Island Peak

(by Gillian Ryan, from IMC Newsletter Winter 2004)
A guided ascent of the 6185m Himalayan mountain.

We arrived in Kathmandu on the 7th October. We were greeted at the airport by Sumba, a Sherpa, who runs a trekking company called High Country in Kathmandu. He greeted us with a ring of flowers, which is a Nepalese tradition, and a lovely welcome especially following a long journey. We were whisked to our hotel where we met our guide for the duration of the trip, Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, one of Nepal’s leading guides. In May 2004, Pemba accompanied Pat Falvey and Clare O’Leary to the top of Everest, making it his fifth time on the summit. We pretty much decided there and then that we would follow this guy anywhere he was to take us with confidence!

We rose early the next morning and left for Lukla, a mountain town at an altitude of 2,800M, the starting point of our trek. Lukla has the only airport in the Khumbu region and, hence, is seen as the gateway to the Khumbu valley. It is seen by thousands of trekkers from all around the world each year, in the peak trekking seasons i.e. pre- and post-monsoon. The air is noticeably thinner and fresher with a hint of burning yak dung, which is rather like the smell of burning turf. The silence is broken only by the ringing of yak bells, the sound of excited trekkers heading into the unknown, and the occasional plane landing at the nearby airport. From this point on we would see no motorised vehicles or pushbikes. The only modes of transport in this region are by foot or helicopter.We hoped that we would not have to take the latter, as normally those having to are suffering from Acute Mountain Sickness and are heading straight to Kathmandu hospital for treatment.

Following a quick re-organisation of our gear and a bite to eat we set off from Lukla. Our porter, Bim, had taken our rucksacks, leaving Gerry and me with only our small back packs to carry. Westerners are not as acclimatized as the natives, and hence would be unable to carry heavy loads at this altitude. Hence trekking would be impossible for the average trekker without the porters. Although, you do have your diehards, which are the exceptions to the rule. The fog had rolled in now, making the visibility pretty poor but we knew we were surrounded by monstrous mountains on either side. You could just feel it in the air as they breathed down our necks and the curiosity heightened with each step. Soon the sound of the Dudh Khosi, “The Milky River”, filled our silent world. It leads us to our first destination which was at Phakting, where we would eat and spent our first night in the mountains.

Our plan was to follow the same route as the Everest base camp route, and climb Kala Pathar (5545m), a mountain above Everest Base Camp, for acclimatisation. This route would take us to Namche Bazaar, Dewoche, Pheriche (4250m), Lobuche, through Gorak Shep onto Kala Pathar, approx 30 miles in all. We rose early and headed for Namche Bazaar. We had to cross the Dudh Khosi on more than one occasion, across high suspension bridges, shared by trekkers and yaks alike. We then embarked on one of the toughest uphill climbs of the trip, a two-and-a-half-hour steep ascent into Namche Bazaar. With a slow pace, and much determination, we got there in the mid-afternoon. Namche Bazaar is a beautiful, colourful village, built into a small re-entry, high up in the mountains. Where the village ends, the ground drops down into a huge valley where the valley floor is not visible. Yet when you look up Kongde (6200m), is towering above you. I have never seen anything on earth like the scale of the landscape in the Himalayas. It’s breathtaking! We spent two nights here, in a beautiful lodge for acclimatisation. On our “rest day”, which was anything but, we walked to Tame village, a 300m ascent, and back at an Olympic pace! This was 14km of constant uphill and downhill, fast walking and it was super!

We departed Namche Bazaar on day four and had no idea what we were about to come upon. About twenty minutes of uphill walking brought us around a spur opening up another vast landscape and there it was, Mount Everest, right before our eyes!! I’ll never forget the feeling of seeing Everest for the first time. I felt like laughing hysterically, but at the same time my breath was taken away, my heart began beating faster and tears came into my eyes. I had a smile on my face that nothing could have taken away and I felt like pinching myself, to make sure that I was actually there. The whole journey would have been worth it for this moment! We could also see Lhotse and Ama Dablam, which was the most impressive of them all. As we walked further into the valley I looked up every so often to look at Everest and soak it all in with that smile still stuck on my face! We passed through Tengboche, the location of the largest monastery in the Khumbu Region, with beautiful views all round. We stayed in Dewoche that night where we met a Brazilian group, also headed for Kala Pathar, and were also immersed in birthday celebrations for one of the group.

Gillian Ryan, Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, Gerry O’Connor, on the top on Kala Pathar with Mount Everest in the background

The next day we rose above the tree line, as we headed for Pheriche at 4250m, the location of the Himalayan Mountain Rescue team. They give regular talks on Acute Mountain Sickness and inform trekkers how to recognise the symptoms. The treatment of such symptoms being to descend as quickly as possible. Pheriche is located in the middle of a fjord-like valley, extremely exposed from both sides. That evening we had our first touch of snow and our first taste of very cold weather. We sat in the living-room of our lodge where the stove, situated in the centre of the room, was in full swing. We surrounded it, reading, chatting, getting to know the locals, talking to them about the area, their customs and traditions. We couldn’t have been more cosy.

