(By Jason Freeman, edit Correne Coetzer) "With little chatter between them, each of the team made their offering to the chorten and said a brief prayer. [...] Some melodic Tibetan chanting rang out from an old boom box and half an hour later, six men were ready for work; a basic pack frame on their backs, carrying their climbing gear, with ladders and marker flags tied over the top. Each made a final quick offering to the gods, gave a cheer of "Icefall Doctors!" to the team video camera and they were off..." recalls Melbourne based Australian freelance photographer and trekker, Jason Freeman. He just returned from Everest's front line where he spent some time with the Icefall Doctors at their puja ceremony before they started work on the Icefall.
The puja is a most important ceremony as Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa said to ExplorersWeb, "Sherpas will not climb mountains without the blessing given by the great Lama. In the base camp, and in the village monastery, special rituals are performed to ensure a safe trip."
Unfortunately one of Jason's new-found Icefall Doctor friends, Mingmar Sherpa, lost his life descending from Camp 2 on April 7. But the spirit of the Nepalese and the Icefall Doctors live on.
Here goes Jason's story:
Around 3,000 trekkers head into Nepal's Khumbu region in March each year, and this year, my partner, Cheryl, and I were lucky enough to be among them. Having flown into Lukla on the 7th of March, we took a 'leisurely' nine days to reach Gorak Shep at 5160m, the highest village in the area. At 7am the next morning, leaving the relative comfort of the lodge, we ambled up the valley towards Everest. Fog and clouds were already swirling and it was clear that views would be limited, with fresh snowfall only a matter of time.
After two hours of following Khumbu Glacier's lateral moraine, we reached the start of the narrow strip of jumbled rock and ice known as Everest Base Camp at around 5300m. At this point, Cheryl headed back and I continued on alone, absorbed by the lines of Nuptse, Everest's West ridge and the feared Khumbu Icefall. I had been to Kala Pattar and Island Peak on previous trips, but had never been this close to EBC, with its surreal, icy landscape and so much history. This had been the starting point for so many epic tales; so many triumphs and tragedies. It was magical!
Meeting the Icefall Doctors
Foot and yak traffic through EBC was light, and only a few tent camps were set up. The camps were in the early stages of preparation; a group of scientists readying 'Everest Laboratory', a few support staff with RMI Guides setting up cooking facilities and two other sites. Having walked almost the full length of EBC, I noticed a puja ceremony taking place at one of the camps. Not wanting to intrude, I kept my distance and soaked up the atmosphere. Fog obscured anything over around 6000m, but there was still plenty to absorb; sheer cliffs with no end, the hanging glacier of the Lho La that heads into Tibet and the seemingly impenetrable mess of the icefall that Everest climbers need to navigate before their more-traditional mountaineering ascent begins.
Breaking my gaze from the mesmerizing icefall, a sharp whistle called my attention back to the group conducting the puja; I was being waved over to come and join them. As I approached the camp, I saw a stack of ladders which instantly told me who these Sherpas were – these were the Icefall Doctors! Having been an avid reader of expedition stories for over 20 years, I was familiar with the job this team of highly-skilled, and highly-courageous workers do each year to make it possible for others to pass through with minimal effort or delay.
Welcoming the guest
As if I were an expected guest, one of the crew welcomed me, another grabbed a 200m roll of rope for me to sit on and the others cleared room in front of the chorten they had just finished setting up and decorating. Barely able to complete my greetings, a hot cup of coffee was pushed into one hand and into the other, a plastic bag of goodies appeared with the announcement of, "Packed lunch!"
My lunch showbag consisted of a packet of biscuits, a chocolate bar, some lollies, Tibetan bread and tsampa, a barley paste. I had little to share in return, but offered around some jerky from Singapore and some Australian chocolate caramels. Keen for me to be part of the celebration – and it felt like a celebration – I was offered some of the local rum. I politely declined to drink their precious brew, but they insisted, so three lidfuls, followed by a group cheer and raised arms each time it was!
Offerings, prayers, Tibetan chants and ladders
The chorten was adorned with all manner of food and drink; from potato chips to a can of Everest brand beer, to biscuits and soft drink. Taking pride of place were the traditional pictures of Tibetan gods and around the base lay the climbers' equipment – harnesses, rope, ice axes, crampons, snow stakes, ice screws, plastic boots and of course, ladders. Off to the left, the smoke of a burning green juniper branch wandered up and towards the icefall, hopefully appeasing the spirits in the process.
The group seemed remarkably relaxed for what they were about to undertake – more than two weeks' work to forge a path through the icefall, then several more weeks of maintenance as the moving ice and avalanches from Everest's West ridge wiped out the path. One of the 'doctors' explained that they expected shoulder-high snow later that day: "Will be easier tomorrow, we already have trail!"
With little chatter between them, each of the team made their offering to the chorten and said a brief prayer. Once all were done, they sorted through the piles to grab their gear and headed off to their tents to pack and prepare for six hours in the icefall. Some melodic Tibetan chanting rang out from an old boom box and half an hour later, six men were ready for work; a basic pack frame on their backs, carrying their climbing gear, with ladders and marker flags tied over the top. Each made a final quick offering to the gods, gave a cheer of "Icefall Doctors!" to the team video camera and they were off... Somehow, no one hit anyone or anything while walking around camp with a horizontal ladder tied behind them – that's a real skill!
Spirit of the Nepalese and tribute to Mingmar Sherpa
The generosity of the crew really touched me and I offered a small thermos and pocket knife to them as a gift. I hoped that somehow it might help keep them safe. I waved goodbye to my new-found friends and wished them all the best. As I walked back to Gorak Shep, I was on a real high; not only from having felt a part of 2013 Everest history, but due to the spirit of the Nepalese that keeps drawing me back to Nepal like a second home.
It is with great sadness that I hear about the death in the icefall last weekend of Mingmar Sherpa, one of the team I had the great honor of spending time with. My thoughts go out to his wife, son and friends. To the remaining Icefall Doctors, thank you for sharing a few hours with me – I hope there are many more climbing seasons and lidfuls of rum to come!
Sherpas who maintain the safest path in the mountains for other climbers are regarded as Icefall Doctors. The work on the Icefall is completed and the first climbers are making their first trips above Base Camp.
More images available at GoWild Images
Related - Icefall Doctor, Mingar Sherpa, died
Related - ExWeb interview with Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa: "You never know what your fullest potentials are until you give it a try"
Related - Denis Urubko and Alexei Bolotov: The Everest new route Game Plan
Visit our new website