Chris Morris crosses through a deep cavernous crevasse.
Photo by Michael Brown
Michael Brown shares a view of a deep crevasse
Photo by Michael Brown
Legends of the Fall . . . Khumbu Falls, That Is.
As a documentary filmmaker, I appreciate a good story as much as I do a good storyteller. So, being in my boots at the edge of the Khumbu Icefall when the NFB Everest Climbing Team returned from their first voyage up, through, over and back down the Khumbu Icefall was a choice spot.
I must first set the scene for those who have never stood at the edge of the Khumbu Icefall. It is a massive, rushing river of ice that pours huge chunks of ice from a high mountain saddle. Although frozen, it is alive and has a gurgling, crackling voice that pops and snaps and sometimes shouts explosive blasts as avalanches fall onto it from the surrounding mountaintops. It doesn't look friendly. Big blocks of ice tower over the climbers' heads, and deep, dark crevasses dare climbers to try to cross, placing metal to metal with their crampons on steel ladders. The climbers meet eighteen laddered-crevasses throughout the route, some two and three ladders long. As I watch from our camp, the climbers look like tiny black specks of lint on a long white jumbled cascade.
Upon taking off their crampons and stepping onto the boulder field back to camp, the climbers tell tales of their Khumbu adventures. Mike O'Donnell, one of the most animated people I've ever met, described the ladder crossings with exclamations, "woo" and "whoa" and then asked the other climbers, "how did you like the one that's three ladders long and slants up and leans to one side." There are deep chuckles and knowing glances. Mike encapsulated it all by calling it, a "hunted feeling" that pervaded the day's experience.
Before entering the icefall, Erik Weihenmayer thought that crossing the ladders was going to be the worst part of the icefall. When he came down, he told me the ladders were a piece of cake. It's the rest of it that's a problem. There are steep walls of ice with footholds like vertical stairways that you have to go up and down. And, the icefall is huge. Luckily, Erik is an accomplished rock and ice climber.
Other climbers describe the ladders with adjectives like, "shaky", "scary", "sketchy", "airy", "swooping" and "what about those little ropes that tie them together?" Crampons get stuck between the rungs sometimes, but with all the daily practice, the technique gets easier.
The other sections of the Khumbu Icefall attracts more colorful descriptions. I heard Eric Alexander's voice on the radio calling in his location. He said, "I just got through the sugary-snow section that follows the popcorn field. I thought I was through all the ice blocks but looks like I'm heading into and up some more."
After the icefall experience, some of the climbers have "found religion" and others want to hit the beaches in Thailand. Discussions about minimizing time in the icefall abound, but the team can expect at least three more round trips through the icefall as they attempt to summit Mt. Everest. Filmmaker Michael Brown counts this as his fourteenth trip through the icefall as he summited Mt. Everest last year. "It's a beautiful place, but it's also really dangerous. I love carrying the camera across ladders shooting down into the crevasses."
Days back when we all first arrived at Base Camp and were sizing up the icefall and area, team climber and world-wide mountain guide, Chris Morris suggested that I should at least go up and cross the first ladder. I told him that it's enticing having it just out my tent door but that I had promised my parents that I wouldn't enter into it. When he came down, he said, "You can't go up there, or I'll tell your parents." Strong and fast, Chris spends as little time possible traveling through the icefall at "Sherpa speed". He was up and through it sitting at Camp 1 by 11AM. It takes many all day to get there the first time.
The evening's conversation continued with tales from the day. Michael Brown concluded, "If it was on any other mountain, people just wouldn't do it."