National Geographic : 2014 Nov
Everest Avalanche 61 climbed mountain anywhere, the icefall is a steep, constantly shifting labyrinth of teetering seracs, crevasses, and contorted ice that spills 2,000 feet down a gorge between Mount Everest’s west shoulder and Nuptse, the 25,791-foot peak that looms over Base Camp. Many of Nima Chhiring’s fellow Sherpas had trudged into the icefall even earlier on that morn- ing, April 18. They’d had their typical breakfast of tea and a barley-flour porridge named tsamba, and shouldered loads packed the night before. Some were hauling ropes, snow shovels, ice anchors, and other gear they would use to set a handrail of fixed lines all the way to Everest’s summit at 29,035 feet. Others were lugging the equipment with which they would establish four intermediate camps higher on the mountain— sleeping bags, dining tents, tables, chairs, cooking pots, and even heaters, rugs, and plastic flowers to pretty up mealtime for their clients. On some Sherpas were traces of the roasted barley flour they had rubbed on each other’s faces during the puja ceremonies the previous day, when they petitioned Jomo Miyo Lang Sangma, the goddess who dwells on Everest, for safe pas- sage and “long life.” A number of the climbers already had made several round-trips since the route had been opened in early April by the Sher- pa specialists known as the Icefall Doctors. The line of fixed ropes and aluminum ladders span- ning cliffs and seams in the ice was not mark- edly different from the route of recent climbing seasons, though it was closer to the avalanche- raked flank of the west shoulder, where a hanging glacier bulged ominously a thousand feet above. Even with loads of up to a hundred pounds, most of the Sherpas were fit enough to make the 2.1-mile climb to Camp I in three and a half hours or less. An hour above Base Camp, Nima Chhiring, who was working for a Chi- nese expedition, reached the area known as the Popcorn, where the route steepened through a hash of broken ice, and ladders were numerous. Further on, at a flat area known as the Football Field, climbers often paused for a rest, and it was common to hear ice groaning as the Khumbu Glacier shuddered forward at the rate of a few feet a day. Above the Football Field was another especially dangerous zone of mansion-size ice blocks and precarious towers, past which Nima Chhiring’s trip would get easier as the Khum- bu Glacier leveled out in the massive white plain known as the Western Cwm. About 6 a.m., above the Football Field, Nima Chhiring reached the base of an ice cliff about 40 feet high. There he began the awkward task of climbing three lashed-together aluminum ladders with the heavy pack on his back, metal crampons on his boots, and an ascender in his hand that he had to clip and unclip as he moved past the anchors of the fixed rope. When he reached the top, he was dismayed to see scores of mountain workers backed up on a sloping ledge of ice about the size of a teahouse dining room. Some were standing around smoking. Some were queued up and waiting to climb down a trench on two lashed-together ladders. At least once that morning, shifting ice had caused the anchors on the low end of the down-climb lad- ders to come loose and had backed up traffic on the route. Those who had arrived at this section at 5 a.m. had noted long delays, even though the ladder had been reanchored. When Nima Chhiring got there an hour later, he found the anchors had come loose again. “I think there were more than a hundred peo- ple stopped there; many were down-climbing, holding on to the rope. It would take half an hour to get past the backup. At that moment I became very scared,” he said. “My ear is crying” I n Nepal premonitions of danger are sometimes experienced as a buzz- ing, high-pitched sound, a phenomenon called kan runu, or crying ear. Nima Chhiring, who had been to the summit of Everest three times, had heard his ear cry before and knew better than to ignore it. He was racked with indecision: Continue dutifully on to Camp I with his load, or deposit the gas canister as far as he’d carried it and go down im- mediately? He tried to radio his sirdar at Base Camp, but the boss had gone to Namche Bazar for supplies, and Nima Chhiring could raise only the camp cook. Nima Chhiring told the cook that his ear was crying and that he was going to leave his load clipped to the fixed ropes and descend. Other Sherpas asked him what he was doing. “I said, ‘My ear is crying, and we will hear something bad has happened. I am going down; you should go down too,’ ” he recalled. He estimated the time was about 6:15.