Strap on the Nitro: Everest Icefall Collapse of Cinematic Proportions
by Dave Hahn
My first inclination was to describe the Khumbu Icefall collapse as "biblical," but this had less to do with my knowledge of the Bible and a lot to do with my belief just then that I was going straight to hell. Not that heaven would have rejected my soon-to-be lifeless body, but after 50 cold days on Everest, hell had a certain tropical appeal.
Upon reflection, the ice avalanche that darn near killed us was not "biblical" at all. I'm now thinking "cinematic" or "theatrical" or "Hollywood" are more accurate analogies. I'm referring the curious to the movie Vertical Limit for examples of similar action.
I know there will be many who have problems with me mentioning the word theatrical in the same paragraph as Vertical Limit since theatrical has all those lingering connotations of acting and Shakespeare and all that. I did my own share of criticizing such movies as K2 and Cliffhanger and even the venerable Vertical Limit, but all of that was back when I saw those productions as unrealistic. It was Sly Stallone down in a crevasse dealing with the cold by pulling off his shirt to flex, and rock and ice exploding with big thunderous fireballs and avalanches that came in with perfect dramatic timing that put me off.
I believed that the reality of climbing big mountains was not being shown in American movie theaters. But again, this was all before that morning close to the end of our recent Everest Expedition. I now know that those portrayals are entirely truthful.
That fateful morning we started down through the Icefall for the last time, headed for Base Camp and a happy end to our non-Hollywood expedition. We were early in the day; it was still relatively cool and the bridges and ladders would still be nicely frozen. We were moving well after a month and a half on the mountain. Everybody knew which ropes to clip and which ones to avoid. Everybody knew to look at the anchors before trusting them. Everybody knew to watch out for each other and keep moving.
I'd given a final lecture as we left Camp I, telling Alison, Lynn, Kim and Jody, even my fellow guides Lisa and Ben, to keep on concentrating for just this last morning. No bad steps.
It was an unnecessary reminder. My team was doing a fine job of concentrating. They weren't, to my knowledge, dwelling on the fact that we'd turned 300 feet short of the summit just two days before. They weren't, as far as I could see, overly tired from the past week of continuously difficult days at altitude. They weren't, I hoped, focused on making airline reservations back to the world. They were climbing just fine and I was proud of them.
Those first long and awkward ladder crossings were going as well as we could hope for. Some of the passages are time consuming for a team of seven careful people, and sure enough, we had a traffic jam going. It was at that spot where you had to go over the edge and straight down the ice wall for about 15 feet before you even got to put your feet on the top rung of a 12-foot vertically placed ladder that jammed us up. Nobody seized up on it or anything, it was just time-consuming to get all the ropework safe and correct.
Just then our full team of Sherpas caught up to us with their loads - 16 guys beginning to pull down our expedition tents and equipment. They had massive packs and they were moving pretty fast and that vertical wall and ladder was a tricky place to pass.
The two-man camera team from the National Geographic Expedition, Jim and Mike, had found the same difficulty. In an effort to spread out the crowd, I had asked Ben to hang at the base of the vertical ladder while Lisa acted as a sweep and I took our first two climbers, Jody and Alison, down toward the next bridges. We moved well, but I was careful to pull both of them aside to let a few of the Sherpas get by. In general, it is best not to hold up the working men (particularly when they have 100-pound packs and insist on wearing Levi's at 20,000 feet).
I remember quite clearly coming out to that crest where a small ladder spanned two narrow, yet deep, crevasses. From the ladder's end, on a "fin" of glacier that overlooked the lower Icefall, you had to clip yourself out of one rope, into the next, move right and down the slope a few feet, step across a little crevasse, clip past another anchor, move steeply left, down and over another crack and then down carefully to the top of a ladder on about a 45-degree slant.
Carefully, so as not to drop into the crevasse the ladder was spanning, you then turn around and pass the anchor with your safety clip back down the ladder, fitting your crampons neatly onto each rung while looking straight into the deep crevasse under you. Hop off at the other end, spin around, and reclip past the new anchors, take 10 more steps (just crossing one more minor crevasse in the process) and reach a little island of snow and ice where it was possible to gather and even step aside to let others pass.
And that is what Jody and Alison and I did. They managed all those bridges and cracks and clips while I badgered and nagged them; I didn't want us holding up traffic. And I didn't want us missing a clip and having an accident. So the three of us got on the little island and soon were joined by the two National Geographic guys, one of them immediately apologizing for passing our team in a bad way in a bad place, but, he said, if we were going to let all those Sherpas go by...
I was just starting to raise my hands to stop his explanation, it was the end of a long expedition, I was mellow, I didn't care much about who was right and wrong as long as we all got down and out. I had no need for apologies or any conflict, this wasn't Hollywood after all. But I didn't get to say all that and he didn't get to finish what he was saying. There was the strangest wind.
It had been a calm morning; there wasn't any weather going on so that wind was noteworthy. And it made a noise like a 90-mile-an-hour subway train; like a dragon getting ready to blow fire at you. And we all looked at each other and it seemed to take a few seconds for whatever was happening to happen. Long enough that we all registered that something different was going to occur. I thought it was an avalanche off of Everest's West Shoulder or off of Nuptse. Something big coming from 6,000 feet above us on one side or the other. I guess I thought we were dead and so I was calmer than I should have been.
I didn't believe there was anywhere to run or any use in finding a way to run. By then we seemed to have our arms around one another me, Alison, Jody, and the Camera dudes, Jim and Mike. We were all saying things and stepping this way and that in our huddle on our little island as everything began to shake and quiver. All at once the ice slopes above us disintegrated, collapsed, disappeared and evaporated. This happened fast, but not so fast that there wasn't time to see it all and be a little scared. It wasn't an avalanche from high above, the wind had been from the tons and tons of ice falling into the depths of some void beneath us and displacing air through so many crevasses, which had themselves been collapsing and filling at the same time.
