RNAI: Khumbu Icefall - Fast or Slow?

by JAKE NORTON

May 2024
It was, without doubt, a stunning morning on Mount Everest. Perhaps even perfect. No wind, bright sun, an impossibly blue sky. The only issue was I was in the Khumbu Icefall. Not that the Icefall is all bad - it isn’t. It’s immensely interesting, engaging, from the audible creaks and pops and groans of ice […]
David Morton moves through the upper Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest.

It was, without doubt, a stunning morning on Mount Everest. Perhaps even perfect. No wind, bright sun, an impossibly blue sky.

The only issue was I was in the Khumbu Icefall.

Not that the Icefall is all bad - it isn’t. It’s immensely interesting, engaging, from the audible creaks and pops and groans of ice leaning and shifting and settling in its eternal cascade down from the Western Cwm to the sculpted serac towers and blue-throated, yawning crevasses crossed by elastic ladders; the Icefall is, as my friend Ben Marshall put it, a giant jungle gym on steroids.

But, it’s also terrifying. Mount Everest always seems like its trying to kill you through the tricks and vagaries of weather, altitude, cold, slope, and more. But, in the Icefall it gets personal, intimate, in-your-face.

And, for me, that terror has always been magnified by a nagging, unanswerable question: Fast, or slow?

For years, the logic seemed simple: fast. Go fast, minimize your time in the Icefall. Don’t dawdle, don’t fuss, just move, move, move, and get through it all. So, for two expeditions and over a dozen trips through the mayhem, that’s precisely what I did, moving quickly, efficiently, even stealthily, as if I could somehow sneak through without the mountain even knowing I was there, a gnawing gnat on the forearm of Sagarmatha.

And then one day my friend Charley Mace - a humble, inspirational legend among legends in the climbing realm - twisted my brain a bit. (Among his myriad skills, offering confounding and accurate and frustrating opinions ranks near the top.)

Charley Mace and Brent Bishop chilling with some tea at Camp II in the Western Cwm on Mount Everest.

“We could move fast,” he said with a Charley smirk. “But what if by moving fast we just rush into a collapse? They happen all the time, and catch the fast and the slow.”

Dammit, Charley.

A few days later, Charley, David Morton, Brent Bishop, and I were headed from Basecamp to Camp II. It was our third trip through the Icefall in 2012 as we made an attempt on the fabled 1963 West Ridge Route, and I decided to take Charley’s advice. I took a rather leisurely pace, enjoying the magic of the place, taking photos and shooting video, watching the landscape evolve as the sun cast blinding light and whimsical shadows all around.

About two-thirds of the way up, we came to a serrated fin of a serac jutting from the route. The sun was just emerging from behind the West Shoulder, creating a dramatic look, so I decided to shoot some for the film we were making, lying down on the snow beneath the climbing route trying to get nice framing and backlighting. The team continued onward toward Camp I, while I dithered around, shooting more, chatting with Sherpa friends, and just taking my time.

Seracs, rubble, and ice cliffs about 2/3 of the way through the Khumbu Icefall, Mount Everest, Nepal.

Crossing some large crevasses, I passed under prayer flags and entered into the upper “popcorn” section of the Icefall, a zone dotted with ice blocks ranging in size from cinderblock to SUV. They didn’t grow here, but rather cascaded down in violent torrents from the hanging ice cliffs of the West Shoulder looming directly above.

And then, the internal voice spoke. Mine is often loquacious, blathering on about all manner of things, but this time it said simply: Fast. Go fast. I looked around, and nothing seemed amiss. The sun still shone warm and bright, and breeze stronger but still gentle, all was good. But the voice was adamant: Go. Fast. Now.

I’ve always believed in the notion of intuition, in the idea that sometimes - without explanation, perhaps defying explanation - something deep inside can interpret the uninterpretable and give us direction worth heeding. So, I did, I listened, I ignored Charley and began hammering uphill through the popcorn, weaving through blocks and over holes, unclipped from the fixed lines to make travel more efficient. I caught up to Brent, and thought the voice would be quiet then, but it kept chanting incessantly: Fast, keep going fast.

I passed Brent and minutes later we traversed onto the west face of a large bulge marking the border of the danger zone: we were now relatively protected from the cliffs looming above and anything they threw down at us would most likely go airborne above our heads. I slowed, and the voice agreed: It’s ok, slow down now.

Charley Mace, David Morton, and Brent Bishop make their way through the chaos and danger of the upper Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest, Nepal.

Seemingly on cue, a roar of thunder and explosions filled the air. I glanced left, uphill, and saw what I always dreaded: massive blocks of ice - bedrooms and SUVs and refrigerators - cartwheeling and crashing and exploding and racing directly toward us. There was nothing to do but dive to the ground and hope. I made sure I was not clipped to or tangled in the fixed lines - not wanting them to pull me downhill should a block catch on a rope - while bellyflopping down and driving the pick of my Whippet into the ice.

In seconds, the world was cacaphonic chaos, blocks flying overhead and icefall-driven wind gusts whipping powdered glacier all around, a deafening, horrifying thunder shaking my chest, my being, my very core.

And then, seconds later, almost anticlimactic in its suddenness, it was done: Icefall over, calm restored.

Brent and I checked on each other - surprised, thrilled, all ok - and gave each other a hug. Dave and Charley, just above us, were fine, too - shaken like us, but not overly stirred. Down below, we hollered to climbers still in the popcorn; they, too, were all ok having been just below the big crevasses which swallowed up most of the debris.

Brent Bishop moves through the Western Cwm on Mount Everest with Lhotse and the Lhotse Face rising behind.

So on we went, up to Camp I and through the Cwm to II like nothing had happened, although everything had.

Along the way, I laughed with Charley, that nervous kind of laugh that comes only after a close brush with immense unpleasantries.

“So, what do you think now, Mace?” I asked. “Fast or slow?”

Charley smiled, offering a typical, simple-yet-profound Macean reply: “Both.”

Watch a compiled video of that day and enjoy a little fun - and a moment or two of terror - going both fast and slow through the Khumbu Icefall.

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