Fearing the Icefall: On Everest, dangers are clear

By Tim Sullivan

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, April 22 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

"We're only talking about a couple of kilometers maximum," said Macdonald. "As the crow flies, it's just not far."

But it is a trip that can terrify even hardened mountaineers. Jon Krakauer, a climber and writer, has described each pass through the Khumbu as "a little like playing a round of Russian roulette."

Special teams of Sherpas, known as Icefall Doctors, fix ropes through what they hope to be the safest paths, and use aluminum ladders to bridge crevasses. But the Khumbu shifts so much that they need to go out every morning, before the climbers, to repair sections that have broken overnight and move the climbing route if need be.

But Icefall Doctors, fixed ropes and experienced guides don't mean it is safe. Almost 30 climbers have died on the Icefall since 1963, most killed in avalanches or when they were crushed by falling seracs. Occasionally, things are so dangerous the guides turn away completely. In 2012, one of the best-known Everest guiding operations, Himalayan Experience, canceled its climb midway through the season, saying the Icefall was simply too dangerous.

Ballinger and Macdonald are both part of a new wave of Everest guiding, with teams planning approaches to reduce the time spent on the Icefall.

For up to eight weeks before Ballinger's clients even arrive in Nepal, they sleep in enclosed "hypoxic tents," simulating life at high altitudes by limiting their oxygen. Then, once they get to Nepal, they acclimatize further on mountains other than Everest, to avoid the Khumbu.

In the end, he says, his clients will make only two passes through the Icefall — once up to the summit and once down — and the team's Sherpas will go between five and eight times. That is about one-third the number of trips that Sherpas make on normal climbs.

It's all about exposure. "How long will the Sherpas be exposed, how long will the guides be exposed, how long will the clients be exposed," he said.

But, he warns everyone on his team, the risk is still there. "Every person has to make their own choice," he said.

Associated Press writer Binaj Gurubacharya in Katmandu, Nepal, contributed to this report.

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