Khumbu Icefall and the Valley of Silence

27 April, 2012

National Geographic has a blog written by people who are now climbing Mount Everest. Here’s Sam Elias training in the Khumbu Icefall near the Everest Base Camp:

As usual, it’s the Sherpas who impress me most:

Years of experience, or maybe the mountain itself, had told the Sherpas that passing through the Ballroom on this day was not a good idea, something would happen. “Big ice will fall.” Panuru’s words echoed in my head. “How do they know?” I wondered.

I was sitting in my tent fitting my crampons onto my boots when I heard it. I know the sound now. Before, when the loud rumbling began I instinctively thought of a giant semi barreling down a highway. But there are no vehicles here.


Every year, the route through the Khumbu is set by the “ice doctors,” a small team of Sherpas who take mortal risks to navigate the safest passage through the Icefall, putting up ropes in the steep sections and stretching ladders across the abyss-like crevasses.

Crossing the ladders is an adventure for some. For the Sherpas, setting them up is a job.

Khumbu Icefall

Suppose you take the southeast route to Mount Everest, on the Nepal side. When you climb up from Base Camp, the first thing you’ll hit is the Khumbu Icefall, a crazy and ever-changing mass of ice at the bottom of the Khumbu Glacier:

As the National Geographic blog put it:

Like a gargantuan bulldozer, the Khumbu glacier plows down off the Lhotse Face between Mounts Everest and Nuptse. Dropping over a cliff just above Base Camp, this mile-wide river of ice shatters into building-size blocks and steeple-size spires called seracs. It’s riven with cracks called crevasses that can be hundreds of feet deep. To reach our expedition’s two goals — the Southeast Ridge and the West Ridge, which both begin atop the Khumbu glacier in the Western Cwm — we must travel up through this labyrinth of raging ice.

To cross the crevasses, you use bridges that the Sherpas have made by lashing ladders together with rope. Here’s Nima Dorje Tamang crossing one. The clouds are like a ceiling… but there’s no floor:

The picture above is again from National Geographic.

The glacier advances about a meter each day around here. Most climbers try to cross before the sun rises, when the cold keeps things frozen. As the intense sunlight warms things, the icefall becomes more dangerous. Blocks of ice tumble down the glacier from time to time, ranging in size from cars to houses… and sometimes entire large towers of ice collapse. They say bodies of people who die in here sometimes show up at the base of the icefall years later.

Here’s Kenton Cool talking about the Khumbu Icefall. “It can implode underneath you, it can drop on you above – or god forbid, you can fall into its inner depths, never to be seen again.”

And this is photographer Leo Dickinson speaking about the dangers of this place. Look at the fellow poking at snow with a pick around 0:58, revealing that it would be deadly to step there!


The Valley of Silence

Suppose you succeed in crossing the Khumbu Icefall—including the last crevasse, shown in this photo by Olaf Rieck. Then you have reached the Western Cwm, also known as the Valley of Silence:

In the middle background is Lhotse. At far right you see a bit of Nuptse. And at left there’s Sāgārmatha, also known in Tibetan as Chomolungma… or in English, Mount Everest.

‘Cwm’, pronounced ‘coom’, is Welsh for a bowl shaped valley, also known as a ‘cirque’. This one is a 4-kilometer-long valley carved out by the Khumbu Glacier, which starts at the base of Lhotse. It’s the easiest way to approach Everest from the southeast. However, it’s cut by massive crevasses that bar entrance to the upper part: here you must cross to the far right, over to the base of Nuptse, and through a narrow passageway known as the Nuptse corner.

It’s called the Valley of Silence because it’s often windless and deathly quiet. On days like that, the surrounding snow-covered slopes surrounding are so bright that the valley becomes a kind of solar oven, with temperatures soaring to 35 °C (95 °F) despite an elevation of 6000 to 6800 metres (19,600-22,300 feet). But when sun turns to shade, the temperature can plummet to below freezing in minutes!

The photo above was taken by the Moving Mountains Trust. See the people? You may need to click for a bigger version! For more, see:

• Alan Arnette, Life in the Western Cwm.

Want to go further? When you’ve reached Base Camp II near the top of the Western Cwm, you still have 2300 meters to climb… and now it gets steep! I’m sorry, I’m quitting here and heading back down—it’s my bedtime. Good luck!

For more

Cut your carbon footprint. Travel virtually:

Mount Everest summit—interactive 360 degree panorama.

Reality Maps viewer for Everest.

Michael Murphy writes:

I had become intrigued by the story of Marco Siffredi, a French snowboarder who was the first to successfully descend Everest on a snowboard via the Norton Couloir. His second attempt to descend a far more serious route, the Hornbein Couloir ended in his demise.

Here’s the video of him leaving the summit. I used Reality Maps to trace his route. It is no wonder he did not make it.


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