Peruvian icefall doctors: a case study

The photograph below shows UIAGM guide Pasang Ongchu Sherpa crossing a ladder over a crevasse on 6034m Tocllaraju in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca mountain range. A Himalayan veteran with multiple ascents of Everest and Manaslu to his name Pasang is no stranger to using ladders to get across crevasses, but even he looked a little nervous crossing this one.

Crevasse, Tocllaraju

The robust aluminium ladders used by the Icefall Doctor team on Everest are roped together and secured to the ground by means of four snow bars, two at each end. The ladders overlap the edge of the crevasse by two to three feet to guard against it widening, and a rope passes between the rungs to keep the ladder in place and prevent it tipping. There is usually a rope on either side to use as a handrail and climbers are often confident enough to walk across instead of getting down on all fours as Pasang is doing in this photo. Aluminium ladders are designed to flex when someone stands on them, but the flex has been laboratory tested to international standards and prevents the ladder from breaking in half.

By contrast the ladder we encountered on Tocllaraju was the sort of device you might find in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. You would need to come from Norfolk to be able to count the number of ways of having an accident on your fingers.

The ladder was homemade, and the rungs looked like they had once been the slats of a Venetian blind. It flexed several inches as Pasang climbed over it, and the most likely consequence of a severe flexing would almost certainly have been a loud snap. It was simply resting on the snow and was not secured by anything at all. The chances of it tipping as we crossed seemed medium to high. Worse still there were only two or three inches of overlap at each end, and it would only have taken a few minutes of snow melt or downward pressure to send it tumbling into the abyss. For sure the slats weren’t designed for metal crampons; you could easily see them getting sawn in half, or the spikes getting embedded in comedic fashion. Even had we got across safely there were still another two or three hours of climbing to the summit, and all the while we’d be worrying about whether the ladder would still be there when we returned. I didn’t fancy spending Christmas on top of Tocllaraju after finding myself stranded above some icy gaping maw.

Having said that, it was still dark and we had travelled through the night, climbing 1000m in four or five hours to get there. Marc and I were travelling behind Pasang on the rope, and we were all for following him across until expedition leader Phil Crampton arrived behind us and provided a sanity check.

“I can’t let you guys cross that. Man, that shit’s fucked,” he said.

Phil is a great man to have as your leader, but he’s not known for his eloquence. Effluence, maybe …

Of course, we might have been lucky. There were ten of us in the team, of various shapes and sizes. We might have all got across safely and back again without mishap, but sooner or later this ladder’s going to go, and I wouldn’t fancy being on it when it does. For a mountain guide the ladder spells out the phrases serious accident and crevasse rescue. For an American guide it probably also spells litigation. If we’re going to use a ladder like this to get across a crevasse then we might as well rope ourselves together with washing line, use curtain rings instead of carabiners, and a coat hanger for an abseil belay.

We turned around defeated, keeping our fingers crossed more carefree climbers don’t die in that crevasse later this season.

We had mixed success in the Cordillera Blanca on this trip. We managed to climb two smaller peaks, Urus Este and Ishinca, but for various reasons we were unable to climb any of the three big 6000ers we looked at, Huascaran, Ranrapalca and Tocllaraju. Apart from that, it was an enjoyable climbing trip in a lovely part of the world, and I will be providing a full report with photos next week. In the meantime here’s a short video of Altitude Junkies’ expedition leader Phil Crampton giving some tips on how to cross a ladder over a crevasse.

Watch on YouTube

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