Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Into the Icefall

There has been plenty of relaxation at base camp- lots of debating and tea drinking, washing of smelly socks and fighting for the right to toilet paper in the girls loo!

But we haven’t been sitting around all the time- yesterday Kenton took Rick, Tom and I into the icefall- the aim was to tag the top lip of this jumbling mass of ice and head back down before the sun hit us, meaning that we wouldn’t quite reach camp 1, but would certainly benefit from the altitude and familiarisation with the route itself.

The night before I’ll admit I had a bad feeling about the plan- heading into the icefall in the dead of night, when temperatures are extremely low and the darkness makes for slow progress, I was nervous as anything and couldn’t sleep.

Before I knew it Kenton was calling for me to get out of bed and after a hurried breakfast we emerged into the darkness with our harnesses and big boots to head for the ice fall- the sherpas had lit juniper to wish us safe passage, the eerie golden flames and smoke cast across base camp as we slowly trudged to crampon point, and tried not to wake other dozing climbers by tripping over their tent strings- easier said than done!

We entered the ice fall just before 5am, our crampons crunching on the frozen snow that had settled the night before. I followed Kenton’s foot steps closely, my head torch not really up to the job (mum, don’t worry I have a spare one). First of all we must cross what is known as the ‘pinnacles’, I would take a guess at 10 stretching ice ridges jutting out of the ground, which one must climb across in order to reach the first of the ladders. Passage is usually marked by another climbers footsteps, or at this time in the morning when snow has covered tracks, there are little red flags that mark a safe crossing.

After an hour and fifteen minutes we reached the first ladder, and our first resting point. A good time to make, especially at dawn. The four of us gulped down some water and KC explained that we could mark the time we had before the sun hit us by keeping an eye on Pumori- a mountain that sits behind base camp. As we watched and drank our water we saw the very tip of the peak turn a blazing orange- the sun would slowly move down the mountain, across the glacier and then up the icefall. We had about 4 hours until the sun would hit us on the descent- meaning blazing hot temperatures, risk of snow blindness and of course- the weakening of the ice from the intense heat.

So, we started on the ladders, which offer passage over gaping crevasses. Crampons sliding on the metal frames, each of us tightly gripped the ropes to balance ourselves and negotiate spiked feet on the rungs. Some decide that speed is the way to do it- i.e. if you launch yourself across and trip you will have enough momentum to get to the other side (!), the other is to scare yourself to death moving extremely slowly and realising how far down you will go if you fall. My approach is the Sherpa style- grip the ropes, extend your arms straight behind your back and put all your weight on your arms, leaning forward as far as possible- it seems to work, but I still worry that one false move will land me ‘in America’, as is the Sherpas belief.

For many hours we seemed to be the only team in the icefall, head torches were put away as a morning glow turned the sky a hazy blue- Pumori was becoming ever more orange as the sun rose threateningly. In fact, I was almost praying for that intense heat to hit us- I was so cold. My hands and nose were especially frozen, the only thing to do was to keep moving and fling our arms around like crazed chickens as we moved up over seracs and around ice boulders.

As the team evened out, we found ourselves increasingly alone- I was in the middle between Rick and Tom, and would occasionally see their heads bobbing above and below me- we were only about 5 minutes apart. I was no longer afraid of the ice fall- it seemed in the dawn hours to be sleeping, there were no sudden cracks and no rushes of water under the ice- it felt like we were passing a sleeping giant, trying not to wake him from his slumber.

As I climbed higher, the terrain became more dangerous and prayer flags marked the most deadly sections. I almost wished the flags weren’t there to mark the potential death traps, my ignorance would keep me much calmer. Nonetheless the Sherpas superstitions paid off, as I soon emerged from the ‘popcorn’ area (as it is called) into the ‘football fields’, which are welcome respite of open plains of ice, with little overhead but the stars.

Kenton and Rick were there taking a rest and a drink- I opened my mouth to try and say hello, but the cold had numbed my face so all that came out was slurring gibberish. KC gave me a hug to try and warm me up- we were all freezing cold, and couldn’t help but laugh at how one another looked. Some photos were taken of us standing there freezing our bums off- I haven’t seen them yet but I imagine we are a sorry looking sight!

I moved on first, determined to make the top lip of the ice fall, which is marked by prayer flags. Kenton soon overtook and I made sure that I always had him in my sight- the terrain once more became a twisting world of ladders and over hanging ice- we estimated an hour to the lip, but made it in about 45. I watched as Kenton tested the final ladder that would take us to the top of the icefall- it nearly fell on him! So instead the jammy dodger did a few nifty moves up the side, bypassing the metal death trap, and was soon standing on top of the fall. I came up shortly after, took one look at the ladder and Kenton’s short cut and decided to call it a day. Finally it was time to turn back and head for a late lunch and the safety of base camp.

The descent was a whole different matter- I passed Rick and Tom on the way down and told them about the ladder, they wanted to continue to the bottom of the lip like I did before turning back, so I went down alone.

