Summit Day – Island Peak base camp (5050m) to Island Peak Summit (6189m) and back
We did it!
Our wake-up call was at midnight. It took some time to get properly dressed for the cold temperatures, have some breakfast and get our kit together – we left camp at 0120.
The first 4 hours hiking was in darkness with head torches. There had been snow the previous evening, so we were hiking in snow from the start, although the weather was clear and calm by the time we left. It was difficult in the dark to understand where we were in the surrounding landscape as we climbed, except that it was steep. At around 0400 we passed the high camp that some groups use to spend a night on the mountain before summiting – it was little more than an 8ft ledge on the side of the mountain at 5600m. People usually can’t sleep well at this altitude so it is a little pointless, so our trek company no longer use this approach.
About 4 hours in, the sun started to lighten the path but it would be another 60-90 minutes before the sun broke through to warm us!
By this time progress was painfully slow because of the thin air and steep slope – I could only take 8 or 10 steps before stopping for 30 seconds to get my breathing under control. If I pushed too hard, I started to feel nauseous. I really felt like those people you see climbing Everest with their painfully slow progress and laboured breathing. For sure this was our Everest! Stef was very very cold, I had totally numb toes and was worried about frostbite, constantly trying to clench my toes as hard as possible with every step.
We finally reach “crampon point” at 0530. I couldn’t even guess what the temperature was there, maybe -15C. We desperately needed the sun – we could see the sunrise splashed on the highest peaks and slowly descending towards us. It took us about 45 mins to get into our climbing gear – everything is so slow at that altitude and in that much cold. Taking our gloves off led to numb fingers within a minute or two, but was necessary for some of the tasks – we had to get into plastic climbing boots (even worse for the toes, as the boots were at ambient temperature), crampons, helmets and harnesses – plus we carried ice axes. Luckily for us, one of our porters (Moti) carried the heavy gear to crampon point for us – our own packs were about 8-10kg, but would have been over 20kg with all the climbing gear. Big thanks to Moti and Kesa (who carries it back down) for their help!
On the final stretch! We can see the summit!! But it’s another 2 hours before we get there
With our gear fitted and attached together via “main rope”, we climbed up onto the glacier just as the sun hit us and began to warm us a little.. Then we got our first view of the summit – and we realised we could do it!
There were a number of crevasses in the lower part of the glacier that we had to weave around to find a point narrow enough to jump across. We had been taught how to do this so that the rope wouldn’t snag us as we jumped, and in the unlikely event that we fell, we would be held up by the others in the group (we had a climbing guide at the front and our trek guide, Netra, at the back – with just the two of us in the middle). The rest of the glacier hike was a relatively shallow climb, but again painfully slow because we were now approaching 6000m. It took us about 1.5hrs on the glacier to reach the fixed rope point.
John took this picture of me from the edge of the summit
We then had a tough 150m extremely steep ascent up the ice face to a point on the left hand side of the summit (around 30m below). It probably averaged around 70 degrees of slope, but there were a few points where it went vertical or almost vertical for a few metres, at least once with sheer smooth ice. We had been taught how to use the zoomer and crampons to climb up, and there were a number of anchor points up the slope to swap ropes and have a rest. With the altitude, it took at least 1.5 to 2hrs to complete this part. As the sun was shining on us strongly now, the cold was no longer a problem and my toes had thawed out. We even removed 2 layers in an attempt to cool off! But the slight dry cough which I’d had for a day or two had quickly developed into a chesty, painful cough by the top of the climb, and I was wheezing when I breathed deeply. Stef was definitely stronger at this point and didn’t get any negative symptoms until we started the descent. Of course I was worried about some severe AMS symptom like HAPE, but we were so close to the summit and just had to continue to the top. Besides, the first treatment for AMS would be to descend, which we would do anyway very soon.
Getting to the top of the face was an incredible experience. Reaching the top we saw that we had climbed on top of a knife-edge ridge with the Island Peak glacier plateau beneath us on one side (and the big Ama Dablam mountain beyond), and on the other side it plunges straight down to the Lhotse Glacier over 1000m below – backed by the huge Lhotse mountain (8516m). It’s amazing to see that after all this effort to get to such a high point, there are still mountain peaks 2500m+ above us.
The final push to the summit wasn’t far, but took at least 30 mins because a previous group of 6 people were coming down on the fixed ropes from the summit while we were trying to go up. We had to wait for then at each anchor point so that we could pass by.
We finally reached the summit around 10am (I was in front of Stef so I waited for her a few feet from the top). It was incredibly satisfying and the views were remarkable – so many 6, 7 and 8000m peaks all around us. The face of Lhotse, just 3km away from us, towered above – so much so that I couldn’t fit the whole thing in frame for my panorama shots. We hugged and took pictures, but didn’t spend more than 10 minutes on the summit – the weather was perfect (sunny and luckily no wind) but could change at any moment. So we started the descent down the ridge to the fixed rope down the face.
We had to wait a while because of slow traffic on the ropes going down the face. At this point Stef started getting a bad headache, probably from the altitude, which persisted for the rest of the day. When it was our turn we started to abseil down, using a figure-eight belay – not exactly a foolproof method, but our training and practice the previous day kept us safe.
We then made as fast as possible off the glacier, as it was approaching midday and so increasing risk of shifting ice and crevasses opening up. We were totally exhausted by the time we got back to crampon point – we had spent all of our energy on the goal of reaching the summit and left little for the descent. So the descent was nearly as tough as the climb, and we finally got back to base camp at 1515.. Nearly 14 hours after we set off. We were exhausted, dehydrated and starving.. We forced ourselves to drink and eat something, then collapsed into our tent.
Waiting to repell down the face to start the long haul back to base camp
It was an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience, which is what our rtw trip is about. And, I think it’ll stay that way – I think that expedition mountaineering is not really for us – we can save that kind of suffering for when it’s really required to achieve something long-lasting – not just 10 mins of the most incredible view ever.