Dangerous Khumbu Icefall

An River of Ice that is Melting

All of it begins in The Khumbu Glacier, a 10 mile/17km ice river which begins high on Lhotse Face around 25,000’/7,600m. Khumbu Icefall Khumbu Icefall is the section between Everest Base Camp 17,300’/5270m and close to the point where Camp 1 is usually located, 19,500’/5943m.once it leaves Lhotse the glacier forms its Western Cwm for approximately 2 miles before descending rapidly to form Khumbu Icefall. Khumbu Icefall for 2.5 miles. At Everest Base Camp (EBC) the glacier forms an abrupt bend in the southern part of the mountain and extends for another 6 miles/9.6km up to 16,000’/4,900m. The Icefall is wide ranging from a half mile to about a third of a mile/500m.As as all glaciers, the Khumbu is moving at times, 3’/1m a day in the middle, but is barely moving at its borders due to the force of friction with the walls of rock. The glacier’s top has a greater speed than the lower because of friction with the earth. It is this combination of slow and fast moving sections, as well as the steep drop that forms the deep crevassesthat are more than 150’/45m in depth and atop the ice estracs to over 30’/9m in height.


According to Kathmandu’s mountain research institute ICIMOD The Khumbu Glacier is melting but not as quickly as other glaciers because of its elevation. This is by far the largest glacier in the world. It is thought to be retreating around 65’/20m a year. It also decreased by 3,100’/940m in the 1960s to 2001.The glacier has shrunk by 40-50’/12-15m across the majority of its length. Everest Base Camp is lower in the present due to melting of the glacier. In 1953 when Hillary and Tenzing summited, EBC was about 17,454’/5320m; today it is 17,322’/5280m.Between 1962 and 2002 the Icefall thinned by an average of 56’/17m, about a rate of 1.3’/39cm per year. The long-time Everest guide Russell Brice commented in my recent interview with him that melting could create an easier Icefall that climbers can enjoy. However, he also said that that the Western Cwm may one day be the main obstacle on climbing the South Col route:But on Everest viewing images at the summit, it appears it appears that it appears that the Icefall in the area between BC C1 and BC C1 is getting more manageable and, in some ways, safer. There is also a possibility that some floating glaciers that are above the Icefall are moving backwards and appear more inactive than we saw in 2012, which could be explained through the hot temperatures at this elevation.

This is the First Icefall Climbs

Early Everest Crevasse Crossing. Image courtesy National GeographicGeorge Mallory in search of an approach to the top of Everest is believed to have observed an Icefall in the 1920s. He said that it’s ” terribly steep and broken all around the route up to Everest from Tibet is much more straightforward” 5 so he shifted his focus towards Tibet.It was not until 1950 that Charlie Houston and Bill Tilman headed the British expedition to look for the possibility of a route from Nepal to the Khumbu Icefall was considered to be feasible. In the year 1951, another British team led by Eric Shipton climbed thru the Icefall but stopped short of the summit due to a large crevasse. To traverse the crevasses the first expeditions relied on long tree trunks that were lowered from the tree line when they had run off from ladders.A Swiss team in 1952 was able to overcome the obstacle by climbing up into the crevasse, and then traversing a treacherous snow bridge. They made it to 8500m with today’s Southeast Ridge route but failed to reach the summit. Of course, there was John Hunt’s 1953 British expedition was the first summit on that same route.

The dangers

There are a variety of dangers in the Icefall that have killed people. I utilized the Himalayan Database to look at the deaths without illness that occurred between 17,500’/5400m and 19,500’/5940m which were within the Icefall itself. There were 44 deaths within the Icefall which is 25 percent of the 176 total death deaths that occurred from the Nepal side from 1953 until the year 2016.

The 44 deaths were broken down asfollows:

  • Crevasses that fall into crevasses 7 deaths or percent
  • A section of the Icefall fell, causing nine deaths or percentage
  • Avalanche that hits the Icefall 29 deaths or 66 percent

When I mention specific deaths in order to assist others, I also offer my condolences to the entire members of the family, friends and team of the tragic incidents.

Crevasse 6 or 14 percent

The possibility of falling into crevasses is fairly commonplace on mountain ranges starting from Mont Blanc to Rainer to Everest. I was in one below Camp 1 in 2002! On Everest the normal procedure is to clip into the fixed rope all the time during your journey up or down the Icefall in order that, should you walk onto a snow bridge and slip into a crevasse, or fall off on a ladder and fall into a crevasse, the rope will grab you. Unfortunately, many falls that fall into crevasses are the result of being not properly clipped in. In 2005 an individual from the western part of the country was thrown into a crevasse when traversing a snow bridge that was soft. The Adventure Consultant team members that witnessed the incident were in agreement: “It was clear that the climber wasn’t anchored to the fixed ropes at the moment of his fall; consequently, a slip that could have been stopped quickly caused a fatal fall over a 10-meter drop.

Icefall Collapse 9 or 21 9 or 21

The other risk is getting struck by a collapsed ice structure within the Icefall. There are many tall estracs (ice towers) that could collapse when the Icefall changes or the entire section could collapse beneath a climber. be aware that it could move one meter per day, and it can change abruptly without warning. This isn’t very frequent however it could cause deaths. An example of this was in 1972, where an Australian climber, who was a part of Chris Bonnington’s British Everest SW Face Expedition was transferring loads. He was able to enter the Icefall however he was never found. A search team located an extensive section of the Icefall which had collapsed. They believed that he was in the location when the collapse occurred. In 2008 the body of his was discovered near the bottom of the Icefall.