Many people operate under the assumption that the most dangerous part of climbing Everest is the so called “Death Zone”, above 26,000 feet, or the summit itself. But on the South Side of the mountain, at least statistically speaking, that just isn’t true. There have been more deaths in the Khumbu Icefall than any other area on Everest, and the Icefall is located just above base camp at about 18,000 feet.
The Khumbu Icefall is found at the southern most end of the Khumbu Glacier, and due to the shifting nature of the ice, large crevasses and giant ice towers are formed in the region. These large cracks make it extremely difficult to cross through this portion of the mountain, and since it changes so rapidly, a new path must be created each year. Enter the Khumbu Ice Doctors.
The Ice Doctors are a team of highly skilled Sherpas who are integral to the success of climbing on Everest on the Nepali side of the mountain. Each year they lay down a series of ladders across the crevasses, and use a thin nylon line, held in place by ice screws and anchors, as a guide rope across the open spaces. Climbers than walk across these openings, usually in their mountaineering boots and with crampons on, stepping on the rungs of the ladder for support, and using the thin ropes to help stabalize themselves. For many, it can be a very terrifying and intimidating proposition.
It can take dozens of ladders to complete the course through the Icefall, and the climbers will pass through the area several times in the course of establishing their higher camps on the mountain and going through the acclimatization process.
Because the ice can move as much as three to four feet per day, the Ice Doctors stay on the mountain through the end of May maintaining the route and making sure that the ladders and ropes remain in place. Once they pack up their gear and head home, the climbing season is considered over on the South Side for another year, and access to the upper reaches of the mountain is closed once again.
Reports from Everest this year say that the ice docs have used more than 20 ladders in completing the route, and it was expected to open today, giving the teams their first real access to the mountain itself. Many of the teams have already been making practice runs through the Icefall, but now the real work begins, and they’ll soon move through it for the first time, and set-up Camp 1 just on the otherside of this dangerous landmark.