The Khumbu Icefall is the most dangerous square mile on the planet. A groaning mass of contorted ice pillars as big as six-storey townhouses, the infamous stretch of glacier on Everest’s western approach is lacerated with bottomless crevasses. To cross it takes between four hours for a seasoned professional and as long as 12 for those who have not yet acclimatised to the altitude. On a typical expedition, the way is paved at first light by a team of sherpas who deploy an improvised tightrope of ice screws and rope and ladders to ford the monstrous chasms.
‘The worst thing is the noise,’ says Joe French, an Everest veteran whose recent climbing history has been pegged dramatically to the whims of this vast ice field. ‘The whole time you’re on it, it’s making these awful creaks and groans. It feels like it’s speaking to you, warning you.’
That’s something of an understatement. As soon as the morning sun hits the Khumbu Icefall, the frozen monoliths begin to deteriorate rapidly. ‘The thing to remember is that this ice wants to make its way to the bottom of the valley,’ says Joe. ‘Millions of pounds of pressure is slowly building up behind these gently creaking blocks of ice. The whole thing is a dam of monumental proportions.’