This post is a proof that you don’t need experience to get places. When I signed up for Island Peak, I had never trekked, hiked, let alone climbed before. I haven’t been at altitude higher than 1500m and was oblivious to the phenomenon of thin air. My diet was a disaster, amount of wine in it – disturbing, and exercise – nonexistent. I was depressed and needed something. Himalayas seemed like a perfect remedy. I saw the pictures of beautiful scenery this trip promised to hold and made up my mind in an instant. I disregarded the warning of “difficulty level” being “six out of six”, and thought of a few times I went to the gym. “Oh come on, how hard can it be – I said to myself – moving your feet and enjoying the view”. Little did I know how breathtaking, literally, it would be.
One week later, as I showed up at the local outfitter’s office with my small pink backpack and a big smile on my face, I was surprised to see how surprised were they. Right on the spot I was politely offered to have my itinerary changed, so that at least I don’t lose all the money in case I come back crying. “Yeeeeah… but no, I think I’ll try” – was my reply. Ignorance is a bliss indeed.
You don’t get to Island Peak straight from the airport. You need to walk there. For two weeks. In my case, the path laid through Gokyo Lakes, High Passes and Everest Base Camp – but that’s another story, in which Island Peak was the last “stop”. So taking George Lucas’ example of epic story telling, I’ll tell mine backwards as well.
Imagine having been in the Himalayas already for half a month. Fighting your demons and roughing your way through the mountains. Now your final “battle” lays ahead. Staying true to form, the hardest is left for last. Just like the best.
You spend one more night warmed by the fire in a company of other “warriors”. Some of them just got back from their “fight”: as conquerers or defeated, for some their journey stops here: they won’t even try. But each has their bone-shilling story to tell. The most frightening one came from the two brave young men who stood on the top of Island Peak that day. They looked worn out to say the least: sunburned and frostbitten, their shaking hands holding a plate of rice meant to repelish their lost strength… yet the gleam in their tired eyes gave the sign of the moment of glory they lived, as brief as it had been. I knew: tomorrow I’m due to set my way in their footsteps. With widened pupils I watched them, trying to guess what they’d been through, yet gushing away any thought that might put me off my destiny. “Better not knowing what’s to come” – had I said to myself, as my act of silence was interrupted by one of them.
– Are you a mountain climber? – I heard him saying earnestly. He caught me off guard. I think I even forgot my name for a moment.
– Do I look like one?? – that’s when even a guy who didn’t speak english started laughing. The rest of the “warriors” burst out loud too. I guess my pink fleece and hello kitty gloves finally gave me away. Neither I looked like a mountain climber, nor they were warriors, so I’m gonna cut the “Star Wars” crap and get to the point.
Here is how it goes:
After the night in Chhukkung in a guesthouse at 4750m, you get your gear ready, leave behind what you don’t need, and head off to the Island Peak Base Camp, where you will spend two to three nights depending on weather conditions. Base Camp is at 5240m, almost 1000 vertical meters below the summit which you’ll have to do in one push. That is unless you choose to move the next day to High Camp at 5650m to ease the summit attempt. The downside of sleeping at High Camp is that it’s harder to sleep, it’s colder, you don’t have the toilets, and most probably your mountain guide just won’t be bothered to set up a new camp when you already have one perfectly set lower down.
And so this was my humble habitat for the next two nights. With estimated weather temperature dropping to -20. In fact, it was my first night in a tent. Ever. I didn’t know what to expect. I even wore my boots inside the sleeping bag, just in case. Imagine.
But if anything surprised me that night, was the plate of pop corn any movie theatre would be jealous of. Really, the best one I’ve ever had. Beats me how he’d done it. The cook was hardly of a drinking age. Yet he was feeding not worse then in any guesthouse – if that can be a reference.
Against all odds, for a first-time tent-sleeper, I slept like a baby. Except for occasional awakenings when the walls of the tent would flap like crazy making me think I was part of the Blare Witch Project.
