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Everest 2011: Sneaking Through the Turbulent, Tumbling Khumbu Icefall (Photos)

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Text and photographs by Dave Hahn, a guide for RMI Expeditions and First Ascent. In May 2010 Hahn reached the summit of Mount Everest for the 12th time, the most of any a non-Sherpa climber. This time, he is leading a Bill McGahan and his 16-year-old daughter, Sara, on a bid for the summit. Follow the team's Everest expedition in dispatches here.

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Today was a big day for our climbing team: Everyone was keyed up for an early-morning start and nervous about just what surprises the Khumbu Icefall might hold for us. I'm sure I was responsible for a good deal of the nervousness, having tried mightily in this last week of training to pass on my own respect, fear, and awe for the great tumbling and turbulent glacier we needed to sneak through. I'd portrayed this morning's mission as something of a final exam and a dress rehearsal—all rolled into one. Get up at the normal obscene hour we choose for taking on the icefall (we like the thing to be cold and frozen solid underfoot…less chance for breaking crevasse bridges). Then stick to a business-like schedule and pace in climbing safely up to the midpoint of the Icefall … then come back down, just as safely, just as business-like.

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Simple… But not really so simple. Necessary though, in my book, to see that we are strong enough, skilled enough, and acclimated enough to responsibly make the move to Camp One before we actually make the move to Camp One. Even experienced mountain climbers have very little in the way of similar passages in the course of their previous climbs. The track up through the Khumbu Icefall is unique (thank goodness). We can't afford to have an exhausted climber in the upper reaches of the icefall, teetering and tottering across ladders and ice fins…. And we absolutely don't want a climber to pull into the extreme height of Camp One at nearly 20,000 feet without adequate strength reserves, inviting possibly fatal altitude illness. So we needed a test: halfway up and down in good time and in good style.

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Bill and Sara, Linden, and myself certainly didn't catch any slack from Mother Nature in our attempts to relax during the night before our test. To begin with, there was a spectacular full moon rise over Everest's West Shoulder—the kind of thing that required a bunch of trips out into the night to observe so that one could be sure one wasn't missing anything. Once we'd given up on the moon, there were a series of thunderous ice avalanches off Pumori that required an occasional head stuck out the tent zipper in order to see the immense powder clouds billowing in the aforementioned moonlight. Around one or two AM there came a bizarre and violent lightning storm with endless peels of real thunder (as opposed to the avalanche facsimile). This was followed by a concentrated downpour of snowflakes pelting the tents. I, for one, was thankful when my alarm finally rang at 4 a.m., allowing me to give up on the sleep concept.

After such an eventful night, it was stunning to emerge from the tent to find a peaceful, clear and brilliantly lit up pre-dawn sky. We could already count a number of headlight beams swinging back and forth in the icefall. Our climbing team convened in the dining tent for a hurried attempt at jamming down calories and coffee (don't worry, 16-year-old Sara hasn't taken up the coffee habit … yet) and then we pulled on climbing harnesses and helmets. Mark Tucker got up to see us off and to follow our progress on his radio.

At 5 o'clock we shouldered packs and shook Tuck's hand as we circled the Puja alter, breathing in a little juniper smoke—an offering to the Gods—on the way. Then we were clomping out of camp in our big expedition boots. A few minutes later we were at the base of the first ice hummock—time for crampons.

Then came the hard work, an hour or more of careful trudging toward the first ladders. No one was "warmed up" and no one was feeling spry. Nobody was able to envision feeling better with the passage of a few hours filled with strenuous and dangerous uphill labor. But we smiled at each other and patted each other on the shoulders. We concentrated on good foot placements and steady breathing.

When the angle steepened and the fixed rope began, we put the last week's practice and training to good use. A quick break at the first ladders gave a chance for a few more calories and a couple of minutes off our feet. By now we were mingling with a number of Sherpa teams as well as Westerners out doing variations on our own training program (Lam Babu and our own Sherpa team were taking a well-deserved rest today after having carried round-trip to ABC (at 21,300 feet) yesterday).

After the rest, we got into more challenging terrain in the "momo" section of the glacier … where the ice towers and jumbles strongly resemble a giant tilted plate of steamed momos … naturally. Safely through that and it was into the "popcorn" section with some steep and breathtaking climbing over glacial rubble that resembles… well, you know. Then came a section I dubbed the "football field" not because you could play a ball game there but because every ten yards brought a new crevasse line to be hopped. Some of the crevasses required a few careful steps on ladder rungs with fists full of fixed rope to get steady and balanced in the process.

But then… after about 2.5 hours we were reaching our goal for the day… "The Dum," which I am told was the name that early climbing Sherpas applied to the gear dump they made in the area back when it was too complicated to get through the entire icefall in a day. "Dump" was far too long a word to utter in such an oxygen-starved place and "dum" being preferable. Whatever… the Dum is a safe place to sit and it is the halfway point of the icefall.

Mission half-accomplished, we were happy and relieved… all were feeling good and strong having worked through the nerves, the jitters, and the plain old inevitable discomfort of getting to 18,900 feet. Another quick break in the cool morning breeze and then all we had to do was get back down safe. The test continued… no room for tired steps or fumbled carabiners jumping down through the footballs, the ladders, the popcorn and the momos. And we did it, marching back into camp by 10 AM in strong sunshine (a few hours ahead of the daily snowstorm) and with newfound confidence in our ability to get through the rest of the Khumbu Icefall and up into the Western Cwm. A day of rest seems sensible first though.