As each step led me through the Western Cwm and closer to the top of the Khumbu Icefall, my anxiety nearly overwhelmed me. Living on the edge of life, death, and extreme exhilaration for the last week began to consume my thoughts. So much so that as I approached a 3 section ladder spanning a deep crevasse I nearly forgot to tie in to the anchor. I leaned over the edge to begin my rappel and felt an unfamiliar lack of security. That “tight” and “protected” feeling is always unmistakable when laying back on my climbing harness, properly tied in, and fully relying upon the rope to carry my weight. Oops! I nearly became another statistic. Forever lost to the icy bowels of the inner Khumbu Icefall.
I crossed several more crevasses, wound in and out, up and down, and around and made it to the lip of the upper edge of the Khumbu Icefall. There it was, staring me right in the face. Yesterday, upon reaching the safety of our Camp II I began to hear stories of another rescue on Everest. With the monsoon quickly approaching the temperatures were getting increasingly warmer. The icefall was moving and had just suffered a massive collapse. This time, the ice failure nearly claimed another life. A woman was making her way through the Icefall for the final time and had forgotten to clip in while crossing a ladder. At that exact time a huge section of jumbled ice blocks collapsed and she was swallowed up 100 feet below. She was eventually pulled out of the ice collapse and with a broken back she lay painfully awaiting her own helicopter to pull her to safety.
I anticipated this section and was amazed at how different the Icefall looked. What was a few days prior a section of a few vertical ladders was now a large section of 5 ladders lashed together and spanning across an enormous crevasse. I rappelled down, jumared up, crossed ladders, and now stood at this tarnished spot. Anne-Mari crossed the 5-section ladder first. She took step after confident step and I could not help but be jealous. As the ladders swayed, bowed, and rocked underneath her weight, I wished I was 60 pounds lighter. Would the ladder hold? I silently wondered as I stepped foot onto the fearsome span. My steps were slower, less confident, but eventually I successfully made my way to the other side. I breathed a sigh of relief and nearly gulped at the same time. I could now peer sharply down the next section of the Icefall. Wow! The whole thing had changed. Not just a little section. Huge towers of ice now lay toppled over. What once was a flat, safe rest area was now split in half, the past evidence of the violent shaking and moving of the Icefall as it succumbs to gravity. A week prior we had only twenty-something ladder crossings. We now had over 40. To view this was scary and cool at the same time. Anne-Mari and I quickly overtook the slower, more fatigued and less confident climbers on their own way down. With all of the recent movement in the Icefall we wanted to get in and get out as rapidly as possible.
The sun was now brightly shining overhead and I was beginning to suffer from dehydration. In my haste I did not wait to melt enough ice and I therefore ran out of water. Oh well, just a few more hours and I would be down. Hopefully! Generally, travel through the Icefall is relegated to early, early morning while it is still dark and the sun has not yet enticed glacial movement. We were now in the middle and had no choice but to descend – quickly.
In addition to not bringing enough water I chose not to bring a 2-way radio as well. Anne-Mari and I figured that we would just save the additional weight and climb down together. This was now proving detrimental in several ways. First, I could have communicated with Phil higher up on Everest and inquire about Mike’s condition and second, I could have summoned our wonderful kitchen staff to come into the lower Icefall and bring us something to drink. At the time I needed to travel quickly the most, I was doing the opposite – traveling as slow as a snail. Dehydration was beginning to consume me and all I could think of was getting something to drink. With all of the snow and ice around me I dare not take more than a handful to put in my mouth. Upon recognizing this water source my body would begin to shut down even further – using what little bodily warmth I had to melt the ice in my mouth into water and leave nothing leftover to keep my body warm. Eventually, I could succumb to the delirious effects of hypothermia.