While the climbers continue to make their way out to Everest Base Camp, or other mountains in the High Himalaya, I thought I’d take this opportunity to write a post about the brave, hardworking men known as the Khumbu Ice Doctors.
You’ll hear them mentioned regularly in reports from the South Side of Everest over the next few months, but who they are and what they do aren’t always clearly explained. But as we head towards the start of the climbing season on the world’s tallest mountain, they will play a vital role in the weeks ahead.
There are multiple routes to the summit of Everest, although the vast majority of climbers go up along either the Northeast Ridge Route in Tibet or the South Col Route in Nepal. Both routes have their own individual obstacles to overcome, and neither side is particularly easier than the other.
On the South Side of the mountain, there is a particularly nasty section that generally strikes fear and dread into the climbers. That is the Khumbu Icefall, which is often described as the most dangerous section of the mountain.
When considering Everest’s most dangerous sections, most people would probably say that it would actually be high up on the slopes, above 8000 meters (26,246 ft). After all, that is the climb section that has been given the ominous title of “The Death Zone.” But the Khumbu Icefall is actually located just above Base Camp, at about 5800 meters (19,028 ft).
It is where the Khumbu Glacier comes to a head and begins to calve off the mountain. This makes it a precarious place, with ice pillars collapsing regularly. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear the ice cracking there or even witness it crumbling apart.
Unfortunately, the mountain route requires the climbers to pass through this Icefall on their way up to Camp 1. To do so, a route must be built and maintained through the calving ice from the glacier.
Since that ice is so unstable, that route must be rebuilt each season and is seldom the same from one year to the next. That is where the Ice Doctors come in. They are a highly trained team of Sherpas who enter the deadly icefall and carefully search for a safe route through to the other side.
They install ropes to help lead the climbers through, and they carefully place ladders over the yawning crevasses that form between the pillars of ice. When the commercial teams start up the mountain, they follow those ropes through the icefall and very carefully walk across the ladders as they go.
Because the icefall is so unsteady, it often changes throughout the climbing season. It is the Ice Docs’ job to maintain the route from early April until early June, ensuring that all of the climbers have an opportunity to pass through safely on their way up the mountain.
So, while most climbers try to limit the number of times they pass through this dangerous section of the climb, Sherpas’s brave team enters the icefall every day to ensure that it is still viable and nothing has changed overnight.
This year there has already been much talk about the Khumbu Icefall as the Ice Docs have created a new route that has not been used in the past. Generally speaking, the path through the icefall stays to the left, shortening the time spent there, but passing through an area that is is more unstable and prone to avalanches.
This year’s route has moved further to the icefall center, where the seracs are more stable and less prone to collapse. That should make for a safer route, although it will be longer and require the climbers to cross more open crevasses via ladders.
Obviously, these changes come from last year’s avalanche, which claimed the lives of 16 porters on the mountain. This new route looks to avoid the climb section that put so many in danger in years past.
Over the course of this season, the climbers will spend more time in the icefall itself but should be safer overall. Let’s hope that proves to be true.
As for the Ice Doctors, they’ll continue to go about their workday in and day out. They are a hardy group who take their jobs very seriously. From the outside media, they seldom get a mention unless an accident occurs, but they are the most important people there for the climbing teams on the mountain.
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