Awoken happy I made it through the night, I din’t even mind the bloody nose and puffy eyes.
The reasons behind:
– The air is too dry, so your nose starts bleeding once in a while.
– Your body retains water, cause there’s not enough oxygen: hence drinking as much water as you can to fool the body into thinking it has enough liquid, so it doesn’t have to retain any.
– And on top of it all, I got a terrible flue on the way there, and you don’t really recover at that altitude. If I was at sea level, I would probably be confined to bed. But I was in the mountains – so I didn’t have a luxury of giving a damn. Just like with hangovers – but that’s another story.
Now is also a good time to explain why I didn’t have shower for the past week. Not that I think it’s sexy, but because the only water available is the frozen one you see down there in the glacier.
After the breakfast it’s time for acclimatisation trek: you go higher by 300m or so and then descent to give your body a taste of what it’s like to live with less oxygen, so it kicks into survival mode and starts pumping more red blood cells to make sure you get the most of the little that’s out there.
Basically, once you’re in that mode, if somebody wants to suffocate you, they’d have to try harder. Also you’d perform better physically at lower altitude with higher oxygen levels, as in: if you ran a marathon back home, you’ll kick everybody’s ass. Or you can also put your newly acquired superpowers to more pleasurable affairs.
For acclimatisation trek we went up to the High Camp. That’s when a massive avalanche happened off the mountain you see behind.
Once we got back to the Base Camp, I got my first lesson in mountaineering skills. Mind you, I’ve never used ropes before. Not on the mountain at least. And to the shocking astonishment of my climbing guide … so far that was my best skill:
Soon the sun was down again. And it was -20, again. Early dinner and early “bed curfew” in attempt to get as much rest as possible, before wrecking your body as much as possible. Needless to say I couldn’t close my eyes with excitement. And tiny bit of anxiety. And heartburn. After my gourmand dinner.
“Breakfast” was scheduled at 2am. I made it at 2:30. Cause I ripped my waterproof pants into pieces trying to put them on. Oh well. I was absolutely sure waterproofing wasn’t a must anyway.
Well. There are no pictures of what happened between the breakfast and the sunrise. But I can tell you one thing: it was grueling. I don’t remember how many times I wanted to say out loud to my guide: “I quit. I can’t. Let’s go back to the camp so I can sleep till the end of eternity.” I don’t know why I never did. And it was my best decision so far.
It was bloody cold. And my nose was bloody too. My throat was killing me, and there wasn’t enough oxygen to breath, with every step. But my guide was great. I think at one point he actually started counting my breaths and take breaks accordingly so that I don’t drop dead or smth.
After climbing bare rocks for 3 hours in a headlamp light, we finally got to the snow level and saw sunrise.. The beauty of what I saw was inspiring. And so I broke through my threshold of collapse and kept on going.
It was a peace of cake after that. Well, don’t take my words for granted. Cause from this point we had to make our way up in crampons, with mountain gear on, going through snow and climbing an ice wall. But just like I said, on this mountain, if you make it to the crampon point and decide to go on, you’re gonna make it to the summit. Most of the people who turn back do it so here. So just step over your threshold, step on your throat, your mind, your fear, and whatever else you have to and keep on going. It’s less scary than it seems.
Actually, what also helps a lot, is that the trip just starts getting fun here. If that’s your way of having fun of course. You still have another good 5 hours of climbing ahead. But now with the daylight your mind is distracted with the beautiful things you see you have to go through: like those mesmerisingly deep crevasses, for example. A few years ago those “cracks” had ladders installed to cross them. Now you just jump over.
Ha the reason I just called crevasses “cracks” because that’s how I saw them back then. In fact, I found out what they were only when I got back to town after the climb. One of the trekkers preparing for Island Peak asked me: “..wow, so do you get to cross those big-a*s crevasses on the way??” – “What are crevasses?” – was my answer. Which almost undermined my authority.
