Dad gives me a longer hug than normal when setting off from Island Peak base camp. He and our guides walked me up to the 16,400 ft camp and left around noon so they’d be safe in the lodge after a grueling and windswept three hour walk.
This trip came together only the day before when I got the thumbs-up from our lodge owner that my climbing permit from Kathmandu was secured. I had heard about Island Peak before and was interested in climbing it, but didn’t think it would work within our schedule or budget. As luck would have it, we only had to adjust one day of our three week trek to fit in the climb.
I’m camping and dining with a group that is headed to Everest in a few weeks. If I get nothing else from this climb, it’s all made worthwhile by getting to talk to these ambitious, sharp, and fun people hoping to summit the world’s tallest mountain. Their plan is to make a “high camp” at 6,000 meters (that’s 20,000 ft), just below the summit, beneath the tall, intimidating vertical ice wall that awaits climbers on their final push. They’ll acclimatize there instead of the dangerous and unstable Khumbu Ice Fall, and use the wall to practice climbing techniques.
Base camp is a wind tunnel at the top of a long valley which ensures every one of your belongings will be covered in dust before you’ve even unpacked in your tent. Unfortunately we have had two choppers try to land here today to pick up ill climbers who couldn’t reach the top. We aren’t sure the state of the rescuees but hear that they are simply exhausted – so the rest of us discuss whether this is a desperate situation, or just a really expensive ride home.
After lunch we jump right into training. My guide Dawa takes me to two connecting ropes up a ridge and refreshes me on the art of ascending with a jumar and descending with an eight. Once we’ve gone up and down a few times the real fun starts. The Sherpa crew has set up an elevated ladder that we’ll use to practice crossing with our crampons and ropes. We safety ourselves in on either side with carabiners and lean our weight forward, relying on the security of ropes tied behind us. The best technique is to secure the front two points of your crampon into each ladder rung as you inch slowly forward. Even though it feels unnatural and scary to rely on just these two prongs, we’ll have full visibility of the front of our feet, and absolutely zero of our backs – so trying to put any weight on your heel could throw off your balance and send you toppling over the side. Practicing is actually a lot more fun than I thought it’d be, but I remind myself that I might feel differently when it’s THREE ladders I’m crossing, strung together with ropes, waving in the wind, above a never-ending crevasse. Dawa tells me if it’s too windy, we will need to crawl across on hands and knees.
After dinner I lie restlessly until I hear my new friends go to bed themselves. My body is comfortably warm head to toe thanks to the second down sleeping bag I was given, and a boiling hot water bottle at the bottom of the bag to warm my feet. Midnight comes quickly, and the hectic wind from earlier in the day has vanished. Stars dazzle from horizon to horizon, and I can faintly see the alpenglown from our neighboring 6,000ers reflected from the moonlight.
We start walking at 1am and pass High Camp in about an hour, reaching the crampon point around 3:30. I put on my down parka, helmet, glacier gloves, harness, mountaineering boots, crampons, and finally clip in to the fixed line at the base of the ice. It isn’t until hours later when the sun rises that I realize what hard, smooth, slick ice I had been walking on all day.
Dawa and I finally get to put our ladder practice to use. The first is a 10-foot long combination of two construction ladders strung together with rope. The second, however, is three combined ladders whose rungs are spaced out differently than the first. Dawa’s crampons are actually too small to reach from rung to rung, so he is forced to walk on a tip-toe across this 15-foot long man made contraption suspended hundreds of feet over a crevasse. We high five after each successful crossing.
Just as the sun is beginning to light up the mountainsides, we reach the famed ice wall that leads to the summit ridge. A Ukrainian guy at one of our hostels had shown me photos and told me of this infamous 100 foot tall vertical wall that delineates trekkers from true climbers. Upon seeing the wall, I quickly understand he meant to say meters – not feet. I misjudge this distance and leave my pack at the base of the wall, handing Dawa just a bottle of water to carry up. It takes us about 1.15 hours to reach the top.
This ice wall is way tougher than I’d made it out to be, it is the one obstacle that’s turned this day into the most technically challenging feat on my climbing resume. I’m using my entire body to propel myself up this unrelenting vertical ice. My arms and shoulders pull upwards to ascend my jumar, and my thighs, hips, and glutes push my legs and hold my feet steady as I front-point my crampons at a 90 degree angle into the wall.
At 6:30am we’ve reached the summit at 20,305 ft. We are the first people to summit today, and soak in the serene, windless calm and watch the sun begin to creep across the peaks around us. It is an incomparable feeling, a moment of fulfillment and pride and complete awe at the landscape around us. I can’t remember ever feeling happier.
We descend slowly, making it back to base camp by 11:30 and finally arriving back to our lodge in Chukkung at 2:30. I’m wiped, but reenergized by seeing my dad again and getting to tell him all about my adventure. He reminds me how close I was to the altitude of the tallest peak in America, Denali in Alaska, just a mere 15 feet off… I mentally bookmark that statistic for the next time I try to scare myself.