Khumbu Icefall – 2019. Climbing into the Abyss.

As David Breashears, Director of the Everest IMAX movie, commented to me when I bumped into him casually walking down out of the Western CWM one year, ‘no climber would go through the icefall if Everest wasn’t waiting at the end of it.’

Yet every year, the Khumbu Icefall is the gateway, the first test of spirit of how you will do climbing Everest on the South Side. Yet it has little to do with fitness, it is more about conquering fears and accepting the reality of the ever present danger. Best to not apply rational thought to your ascent right away.

The fact you start at 3 in the morning, when you hope the ice is more stable, the avalanches sleeping, is only a small consolation. Perhaps best to be half or more asleep anyway.

Khumbu Icefall, Everest
Khumbu Icefall – 2019. Move left and you are under the avalanche prone West Shoulder of Everest. Move right and the holes just get bigger.

The first time I led an expedition on the South Col route, David Hamilton and I came up with only one strategy – “go early, and go fast.” I don’t think much has changed and as David returns with Jagged Globe for the attempt at his tenth successful ascent. Hopefully that approach and a whole lot of experience still works.

Yet more people and a host of nationalities, with current climbing numbers at 87 from India, 68 from the USA, 62 from China, and 42 from the UK, along with a host of others, means the range of skills, techniques and experience will vary widely. With a total of around 380 paying clients, and their attendant staff, the overall total may be close to 1,000 people. It is a lot of people to wait in line for, no matter how good the weather is or how fast you think you can climb through the Icefall.

Sibusisu Vilane at Everest Base Camp prior to becoming the first Black African to summit Everest.

Perhaps one of the best approaches when faced with the Icefall is to find beauty and joy in your surroundings – or just think of something quite different. As Sibusisu Vilane came through the Icefall with me on an early acclimitazation run up the ropes and I asked how he was doing after a decidedly tough morning – “Robert, this ice tower here reminds me of a Lion I know well in the Park.” Perhaps being an African Game Ranger with a host of natural talent is a good way to start.

Khumbu Icefall 2019
Khumbu Icefall 2019 – yes, there is a way through there somewhere.

The other variable is of course the weather. The days we have just spent trekking to Everest Base Camp were mixed, with snow in the mornings, rain at night, thunderstorms at odd hours. In past years I’ve experienced a consistency at Everest Base Camp of sunny mornings, cloudy at 1 p.m., and a bit of snow in the afternoon.

That predictability seems to be a thing of the past. As Billi Bierling who manages the Himalayan Database, commented recently in Kathmandu, it is like little monsoons coming through every day.

And those variabilities will undoubtably effect scheduling and timing for the teams.

However, that is the nature of a good adventure, and the changing times and changing tunes on Everest are all a part of that.

Everest Khumbu Icefall
Escaping the Khumbu Icefall, the final rope and the relative security entering the Western CWM leading up to Camp 1 and onto Camp 2.