But back then damn did it help – not knowing what’s the big deal was with those “cracks” and why my guide looked so strained watching me having fun jumping over them.
As the sunlight touched the summit, we approached the most fun part of the climb, the ice wall. “Now my mountaineering one hour of practice in Base Camp will finally pay off!” – I thought with great joy.
While we were testing the ropes, more climbers arrived.
Mmm yeah.. I reckoned I didn’t need that helmet either … I just ducked when ice was falling.
Then half way up we got stuck for a good half an hour cause the ropes got tangled. Or somebody screwed up, judging by the amount of swearing flying around. But I didn’t care much, I was just hanging there, literally and vertically, enjoying the view and snapping the pictures.
Finally we got “untangled” and reached the ridge and went up ahead. From now on no more hanging, just clinging to the rope and moving your feet. At quite a steep angle:
It pretty much feels like this: you take a step, take a breath, look up, smile happy with what you see and take another step. There’s no better recipe for doing this.
And only when you realise there is no where else to “step”, you let yourself play dead. 9:30 am. Island Peak Summit.
Yes, being on top does feel as good as they say. This moment alone makes you forget all the stuff you went through and makes you wanna climb again, and again, and again… I knew I found my new addiction.
Island Peak summit is a small flat-ish spot where probably 8 ppl or so can stand comfortably at the same time. Without pushing each other down. Ha. And it does just drops down from there, 360 around.
“So. That was easy… now what?” – I looked at my guide, who didn’t share my sense of humor and thought pushing me off the summit would be something he could laugh at.
Now it was time to go down … but I don’t wanna go down!
They say: they way up the mountain is only half the journey. Or something like that. Bullshit. When you’re up on that summit consider three quarters done. Descending is not even close to the pain you encounter on the way up. Even though now you’re feeling your last remains of adrenaline wearing out, and as if you’re about to faint if you stop, the inertia, nevertheless, is on your side this time.
Well, I’m not saying descending is an easy job either. That’s when one of the climbers got hit by altitude/exhaustion and had to be roped down. But he recovered fast back in the guesthouse, not to worry.
I’m looking at this picture now and thinking: “What the hell was I thinking.. to stand over the crevasse and take photos.” Good I didn’t decide to climb inside for a better angle.
Which I almost had a chance to. While walking and taking the pictures of the “cracks” I stepped with my crampon on my pants and started rolling towards one. Thank God, I was still roped to the guide, who walked ahead oblivious to my paparazzi fail. He got yanked back by the rope but his quick reaction stopped my “rolling”. Boy, he didn’t look happy. I’ve decided to put away my camera till we get to safer grounds, just in case.
Back at the crampon point. Also known as my “threshold breaking point”. That’s where we geared up in the dark and met the sunrise 6 hours ago. No more walking on snow. I figured no harm to start taking pictures again.
fter the crampon point there was a steep scramble down the rocks. “Pemba, is That what we climbed at night in pitch dark??” I looked at my guide – “Yes” he smiled. After being twice on Everest, for the whole trip was a stroll in the park.
An hour later back in the Base Camp I was having hot tea and making plans for the future climbs.
The whole round trip took us 11 hours. With all the breaks and tangled ropes. I’ve heard people doing it in 8. Or in 14. So I guess that was an average. But it’s only when I set down that I realized how exhausted I was. After emptying the thermos I crawled inside my tent and passed out for an hour. Up until then, that was the hardest thing I’d ever done.
After recuperating I packed my stuff and started the journey back down. Mission accomplished. Time to head home.
Back in Chhukkung (where my “warrior” story started) we stopped for the night and I had my first hot shower in 10 days. Well “shower” and “hot” are very broad range terms. I got a 20lt bucket of lukewarm water hanging over my head. That’s how I’ve learned I need minimum 25.
I’ve also learned that after the summit, you should have a summit party. And who was I, a newbie, to argue.
“That was one of the most amazing days in my life” – I wrote before going to sleep. To make sure I don’t forget.