After 7 hours of climbing, we take our final steps on the steep summit ridge of the 6189m (20,250’) Imja Tse at 9am. Breathing deeply with tired legs from 4,000 vertical feet of elevation gain, we gaze in amazement at the surrounding view. 8000m peaks Lhotse and Makalu dominate the skyline to the north and east, towering nearly 7,000 feet above us. To the south and west, Ama Dablam, Taboche, Cholatse, Ombigaichen, and Nuptse, scrape the deep blue sky on this glorious October day. I clip my safety carabiner attached to my harness with a 1 meter cordalette into the anchor and sit on the cold snow. My lips begin to tremble into a smile as the first tears roll down my cheek. After two weeks of trekking in poor weather, being terribly sick for 6 days, and on our final day for a summit bid, we made it to the top against all odds. Sonam and Chanit also clipped into the anchor and we began our summit celebration. Mango juice boxes packed at base camp were the beverage of choice, paired with some fresh baked cookies from our Teahouse in Chukkung made for some much needed replenishment. We snapped plenty of amazing photos as we enjoyed this miraculous summit to ourselves. 40 minutes on top slipped away into the abyss of time. We needed to get off the summit and make our way back down the fixed lines.
Two days prior, we sat in the Khangri Lodge in Chukkung anxiously awaiting our weather window. A front was slowly moving in and forecasted to bring 8-12 inches of new snow to Island Peak. Climbing in a snow storm like this was out of the question with poor visibility and avalanche hazard on the upper mountain. The weather was predicted to clear up the night of the 12th, and be clear and cold on the the 13th, our final shot for a summit bid. After much deliberation, we all agreed we would trek the 4 miles to the 16,800’ base camp on the 12th, and leave for the summit in the early morning hours of the 13th. More rest, more Dal Bhat, and some fixed line practice on the steep rocky slopes above the Teahouse killed time on the 11th ahead of our approach day.
The morning of the 12th delivered nothing short of what the forecast predicted; socked in thick clouds with heavy wet snow blanketing the Teahouse. There was uncertainty about when the weather would clear, but we were down to our last day and had no choice but to make our move. We loaded our packs and with the help of our porter carrying our climbing gear, we began the push to base camp. As snow continued to fall, we couldn’t see but more than a couple hundred feet in front of us at any given time. Every few minutes, another team of climbers were descending back to Chukkung from base camp. After a few words in Nepali exchanged between guides, Chanit would translate, “they made it to high camp and turned around”. At 18,000’, high camp is more than a long way from the summit and raised even more uncertainty about whether our own summit bid could be successful. Would the weather clear? Would there be too much snow up high to break trail? Only time would tell as we continued our walk to base camp.
After 2 hours and 1500’ of elevation gain, we arrived at a cozy and quiet base camp. Orange and blue tents crowed together in the Imja Valley as snow fell relentlessly. We made our way into the dining tent for some welcome tea and hearty plate of veggie pasta, a perfect pre-summit carbohydrate boost. After settling into my sleeping tent, I tried to snooze as my mind raced with excitement and nervousness for the approaching climb. Sonam came into my tent and asked if I wanted to go for an exploration walk above camp. Teeming with energy, I couldn’t say no, even if it was dumping snow. We wandered around and talked about life and the climb tomorrow, but the grand views of the valley and surrounding peaks eluded us. As we descended, the first sign of improving weather presented itself, a fleeting pocket of blue sky. Enjoying a cup of mint tea in the dining tent, we continued to poke our heads out to assess the weather. To our surprise, by 4pm the clouds had completely disappeared, revealing a pristine scene of freshly coated high peaks and sun blasting our faces. Everyone in camp was out of their tents basking in the glory of the Himalayan sun at nearly 17,000’. Chanit and I scrambled up to the rim of Imja Tsho, a massive glacial tarn and the headwaters of the Imja Khola. We watched and took photos as avalanches and rockfall began to tumble into the lake from the rapidly warming temperatures. Our hopes of having great weather for summit day we’re on the rise as we made our way into the dining tent for soup and a delicious Dal Bhat dinner. By 7pm, we were in our tents, pretending to sleep before our 12:30am wake up.
The alarm on my wrist buzzes and my eyes open immediately; Summit Day! I hurriedly dress myself and slip my feet into frozen boots and stumble into the cook tent. Porridge and pancakes, a perfect breakfast ahead of what would certainly be a huge day at high altitude. By 1:50am, our packs were load, our headlamps were lit, and we began our attempt of climbing Island Peak. Several groups had departed camp ahead of us, but we were confident in our fitness to avoid being caught in the bottleneck of the fixed lines at 19,000’. We methodically moved our way up the mountain. Steep switchbacks gave way to scrambling over granite boulders coated in water ice from yesterday afternoon’s snow melt. By headlamp, it was difficult to discern exactly the magnitude of exposure we were traveling through, but the bright waning gibbous moon illuminated the snow covered terrain. With the exception of the steep technical sections, we travelled exclusively by moonlight, moving like stealthy ninjas through the pre-dawn darkness. A loud rumble echoed deeply across the valley – avalanche. With eyes well adjusted to the moonlight reflecting on the snow, we spotted a massive cloud of snow ripping down the steep mountain and covering the glacier in a haze of white. The 10 seconds of breath holding to witness this spectacle left me gasping for air at 18,500’.
