all seemed a little surreal. The Khumbu Icefall, the Western Cwm, the Lhotse Face. Everest and Lhotse above split by the South Col. These landmarks, these mountains hold so much tradition and history in mountaineering. Remarkable stories of adventure, exploration and human endeavour born right here. When I paused and reflected on where I was, I was actually taken back. It was incredibly humbling, made me question whether I deserved to be there.

Yesterday with a rest day back in Base Camp, I walked back down to Gorek Shep and up to Kala Pattar. Even on rest days, you need to keep active. It took me 37min to make the ascent from Gorek Shep to Kala Pattar at 5545m. It felt good to be down in relatively thicker air, cruising past trekkers.

We’re spending today in Base Camp preparing to head back up the hill tomorrow for our second acclimatisation rotation. Along with packing gear and food, we’ve just done a session on the various high altitude meds we’ll each be carrying with us from now on. This included practising administering syringes of Dex on an unsuspecting orange (we couldn’t get any other volunteers). We also went through our oxygen systems which we’ll be using above Camp 3. Practiced connecting bottles, regulators, masks, etc. and trying the whole setup on with our other clothing. It’s not exactly comfortable, but better than the alternative.

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