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Monday, April 6, 2015

Documenting the climb - one section at a time (EBC to Camp 1)

A thought occurred to me the other day that while I am playing the waiting game, I might as well provide some details about the climb.  These details allow me to immerse myself into the climb and envision what each section has in store for me.  Today, I provide some details about the first leg of the climb from Everest Base Camp (EBC; 17,600 feet or 5400m) to Camp 1 (19,600 feet or 6000m).  

Let me begin by providing some key terms that will help you better understand the routes and changes.  When I say "old route," I mean the route that was used last year and for roughly 10 years prior to last year.  This "old route" is really new compared to the route used by the original expeditions.  Now, when I say "new route," I mean the route that will be used this year.  That route is the route that was preferred by expeditions prior to the early or mid-1990's.  Regardless, the "old" is "new" and the "new" is now "old."  You get the point (I hope).  OK, moving forward....

Many of you know about last year's tragedy (recounted by Himex's Russell Brice) where the hanging ice from the West Shoulder of Everest calved into the icefall. That event alone wouldn't be surprising but last year it happened when 16 Nepali workers and Sherpa were in the icefall.  From that day forward, the climbing season effectively ended.  Flash forward to this year where the SPCC (Sagarmatha Polution Control Committee) - the group that oversees the "Icefall Doctors" and the route selection - chose to veer away from the West Shoulder and toward Nuptse.  

Let me give you a better sense of this shift by directing you to Garrett Madison's (of Madison Mountaineering) post that contrasts the old and new route.  National geographic posted an excellent prescient (picture taken in April 2012) image that showed the dangers that awaited all climbers and an article discussing the dangers of the route.  Here is that image posted below with full acknowledgements (Juan Velasco, National Geographic Staff. Photograph by Mark Jenkins):
Photo by Mark Jenkins and edited by Juan Velasco of NG
From Garrett's picture and the National Geographic edited photo, you can see that the new route up the icefall shifts right (climber's right) and away from the West Shoulder.  The change does introduce some new hurdles - so to speak.  Let me discuss each in turn and then return to some estimates of climbing through the icefall.

What made the "old route" the preferred route for some time (10+ years)?

For many years, the route ran through the center of the Khumbu icefall (prior to the mid-90's).  Climbers had to overcome large vertical sections and found the going up the route slow and taxing.  Climbing up ladders makes for slow going and often creates "log jams" of climbers waiting for slower climbers ahead of them.  By shifting the climb away from the center and more toward the left (climbers left), climbers were able to navigate the icefall in far less time with far less effort.  Thus, this year's "old route" - the one used last year if you are following my twisted logic - turned out to be a time and effort saver.  Those savings came at a cost.

What were those costs attributable to the "old route" you mention above?

As with all changes, there are costs and benefits.  A more direct route that requires greater effort and time to overcome due to vertical climbs and larger crevasse spans must provide some benefit.  That benefit is safety from snow, ice and rock.  As the route drifted closer to the left side of the icefall, the danger of falling debris increased substantially.  Snow (via avalanche), ice (via ice calving), and rock (via land slides - not typical in the winter) all pose a threat to climbers below the West Shoulder that overlooks the left side of the icefall.  Thus, the "old" route had risks that the "new" route minimizes.  

Time estimates for both routes

The "new" route introduces some obstacles that ought to increase the time demands - and, as a result, the energy demands - on the climbers.  That increase cannot be estimated until we have climbers going up the route.  If you want to see an awesome video of the icefall climb, please watch the one below.  You'll see climbers ascending and descending ladders to climb the icefall.  Yes, we go up and down ladders because the ice undulates through the icefall and we need to navigate those undulations.

So how long does it take?  Every climber takes their time the first round.  They make sure they have their gear setup correctly, climbs with a minimal amount of weight, and properly (we hope) assesses the risk of each section.  These precautions take time.  Some people estimate the time for the icefall route - regardless of "old" or "new" to be between 8 and 12 hours.  Some Sherpa take 2-4 hours and run through the icefall.  Who can blame them?  Thus, the time span can be between 2 and 12 hours.  Faster climbers who are adept at navigating the ladders and bridges take far less time.  If there are many areas where log jams occur, I suspect there will be huge time costs and my estimates may be way off.

Once a climber gets through the icefall, the only remaining step is to cross a few open crevasse to Camp 1 (roughly 19,600 feet or 6000 m) where we sleep for a night and then probably descend down to EBC the next morning.  So consider this point.  We climb 2000 feet or roughly 600 meters in a span of 2 to 12 hours.  This section of the climb probably offers the greatest variability in terms of time and effort since we all navigate the icefall multiple times.  As we get more acclimatized, we move faster and those times drop considerably - at least they ought to drop.  No other area on the mountain gets the same traffic as this section and none offer the opportunity to improve with each pass.  

My next post documents the brief trip between Camp 1 (19,600 feet or 6000m) and Camp 2 (21,300 feet or 6500m).