Icefall Doctors: Without them nothing works on Mount Everest

Icefall Doctors: Without them nothing works on Mount Everest
The roof of the world: Mount Everest is 8,849 meters high.

It is a large number of huge blocks of ice that move slowly but steadily towards the valley and that mountaineers have to overcome on their march upwards. Most of them only manage to do this because local specialists found the safest possible route and made it passable with lots of ladders and ropes.

This is a network that they will have to adjust repeatedly over months during the current peak Everest season. Mountain guide Ngima Gyalzen Sherpa was part of this team two years ago. And he was particularly fascinated by his job title back then, as he says: “Icefall Doctor”. “Experienced icefall doctors can determine the strength and risk of collapse of ice just by looking at it,” says the now 26-year-old Nepalese. “They can do that just as well as a mother can tell what’s wrong with her child when she sees it.”

Ice cream needs to be analyzed

In order to analyze the ice, the experts need daylight and that could be dangerous, says Sherpa. Because as soon as the sun shines on the unstable structure, it becomes more fragile. Deep gaps can open up between the blocks, and pieces often break off and fall down. So most adventuring groups set out with headlamps in the middle of the night or early in the morning to cross the Khumbu Icefall between the base camp and the first of four high-altitude camps.

Some Icefall Doctors have lost their lives in the course of their work. How many there are exactly is not known. But according to the expedition archive “Himalayan Database”, a total of around 50 people died in the Khumbu icefall – for example because they were buried by avalanches or fell into deep chasms. That corresponds to about one in four deaths on the Nepalese side of Mount Everest. The mountain can also be climbed by China, but this happens less often.

“When I fell I thought I was going to die”

Ngima Gyalzen Sherpa says he also fell into a deep crevasse while working as an icefall doctor: “When I fell, I thought I was going to die and thought of my mom.” His mother, Ang Dami Sherpa, initially inspired him to pursue a career in mountaineering. She has made a name for herself as a runner in mountain marathons, which are particularly strenuous for the body because of the high altitude. He was also thrilled at the time that his village was home to mountain guide stars like Kami Rita Sherpa, who holds a world record for the most ascents of Mount Everest – he stood on the 8,849 meter high peak a total of 28 times. “Every year they are celebrated after they return from the mountains,” says Ngima Gyalzen Sherpa. He wanted that for himself too.

After falling into the crevasse, he was finally able to free himself from the depths with tools and the help of his colleagues. He hasn’t worked as an icefall doctor since then – but not because of the danger, as he says. He simply earns more with his work as a mountain guide for foreign guests. He didn’t want to give any numbers. Icefall doctors did not receive enough appreciation, says another Nepalese mountain guide and rescuer, Narendra Shahi Thakuri. “The icefall is the most technically difficult section of Everest and not everyone wants to take such a big risk.”

But Ngima Gyalzen Sherpa says mountaineering is always dangerous – no matter what you do. Anyone who wants to climb Mount Everest will walk past frozen corpses. More than 300 people died on the giant – and many bodies are still on the spot – also because rescue operations are complex and expensive. “I don’t give much space to my thoughts about death,” says Sherpa. He likes mountaineering and there are hardly any other jobs in the Himalayas anyway. “But I always miss my family – especially my mother, who is worried about me.”

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