As the sun slowly began to brighten the night sky and we could see the majesty of the sweeping Himalayas around us. We crested a small and precarious ridge, with hundreds of feet of exposure on either side. A small, fixed hand rope was our only safety as we scrambled over the granite slabs with frozen fingers from a biting wind. As we reached flat ground, I looked up to see a massive wall of ice. The glacier towered above us indicating we made it to Crampon Point. The hike was over, it was time to climb. Having not eaten anything since breakfast, I tapped into the chocolate cookies purchased at the bakery in Chukkung. It wasn’t until the first bite that I realized just how hungry I was. I pulled my crampons and harness out of my pack, sat on a rock, and juggled gearing up with slamming stale cookies. Other groups were approaching, and we were eager to make our way onto the glacier and work towards the summit. High clouds began to form, creating a perfect canvas for golden rays to paint the sky and summits of the surrounding mountains. Crampons on, harnesses secure, and clipped into the rope, a “jam jam” (Nepali for “let’s go”) gave the cue to take our first steps onto the blanketed glacier.
Sonam took the lead, I followed suit, and Chanit ran anchor. The glacier was steep, riddled with massive crevasses and ice caves shrouded by yeti-like icicles that guarded their mysterious entrances. We traveled slowly, being mindful of every step with the 12 steel points on each foot and managing the rope tied between us. Following the boot pack set by two small teams ahead of us. we meandered around the voids in the ice. As we rounded the last turn of the glacier the final climb to the summit of Island Peak came into view. I scanned the route and thought, “where are the fixed lines?”. Large chunks of debris scattered at the base of the slope indicated an avalanche had occurred on the slope sometime in the past couple days, likely collapsing and sliding under the weight of the new snow. It was obvious, the fixed lines were buried. Although we had a 30 meter rope, climbing the final 1,000’ to the summit would be a daunting task considering the crevasses that criss-crossed the sustained 60° slope to the summit. We continued moving towards where the lines might be, as 2 guides ahead of us dug through the snow with their ice axes searching for the ropes. Finally, one guide strikes gold and yanks a fixed line out of the snow. A sense of relief came over me as we reach the line and begin to clip in. Using an ascension device, also known as a jumar, allows the device to slide effortlessly up the rope, but catches instantly when it’s weighted, performing as a progress capture and safety if a climber were to fall. The jumar is fixed to your harness with 3-4 feet of small cord, along with a second safety carabiner that is used as a back up when transitioning from line to line. Sonam clips in and begins ascending the line. Giving him some space, I clip in next, then Chanit. We move in unison with our even spacing up the somewhat benign 45° snow slope. The sun was blocked by clouds and a brisk wind was blowing hard now, forcing me to wear my thick insulated mittens and down parka, despite moving uphill and generating plenty of body heat. As we climbed, I began to find a somewhat meditative rhythm. Slide the jumar up, step and dig my crampons in the firm ice with my right, then left, with a quick pause to draw in a few breaths. Slide, step, step, breathe, breathe. Slide, step, step, breathe, breathe. We were making good progress now, moving up to the next fixed line smoothly. We transitioned lines, fixing our safetys to the anchor, then moving the jumar to the next line.
Here the slope angled up steeper, and the lines deteriorated in condition. Chewed by jumars and step up on by crampons, I was losing confidence in the integrity of the fixed line. As a precaution, I pulled my ice axe off my back and weighted the rope as little as possible. A new rhythm emerged; swing the axe several times until it felt secure, kick the front points of my crampon aggressively into the snow, with the right, then the left, then use my free hand to slide the jumar up the line. Axe, step, step, slide, breathe, breathe. Axe, step, step, slide, breathe, breathe. Despite rapidly approaching 20,000’, it all felt somewhat effortless and enjoyable. The occasional short break during transitions created time to look around, allowing the gravity of where we were and what we’re doing to sink in. The slope was steep, thousands of feet of exposure dropping below us, and too many glaciated peaks to count peppering the skyline.
After our first few pitches, our pace slowed significantly. At approximately the worst time possible, Sonam’s crampon came loose, a new swung freely from the strap around his boot. Struggling to put his crampon on securely in such a precarious position, I hustled up the line to give him a hand. Because the slope was so steep, I was able to stand up and lay on the snow to work at eye-level, ensuring his crampon was secure.
