April 19

Another beautiful morning at Base Camp. Our BC manager, Pertemba Sherpa, managed to round up some ladders for the people new to Everest to practice on. Everest is approached up the Khumbu glacier. A glacier is a moving river of ice. The Khumbu at times and places is moving about a meter (roughly three feet) a day. Where the glacier bends either vertically or horizontally the massive stress createe these cracks we call crevasses. Imagine bending a Snickers bar. The cracks in it our analogous to crevasses. The fastest way up the mountain and through the avalanche zone is to cross over these crevasses on ladders laid flat across the chasm. Hence the need to practice before you see your first one for real.

I and most of the people who have been here before decided to forgo the practice so the others could have more time. There really isn’t much to learn. Stay in the middle, lien forward against the fixed rope to help with balance and don’t fall off. You can practice but there is really nothing to prepare you for that first ladder where you can only see black darkness below your boots. The only fortunate thing is that the first twenty or thirty crossings lower down the mountain are usually one ladder. As you get higher and the crevasses get wider the practice is to take two ladders, lap the ends and tie them together with rope. A two ladder crossing is exciting to say the least with the bouncing and swaying. In 2006 we had one four ladder crossing. By the time you got to the middle it had bowed enough you were almost eye level with the other side. Just imagine lapping the ends of four ladders and laying it from one 70 story building roof top to another. Welcome to Everest.

All of that aside the worst experience I have had on a ladder crossing occurred in 2006 when I was going down. Did I mention that these ladders are not always level and even occasionally lean to one side? I was crossing a two ladder crossing that sloped down. For some reason this angle allowed my crampon on one boot to get wedged. I was in the middle of this swaying ladder trying to get my crampon unstuck. A good place to have a panic attack if there ever was one. A small crowd of uphill climbers had gathered on the other side. I remember looking up at their faces. Without exception the expression was “better you than me” mixed in with a few “this is not going to end well” looks. I finally took a deep breath – in aviation I was taught there are very few emergencies I can’t make worse – and decided I would just take the crampon off. When I bent to start unstrapping I apparently got the right angle and the right leverage and it popped lose. The rest of the expedition when I encountered a downhill ladder I turned around and backed down that sucker “sissy” style. I also gave those crampons away after that expedition and bought a new pair that with a different geometry that should not get wedged.

The funny thing is that although the ladders are without a doubt the most terrifying part of climbing Everest they are not particularly dangerous. You always clip into a fix line so you are not going to fall far. In fact falling off a ladder is so common that it is referred to as taking a “dangle”. Embarrassing and attire altering but not know to be life changing.