The Icefall: Bold Climbing and Big Decisions on the World’s Tallest Mountain

Madison and Emmet just above Everest Base Camp. Photo: Jessica Talley/Louder Than Eleven

words :: Feet Banks

In September of 2019, somewhere around 18,000 feet (5,486 metres) on the Nepali slopes of Mount Everest, about a three-hour climb from base camp, Aangapherba Sherpa looked with hope to the man beside him and said, “Mr. Tim, now you can climb and see if you can find a way.”

And so, Squamish climber Tim Emmett took the lead up a section of the Khumbu Icefall that, for almost three weeks, had proved insurmountable to the team of Sherpa “Ice Doctors” tasked with finding passage and fixing lines through the enormous mass of ice chunks, crevasses, seracs and five-story towers of ice in near constant motion as the Khumbu Glacier shifted by three to four feet per day.

“It was suddenly obvious that the future of this expedition was up to me,” Emmett recalls. “Could I find a way through this section and save the trip? Or would I get swallowed up and vapourized in a 50-foot wide crevasse? I climbed to the high point and tied in…”

article continues below

Emmett was on Everest as part of an expedition with Mountain Hardwear president Joe Vernachio and highly experienced Everest guide Garrett Madison. There were only three other teams on the mountain.

“That was part of the appeal,” Emmett says, “fewer crowds. It is a less reliable and more challenging window, however. In the winter the crevasses are full of snow so it’s easier to cross the icefall. In the summer it’s more disjointed and technical.”

Case in point: this incredibly technical section of the Khumbu Icefall, a tight ridge along the edge of the crevasse and a tenuous snow bridge leading to a pitch of loose ice that wouldn’t take a tool. Emmett started up the ridge with Dorgee Sherpa, a veteran with 18 successful Everest summits, on belay.

“It was suddenly obvious that the future of this expedition was up to me”

“With no protection, I followed the ridge testing each foothold before weighting it fully, feeling for holes. Before long I reached the end, pounded in a snow stake and ushered Dorgee to join me so we could be in close contact for the crux.”

Using a frog-leg style to spread his weight out as much as possible, Emmett inched across the narrow path of snow, powder falling into the abyss on either side. He made it, with just a short 15-foot ice wall separating him from the presumably more stable snow ridge above.

“The ice was like ball bearings, loose, and no matter how much I dug, I could not get my tools to stick. I dug a tube into the loose ice, like a slot I could fit my body in and squirm upwards, similar to a chimney on a rock climb. Pressing my body into the snow and ice I was able to squeeze my way up onto the steep slope. I continued up, reached my tools over another small crevasse and scurried up to more stable terrain. I placed a snow stake to fix the safety line. From here I could see a gangway between two crevasses that led to the other side of the glacier and towards Camp 1. We’d made it.”

But Everest is a tempered mistress. Even though Emmett opened the route to Camp 1, the mountain wasn’t done challenging him. Sherpas returned from camp with photos of a massive 200-foot serac hanging dangerously about 3,000 feet above the route up the icefall. A similar situation had ended tragically in 2014, when a smaller serac broke off from almost the same spot and killed 14 Sherpas. After much consideration, Emmett, Vernachio and Madison decided to end their journey.

“All my life I have navigated risk,” Emmett wrote in an Instagram post the next day. “I try to make good decisions in potentially dangerous environments using education and my gut instinct to guide me… I lay in bed last night knowing there was no way I could let myself and any of our team be subjected to this potential catastrophe.” 

None of the teams at base camp in September 2019 summited Mount Everest, but all made it home safely. Tim Emmett will return to the mountain in April 2020 with Garrett Madison and a team from Madison Mountaineering. —ML