Dangerous Khumbu Icefall.
An River of Ice that is Melting:
Everything begins at everything beginning with Khumbu Glacier, a 10 mile/17km glacier which begins high on Lhotse Face around 25,000’/7,600m. It is the Khumbu Icefall is the section between Everest Base Camp 17,300’/5270m and close to the point where Camp 1 is usually located, 19,500’/5943m.once it leaves Lhotse the glacier forms its Western Cwm for approximately 2 miles before descending rapidly to form Khumbu Icefall. Khumbu Icefall for 2.5 miles. At Everest Base Camp (EBC) the glacier forms an abrupt southern bend and extends for another 6 miles/9.6km to reach 16,0’/4900m. The Icefall is wide ranging from a half mile up to a third of mile/500m.As like all glaciers the Khumbu is moving up to 3’/1m per day in the middle, and barely moves at the borders due to the force of friction with the rock walls. The glacier’s top is faster than the bottom because of friction against the earth. This dynamic of slow and fast moving sections, as well as the steep drop that forms deep crevasses. Some are more than 150’/45m in depth and atop the ice estracs to over 30’/9m in height.
According to Kathmandu’s mountain research institute ICIMOD the Khumbu Glacier is melting but not as rapidly as other glaciers because of its elevation. This is by far the largest glacier on Earth. It is believed to be receding by about 65’/20m per year . It has decreased by 3,100’/940m in the 1960s to 2001.The glacier has shrunk by 40-50’/12-15m across the majority of its length. Everest Base Camp is lower than it is today because of the melting of the glacier. In 1953 when Hillary and Tenzing summited, EBC was about 17,454’/5320m; today it is 17,322’/5280m.Between 1962 and 2002 the Icefall thinned by an average of 56’/17m, about a rate of 1.3’/39cm per year. The long-time Everest guide Russell Brice commented in my recent interview with him that this melting could create an easier Icefall that climbers can enjoy. But he said to me that Western Cwm may one day be the main obstacle on climbing the South Col route:But on Everest viewing images at the summit, it appears it appears that there is a sign that Icefall that runs between BC C1 and BC C1 is becoming easier and, if you will, more secure. There is also a possibility that some floating glaciers over the Icefall are moving backwards and appear more inactive than we witnessed in 2012. which could be explained through the hot temperatures at this elevation.
This is the First Icefall Climbs
Early Everest Crevasse Crossing. Image courtesy National GeographicGeorge Mallory, who was looking for the best route to reach the top of Everest is believed to have observed an Icefall in the early 1920s , and stated that the icefall was ” terribly steep and broken all around the way towards the peak from Tibet is much easier” 5 so he shifted his focus towards Tibet.It was not until 1950 when Charlie Houston and Bill Tilman headed an British expedition to look for the possibility of a route from Nepal to the Khumbu Icefall was considered to be feasible. In 1951, a different British team led by Eric Shipton climbed thru the Icefall but came to a stop just short of the summit due to the wide crevasse. To traverse the crevasses the first expeditions relied on long tree trunks that were lowered from the tree line when they had run off from ladders.A Swiss team in 1952 conquered the challenge by climbing through the crevasse, and then traversing a dangerous snow bridge. They reached 8500m by using the current Southeast Ridge route but failed to make it to the top. Of course, it was John Hunt’s 1953 British expedition was the first summit by using the same route.
There are numerous dangers within the Icefall that have killed people. I utilized the Himalayan Database to examine the deaths that were not due to illness between 17,500’/5400m to 19,500’/5940m which were within the Icefall itself. There were 44 deaths during the Icefall which is 25 percent of the 176 total death deaths that occurred that occurred on the Nepal side between 1953 and the year 2016.
The deaths of the 44 were categorized into:
- In the event of a crevasse falling into Six deaths, or fourteen percent
- A section of the Icefall fell, causing Nine deaths, or percentage
- Avalanche that hits the Icefall 29 deaths or 66 percent
Although I do not cite specific deaths in order to assist others, I also offer my condolences to the entire members of the family, friends and team of the tragic occasions.
Crevasse 6 or 14 percent
The possibility of falling into crevasses is fairly commonplace on mountain ranges that range from Mont Blanc to Rainer to Everest. I was in one below Camp 1 in 2002! On Everest the normal procedure is to clip into the fixed rope all the time when moving up and down the Icefall to ensure that, if you slip onto a snow bridge and slip into a crevasse, or fall off on a ladder and fall into a crevasse, the rope will grab you. Unfortunately, many falls into crevasses resulted from the failure of not having properly clipped in. In 2005 one of our westerners was thrown into a crevasse when traversing a snow bridge that was soft. The Adventure Consultant team members that witnessed the incident were in agreement: “It was clear that the climber was not tucked to the fixed ropes at the moment of his fall; therefore, a slip that ought to have been swiftly stopped resulted in a fatal tumble over a 10-meter drop.
Icefall Collapse 9 or 21 percent
The second risk is being struck by a collapsed ice structure inside the Icefall. There are many tall estracs (ice towers) which can collapse when the Icefall changes or the entire section could collapse beneath a climber. be aware that it could move by a meter every day and shift abruptly without warning. It is amazing that this kind of event isn’t very frequent however, it can cause the death of a person. An example of this was in 1972, in which an Australian climber, who was a part of Chris Bonnington’s British Everest SW Face Expedition was transporting loads. He was able to enter the Icefall however he was never found. A search team located an section of the Icefall that was collapsed, and it was believed that he was within that region when the collapse occurred. In 2008 the body of his was discovered near the bottom of the Icefall.
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