By this point, Sherpas from various teams were moving up and down the fall carrying great loads for the high camps, the sun still hadn’t hit the upper section where I was descending but everything was warming up quickly- the ice fall was waking up and it was time to get down as fast and as safely as possible.

Descending is pretty straight forward, you may or may not choose to ‘clip in’ with a karabiner- if you do you are technically safe from falling as the rope will hold you, however- you are not safe from something falling on you if you are clipped into a rope and cant run away fast enough! Its common sense- our team doesn’t use jumars or ice axes in this section, some teams I found did, and this slowed theirs and our progress significantly. The ice fall is not somewhere you want to be faffing around- our teams approach is to use a karabiner where we see fit- on ladders and heavily crevassed sections, and hold the ropes with our hands where it was safer. We therefore move faster and get out of the icefall before the rays of the sun truly start to disintegrate the ice.

On the descent I was stopped by a chap coming up the rope, we exchanged pleasantries like everyone does as they pass on the route. ‘What’s your name?’ he demanded, I told him and he said ‘finally! I’ve been asking all sorts their names looking for a Bonita’. Turns out he is a Royal Holloway graduate and now a guide on the hill- it seems that there is something in the water at Holloway, any other grads been to Everest?

Quite suddenly and without warning, the sun hit me as I was traversing around a block of ice on a fixed line, immediately I knew I had to stop and get on sunglasses, sun cream, a hat and have a drink- the effects of the heat are so quick that if you don’t react straight away you will almost certainly regret it. I told Kenton I would lend him my sun cream, but didn’t have the patience to wait until I caught up with him at the start of the ladders (only 10 minutes away!). I found him lying in the sun with his arms over his face waiting for me to arrive- we descended as fast as would allow after that- the pinnacles once more threatening to break even the most mentally strong climber with its never ending ridges.

After an hour of so, I finally emerged from the icefall and back to base camp, KC and I had a chat with Rob Casserley who was about to head in, before trudging almost deliriously over the scree of base camp back to our site, about a 15 minute walk away.

We were pretty tired and happy to lap up the sun for an hour or so waiting for Rick and Tom to arrive- sitting in the sun letting the tiredness wash over us, neither bothered to think about sun cream- this morning we both have badly burnt ankles from taking our socks off and drying our feet in that midday sun- lesson learnt, I suppose…

Now, today is a rest day- I am intending to sort my kit for our trip to camp 1 tomorrow, which the whole team will join us on, and also sew up my sleeping bag which is spewing down everywhere (again…).

Sadly, our trekkers Lewis and Mick left the day before last- I was really upset to see them go, they were great fun and I spent most of the walk in with them- so it feels as if something is missing at base camp. There is talk that we will do Ama Dablam together next winter- hopefully they were serious! Mick left a letter that was read out at supper, thanks to both of you boys- we wish you could’ve stayed until June!

Base camp has all of a sudden (in my eyes) become a little more ferocious- yesterday there was the biggest avalanche I have ever seen- it sounded like thunder, but we realised there was no way that thunder was that loud and continuous. The team rushed out the mess tent to see a massive cloud of snow and ice rushing down a face opposite camp- over half a mile away. The same happened this morning, though albeit looked tame in comparison to yesterdays. We are safe here up high on the glacier, but at night when I hear rumbles in the distance, I still wonder which one will sweep over us as we lie in our tents. Another one at night is the cracking of the glacier underneath us- it sounds like gun shots going off as the ice splits and fractures due to the rapid drop in temperature. It’s something that now doesn’t even faze me, but I remember those first few nights at Manaslu BC hearing the same noises, and realise how despondent I have become.

Finally, I have been given the messages to go on the flags which I will be taking with me to the summit- of course, I will not disclose what will be written, but to those who’s messages I will be carrying- I can’t think of a better or more motivating reason to get to the top of the world and fly those flags from the top.

On a lasting note- thank you for all your messages and emails, I can’t reply to them as our internet costs $10 per MB- so I spent over $100 checking emails the other day! To everyone, I am reading them and taking them on board- especially Tom Weston Jones whose wise words I will end on:

‘Go on Bon, smash a new arsehole into Everest and come back safe’.

To Nanny, Dad and family- it was great to talk to you all at Sunday breakfast yesterday from the sat phone- I miss you all dearly and have not lost that much weight I promise!

Mum, miss you so much, and thank you for your messages- but why write an entire email telling me all about internet fraud then only one line to say how everyone is getting on?! Typical mum thing to do! And cost me about $10 to read….

Tom, missing you loads- thank you for all your messages please keep them coming, can’t wait to see you in June.

Off for now, thanks for reading- I’ll be doing an update about camp 1 in the next couple of days. Bonita x

1 comment:

  1. just spent some time enjoying your reports - I was at Royal Holloway - liked it so much I spent six yrs there, doing degree and phd - great place to study