During this long pause on the lines, a French team of 6 climbers and one Nepali guide tagging up he rear, began to pass us. The French team, who we had briefly interacted with at base camp, had chose to forgo the fixed lines and climb the mountain alpine style. We supported their decision, until their confidence wavered and they began to pull on the fixed line while roped to each other and climbing the now 65° slope. As they pulled on the rope below me, it forced the rope into the back of leg, nearly knocking me off my feet. I shouted at them until they got the message to let go of the rope. Their pace was slow, but because we stopped to fix Sonam’s crampons, we were forced to stop and wait for the entire team to pass. By now I was cold, my hands and toes buried in the snow for some time now. I forced myself to kick steps in place and punch my fists into the snow to keep the blood flowing.
After a treacherously long wait, they were off the line above and we felt comfortable with our spacing to continue climbing. With perfect synchronicity, the clouds blew away and the sunlight penetrated my black down jacket warming me from the inside out. As we continued climbing, it wasn’t long before I was overheated and felt the urge to ditch the puffy. It felt blissful to be warm and see the summit within reach. We crested the final steep pitch and stepped onto the knife edge summit ridge. Finally, the jaw-dropping view of Lhotse to the north revealed itself just 2 miles away, with a long plume of snow peeling off its corniced summit. Sonam continue leading the charge, taking the first steps on the summit of Island Peak. The French team was awaiting our arrival to use the fixed lines to rappel off the top. We exchanged high fives with their team and one by one, they made their way down.
We were alone at the top, and I was reveling in the beauty of my first Himalayan summit. As we enjoyed our time at the top, I began to feel the first twinge of a headache. I knew it was time to get down before symptoms worsened. After the next team made it to the top, we began our long descent down the fixed lines. While each pitch itself took very little time to rappel down, it was the waiting for the next team to get off the line that was agonizing. As the “bang bang” in my head increased, so did my desire to get down fast. The balance of moving fast but taking our time to mitigate any accident was mental taxing and demanded serious patience. Such is the paradox of descending a big mountain.
Once off the fixed lines, a sense of joy and relief coursed through my body. We had made it through the most hazardous part of the descent with only another 3,000 vertical feet of hiking and down climbing to the sanctuary of base camp. My headache persisted, and nausea slowly creeped in, decreasing my desire to choke down some crackers and a granola bar. I don’t like to force things in life, but food and water at altitude are certainly valid exceptions.
By the time we reached high camp at 18,000’, our porter Sonam, hiked up with a thermos of black tea. Though my motivation to drink had dwindled, again I forced it down the hatch for I knew I was dehydrated. Each sip of tea, and each step down to lower altitude, I felt a little bit better. As I began to see the tent city of basecamp, I had a hard time not thinking about the long way we still had to go.
After getting to base camp and gagging down a hard boiled egg and a bowl of soup, my appetite was next to nothing. I was trying my best not to toss my cookies in the dining tent in front of some guys from Pennsylvanian and a couple from Germany. After eating, we shouldered our packs once more and reversed our trek down the Imja Valley to Chukkung. We moved well on the 4 mile hike despite my deteriorating condition and made it to our teahouse is 90 minutes.
My nausea had worsened, and was beginning to believe it wasn’t mountain sickness, as that should have improved being nearly 5,000’ below our summit. While drinking a cup of ginger tea, I knew it was time. I rushed to the bathroom, careful not to touch anything, and vomited painfully into the toilet. It was bittersweet. No one likes vomiting, but I knew I needed this and would be in the clear after. I washed my face and hands and dragged myself back into the dinning hall. I ordered a cup of plain rice, and again, forced it down the hatch. It was only 7pm and I was toast, all I could think about was sleep. I nestled into my sleeping bag and woke up 11 hours later with a new lease on life, energized and ready to begin our 3-day walk to Lukla.
Mountaineering is glorious, treacherous, heroic, egoic, painful, and beautiful. Although I’ve guided hundreds of mountaineering trips and climbed too many mountains to count, this one was different. Just a day after the climb and I am still digesting all that unfolded in a 13 hour window. I will continue to reflect on this experience search for meanings and messages to learn and grow from. It is hard to put into words the feelings that arise when standing on top of a 20,000’ mountain, especially when you’ve had so much in your way to get there. But I suppose that’s also what makes it so sweet. As we continue to descend to more oxygen-rich environments, my mind and soul will continue to search for the answers we all seek. Why do we go to the places we clearly are not meant to be? Why do we feel compelled to expose ourselves to such hazardous environments? Why are we willing to risk it all to experience a few moments of bliss? Perhaps you may have the answers on an intellectual level, but I encourage to dig a little deeper and go within to find what it is you’re truly after in life.