The most dangerous part of the southern route on Everest

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Through the Khumbu Ice Fall
The constantly shifting Khumbu Ice Fall, the first part of the classic southern route on Everest, is like a massive jumble of ice cubes slowly tumbling down the mountain. These huge chunks of ice (called seracs) are more likely to freeze in place at night and come crashing down when warmed in the sun, though really, it can and does happen at any time. The impossibility of predicting when a part of the Ice Fall will collapse makes it the most dangerous and universally terrifying part of the climb.

Here, climbers on the 1997 Alpine Ascents expedition describe their experience in the Khumbu Ice Fall.

The 9-Ladder Section of 1994
[Click to hear Todd Burleson describe it.]
It's one of the most interesting ladder sections we've ever built in that it's so long.

The 9-Ladder Section
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This wall is almost 60 feet tall. What we had to do -- there was no way to exit out of the Ice Fall except straight up this wall -- so we tied nine ladder sections together with ropes. And then periodically along this long section we had guide wires go out to kind of stabilize it.

It's always a little frightening. It creaks; it moves; it wobbles. If you've ever been on a long ladder, it vibrates back and forth, so every time you take a step, it'll swing left or swing right, and then it starts vibrating in and out. As you get right in the middle of it, it's a heck of a ride. It's... scary.

-- Todd Burleson, Expedition Leader


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Totally Concentrating
The Ice Fall is supposed to be terrifying, and I suppose it is, but it's also the most spectacular, fascinating and weird environment I've ever encountered. Like the ice queen in the Narnia story by C. S. Lewis, "always winter, never Christmas!"

Blocks of ice as big as four-story houses must be climbed by primitive steps in the ice, or by aluminum ladders tied together, or circumnavigated though upward spiraling valleys. Gloomy, ice-blue, and I confess, fearful.

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The ladders crossing the crevasses provide a unique experience, again, not truly fearful as much as totally concentrating: step by careful step, fitting ones crampons onto the round rungs, and pulling up hard the rope on each side of the ladder to provide a measure of balance. Any time I feel fearful (the crevasse often is l00-200 feet deep,) I STOP, take a deep breath and concentrate on what I must DO, not imagine.

-- Leslie Buckland, Climber


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Big Pieces of Ice
We get a 4:30am start through the Ice Fall. Get to the point that is always called the "Crampon Plain" or "Crampon Point" where you actually put the crampons on and begin your ascent through the Ice Fall.

I'm a guide who's made a lot of trips through there, and maybe I've gotten a little jaded or used to it, but from a mountaineers perspective, the more you know about the way big pieces of ice can behave and move, the more terrifying a place like the upper third of the Ice Fall can be.

-- Wally Berg, Climbing Guide

Photos by Lhakpa Rita, Todd Burleson, and the AAI Everest '97 Team

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