Ice Fall Doctors

January 29, 2015

We had a cloudy, cold morning and the guest houses have not warmed up at all. The clouds cleared early in the afternoon but some wind came along with the sunshine so it feels like a chilly day. I was inside most of the day dealing with paperwork (salaries, bills, student and instructor certificates, etc.) so have never really warmed up. I’ll be out each day for the remainder of KCC starting tomorrow.

We’ve had an interesting and worthwhile evening program schedule for students and instructors with topics such as Natural Hazards, Leave No Trace/Stewardship, Avalanche Awareness, and some basic helicopter protocol as mountain workers frequently encounter helicopters in their line of work.

Last night’s program was just exceptional, though, with the discussion centering on the Everest tragedy of this past April when 16 Nepali men died in the Khumbu Icefall, ferrying loads to higher camps. Of the 16 who died, 13 were affiliated with KCC so it was a tragic, personal loss to all of us here to say nothing of the devastating consequences to the families. The ice fall is a very dangerous part of the mountain with unstable seracs (ice towers), large crevasses, and exposure to both snow and ice avalanches. It was an ice avalanche this last spring that was so deadly. A large hanging glacier calved off a large chunk of ice weighing thousands of tons. The large block fell hundreds of meters and then exploded into innumerable pieces that buried the men. There were many congregated in a fairly small area as a ladder that had moved out of place was insecure and had to be repaired before they could continue. While the tragedy was the single worst accident in Everest history it could have been vastly worse. At the time of the avalanche, the ladder had been repaired and the original bottle neck was clearing. Estimates are that had the avalanche occurred 30 minutes earlier, perhaps as many as 50 men could have died.

Ladders are frequently utilized to bridge wide crevasses and to surmount high serac walls, or ice cliffs. Sometimes a single aluminum ladder is enough to span a gap or reach above a wall, but it is not uncommon for 2, 3, or more ladders to be lashed together. I have heard that the record is 9 ladders. Yikes. On the day of the avalanche, it was a triple ladder that was out of place and insecure that caused the problem until it could be set back and secured. In addition to ladders, the complex route through the ice fall is equipped with “fixed ropes”, a continuous string of climbing rope that connects Everest base camp all the way to the summit. The rope is anchored at many, many locations along the way and climbers and high altitude sherpas attach a ratcheting device that slides upward on the rope but catches and will not move backward, protecting a climber in case of a slip or fall. The device easily accepts a gloved hand for operation and is also attached to the climbing harness so is not dependent upon a climber simply hanging on.

All of these ropes and ladders are put into place by a group of men called the Ice Fall Doctors. They are paid by a Nepal government organization from fees paid by the expedition companies. The same govt office supplies the ropes, ladders, and anchors. As amazing as it sounds, there are only 6 Ice Fall Docs that establish the routes through the ice fall although they do have some other support staff that carries equipment and keeps them supplied with what they need. This is a hard job and almost certainly one of the most dangerous.

For the past several years, KCC has offered a specific 14 day class or clinic for the Ice Fall Docs. It’s an opportunity for the current IFDs to continue to improve their skills as well as a bit of training for those who would like to be a doc in the future. Pete Athans is directing that clinic this year and with 7 summits and over 100 round trips through the ice fall himself, he certainly has the knowledge to know what is needed and the credibility to run the clinic. Part of the training is to lash together ladders and string them over the river in order to simulate crevasse crossings.

Last night’s program was more a forum on the accident than a presentation. Andy Tyson, one of our instructors and a guide for Alpine Ascents was at base camp when the accident occurred and along with a few other guides, went into the ice fall to respond to the needs of the survivors as well as attend to the deceased. He showed some pictures from that day and described his experience. That was followed by Pete showing some computer animations/simulations that were developed to demonstrate the path and power of the avalanche. Both portions were outstanding and generated a lot of discussion and questions, partly as the KCC Ice Fall Docs were in attendance. Of the 6 active IFDs, 5 are with us at KCC.

At the beginning of the forum, Andy asked for a show of hands as to how many in the room were at or above base camp on that day. Of the 45 or so in attendance, well over 1/3 were there. Some had very close calls. Knowing that the timing of the avalanche could have been worse, we realized that had it occurred 30 minutes earlier, many of those present last night would not have been with us. It was an incredibly sobering moment for all of us.

The IFDs began about 17 years ago but they began to gain some notoriety in about 2000. There has been a lot of criticism this year (and in the past) of their route selection. This was discussed last night and not surprisingly, the docs had some things to say. They are under a lot of time pressure to get the route in and in fact they are able to do so in about 2 weeks, starting in early March, the beginning of the Everest climbing season. Many Monday-morning quarterbacks have suggested that the route be further right in the ice fall rather than hugging the upper left portion which is exposed to the hanging glacier on the west shoulder. The men stated last night that they tried for 6 days to establish a route further right but were unable to find a passable way through the labyrinth. They, too, have a vested interest in a safe route as they are called out daily to maintain the route that they established. Pete has now worked with these men for over 10 days and finds the two leaders who are here to be smart, talented, with good judgement. There seems pretty good reason to believe that they were doing the best that they could. The entire world-wide “discussion” of the Ice Fall Docs recently reminds me of a poem I read a few years back by Domingo Ortega.

“Bull fight critics ranked in rows
Crowd the enormous plaza full;
But he’s the only one who knows-
And he’s the man who fights the bull!”

Pete did not want to end to the program on the decidedly sad note of the tragedy, so he chose to end the program with some inspiring images of his illustrious Everest career, with the images accompanied by the Israel Kamakawiwoole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. It was a moving ending to a moving discussion.

All the best,




To bridge wide crevasses