Daily danger for 'icefall doctors'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2007, 12:00am

The most dangerous job in the Everest industry belongs to the 'icefall doctors', six veteran Sherpa mountaineers responsible for keeping the climbing route open on the most dangerous section of the mountain.

'It's very risky. When we leave the tents in the morning we don't know whether we'll come back,' said Ang Nima Sherpa, 56, the leader of the team. 'The icefall is moving. Sometimes there are avalanches. Sometimes the ice breaks, ladders break, ropes break.'

The Khumbu icefall is a giant cascade of house-sized blocks of ice and deep chasms which tower above the base camp on the Nepalese side of the mountain. It is the first obstacle Everest climbers must negotiate, and it has claimed more lives than any other part of the mountain.

'Before the [climbing] groups arrive we make the route up to Camp 2 and keep it open. If we don't prepare the route, no one can climb,' said Ang Kami Sherpa, 50, another member of the team.

Their tent was noisy with the roar of a primus stove and whine of a pressure cooker. The area was strewn with harnesses, ice screws and bags of food.

'The depths are very deep, 500, 1,000 metres deep,' Ang Kami Sherpa said. 'It's like climbing over a giant bowl of popcorn. It sounds like thunder, then the ice collapses.'

The term 'icefall doctor' was invented by leading New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall, who died in an Everest disaster in 1996. The current system of roping the icefall dates from 2000, and the 'doctors' are proud of their safety record.

No icefall doctor has died at work since 2000 and, they say, no one has died while using their routes, although they do not count the victims of avalanches.

Around Base Camp they are regarded with a mixture of awe and astonishment. Every afternoon, after returning from the icefall, they drink heavily. They are proud of their notoriety. 'Somebody bring icefall doctor hats. Somebody bring icefall doctor jackets,' slurred Ang Gyalzen Sherpa, showing off the logos on his clothes. 'Everybody say icefall doctor is crazy. Very dangerous!'

'We do it for money,' said Ang Kami Sherpa. 'It's highly paid. We can earn US$2,300 in a season. It's enough to educate our kids.'