Just how many tons of ice was it? Don't worry about the numbers, take my word for it, we are talking Hollywood. It was big. And it kept going. I watched the ice just a few feet from our island crumble and move toward us. but just a little toward us, since it was mostly falling straight down into itself. And then it all stopped. We were standing there untouched and alive and I was looking at what had become a virtually level "step" in the mountain.
The former crevasse walls and slopes and fins were now this huge swath of blocky ice chunks and debris bordered on the uphill side by a vertical ice wall. Strung weirdly from atop this brand new gleaming, 50-foot icewall was a rope stretched close to the breaking point. It went out through space for about a hundred feet and seemed to touch down vaguely left of us and when all of the ice blocks stopped moving, the rope still seemed alive. It was pulling at the anchors close to our boots and we all watched to see if they would give since Ben Marshall was hanging way up in the air on that very rope.
There was a ladder stretched within the mix, too. A ladder. A piano wire of a rope. And Ben. All at this ridiculous angle, down off the edge about 15 feet and above the new surface by about 35 feet. And Ben was yelling, "I'm Okay." But I didn't think that he was.
I thought Ben was pretty far from okay, but there was one good thing about him. He was visible. My first worry was for all of the people I could no longer see that had been between Ben and us. They were surely dead by that moment.
I took a step to the edge of our island and looked at all of that ice. Not snow. Glaciers aren't made of snow. Ice. Truckloads of it, densely jumbled, hiding whomever it had just killed. I looked back up at Ben, bouncing and swinging on that rope. I didn't have the faintest idea of how he was going to get either up or down. Surely the rope would break or the anchors would give before anything could be done to help the poor guy. What to do first was a puzzle to me.
Should I rip off my shirt and flex? No. Should I dig into my pack and get the video camera out to record Ben's imminent demise? It would be award-winning footage. I could maybe sell it to Cops or Funniest Home Videos or some other "reality-based" show. But I worried that it was morally wrong for the lead guide to simply play the bystander while something bad happened. So, no camera for this scene which was straight out of the movies. I began trying to climb through the rubble toward Ben.
Early in our expedition, to while away the time at Base Camp, Ben had found this big boulder to work out on. I kept nagging him to be careful, don't hurt yourself out playing when people are counting on you to guide them... Ben promised to be good. I went with him one day to check up on him. I even tried to do a little bouldering so that he wouldn't just think that I didn't trust him, but my pencil arms weren't good for much and I just ended up watching Ben. He has arms that stretch from now 'til next Tuesday.
Sitting in our dining tent, he was always surprising strangers by reaching about nine feet down the table to pass catsup or mustard. And when you'd see him do that, or watch him boulder, you'd notice that those arms have big and functional muscles on them.
I remembered all that up in the Icefall as I watched him swinging in the air, but thinking of the bouldering put me in mind of the skeleton we'd found on that same day. Out on the lower glacier we'd seen old ladder parts and ropes and tent pieces and human remains. Just a few broken bones, really, but undoubtedly belonging to some Icefall climber from long ago. The man had not died of old age.
Ben still may though because as I tried to get to him on the morning of the collapse, he cranked up those big arms and saved himself. First he dropped his pack, which was pulling him upside down, then he got an ascender onto the piano-wire of a rope and then he just hauled himself back up to the edge by brute strength. I shook my head in wonder knowing that if I were in his spot I'd simply be left waiting for global warming to reduce the glacier to workable proportions.
By the time Ben had gotten himself free, I'd been in touch with Lisa, and Lynn and Kim on the uphill side of the wall. I knew they were there and not in between, and every now and then, I'd see another of the Sherpas poking his head over the edge to look at the drop-off. I just still wondered how many of them were in the debris. I wasn't having the best of luck getting across that debris to check.
There were still crevasses and what seemed like a lot of unstable ice and I didn't have the comfort of fixed rope to safeguard my passage over all of it. I'd gotten pretty timid and was moving slow. Ben, on the other hand, had gotten amped. Within minutes of having gotten up and safe, he had rappelled down the new ice face, retrieved his pack, cut the ropes so that the Sherpas could begin pulling the ladders back up and put them to new uses. He then came over to meet up with me and we looked around at the jumble beneath our feet, still concerned about whoever it might be hiding. I kept yelling up to our Sherpas on the cliff-top. "How many of you are there?" And they'd yell down, "We're all here," which kept frustrating me as I wanted a head count so as to know who was NOT there.
Eventually, we figured out that everybody had indeed avoided death and destruction. Four of the Sherpas had passed us before the collapse, 12 were still above. The two camera dudes had passed with seconds to spare, three of our team were below, three were above and only Ben with the super-hero arms was in the middle. He had just clipped into the rope and had the presence of mind to grab that rope and hold on when the world had fallen like a house of heavy cards under his feet. A Miracle. Straight out of the movies. Impossible that with 25 of us, essentially in the same stretch of glacier, that a 100-foot section of it could simply vaporize leaving only the most capable guy hanging.
The next step was cobbling together a new route through the jumble. The Sherpas, led by the venerable "Icefall doctor" Ang Nima, largely took care of that in about an hour's time, chopping ice, stringing rope, banging in anchors. We resumed our careful effort to get to lunch in Base Camp.
Personally, I wasn't much scared of the Icefall anymore. It had taken its best shot. Pure Vertical Limit stuff, exploding glaciers with sound effects and stunt men and everything and it couldn't kill me or my team. I used to try to convince the public that climbing could be safe and reasonable, now I'm feeling just the opposite. It is crazy and bizarre and the most amazing things happen all the time, not all of them bad.