Pemba along the way had been giving us a brief history of each village and telling us about Nepalese traditions, Buddhism and many other things. So by this point, we had built up a friendship with him and were becoming pretty knowledgeable. We couldn’t have hoped for a better guide!

Our next destination was Lobuche. We had planned to stay one night here and summit Kala Pathar the next day, but due to bad weather we stayed an extra night with a brief walk in between. Nuptse was right in front of us at this point, with the Khumbu Glacier in between and Lobuche Peak behind us. We were surrounded with incredible beauty every morning, noon and night.

Mount Everest, taken through the prayer flags on the saddle near Kala Pathar summit

We rose at 4:30am on the morning of our first summit day. As we tucked into our porridge we watched the sun rise, the dawning of a beautiful, clear, crisp day. We danced with joy and personally I couldn’t believe how lucky we were, especially after such a bad day the day before. We walked the length of the Khumbu glacier and did the short climb up Kala Pathar. By now we were adjacent to Mount Everest. The West ridge was right in front of us and we were looking down at the location of Everest Base camp. Since at this time of year, it is not wise to attempt Everest, the site lay bare at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall. Pumo Ri (Daughter Peak) at 7,200m towered over us to the North. As we looked up at Everest, it felt like we were looking up at Carrauntoohil! Only it was further away and we were three times the height of Carrauntoohil under its summit. We could see the Hillery Step, the South Col, the South Summit, the start of the Western Cwm, and the Khumbu Icefall right before our eyes. Pemba showed us the location of camp four, high camp, on the South Col, and showed us where Mallory’s body was found by the Hilary Step. He told us some of his stories from previous expeditions, and pointed the locations out as he spoke. These are the places we all read about, and here we were looking at them! Following our first summit photographs, we headed back for Lobuche, ate lunch, and then to Dingboche at 4250M for the night. From here we could see Island Peak, our ultimate goal! We were very tired that night, following a 17km walk, with a good pull to the summit in the middle, and we slept well.

Island Peak, as we look up the Imje Valley

Following another acclimatisation day at Dingboche, we headed for Chukhung, the last village before Island Peak base camp. It was a beautiful walk, quite flat, and like a cushion underfoot. And all the while we could see Island Peak. We had been joined the previous night by Clive Roberts, our Western guide, who had been delayed in London, and through word of mouth, found our location. Now there were four of us, Pemba, Clive, Gerry O’Connor and me. Once we reached Chukhung, we took on Chunkhung Ri. This is a peak just above the village and was our second Himalayan summit in preparation for Island peak. We took it slowly, and reached 5465m, our highest yet. We felt good and we were now ready to head for Island Peak at 6,186m.

The walk to base camp was beautiful. We had Lhotse’s spectacular South Face to our left and we could now see the North ridge of Ama Dablam behind us. The land became very dry and desert-like and a deafening silence set in, as the gushing river became a tiny trickling stream and then disappeared. We arrived at the base of Island Peak, and set up base camp. I studied the map to see what lay ahead while the others napped or carried gear up to high camp for the next day. The next morning we headed for high camp, which was only a 2 hour walk up the mountain. High camp was at 5,900m and we set up the tents in a very high wind but managed all the same, thanks to our porters Bim, Lopsang and Sonam and of course Pemba. We ate a good meal and headed to bed around 6:30pm, in preparation for our 3:00am start.

The wind died down and despite the excitement I slept like a baby. All of a sudden, it was 2:45am summit day and time to get up. We had slept in all our gear both for warmth and so as not to forget anything in our sleepy state in the early hours of the morning. Hence we sat up dressed, had some warm cereal and we were ready to go! It was cold and dark but the excitement was high!! We could see the shine of other head-lamps up ahead of others setting off. We followed Pemba closely as we scrambled up towards the snow line. Lopsang carried our plastic boots and crampons up for us, so we could conserve our energy. I felt truly spoilt! As we donned our plastics, the sun rose to the East. We had a short plod across a snowfield where we saw beautiful glacial features. We then set eyes on the head wall that we had heard so much about. We walked to the foot of it, clipped into the fixed rope and up we went using our jumars and ice axes. It was fantastic! If I was ever in doubt that I had calf muscles, today it was confirmed, as they were the burning sensation at the lower end of the backs of my legs!! At the top of the 200m head wall the track turned to the right up a ridge, with fixed ropes all the way. There was one final steep pull and we were there, the summit of Island Peak. The view was spectacular. We could see Everest, the Lhotse face right next to us, Nuptse, Makalu, Ama Dablam and many other beautiful mountains all around! We were now at 6,186m. We took our summit shots and spent a few minutes admiring the panoramic view. Then we turned and headed down, as we could see other groups approaching. All the previous walking and acclimatisation had been for this few special moments atop Island Peak. It was mind-blowing!

Summit shot on Island Peak, with the North ridge of Ama Dablam on the left of the shot.

We headed for high camp, then base camp and from there back to Chukhung. I was very tired at this point, as was Gerry, so I had a power bar and got a new lease of life which lasted until Chukhung where Pemba had beds awaiting us! We slept well that night and had a sleep-in the following morning.

On the way back towards Lukla we took a slightly different route and went to Khumjung for a look. It is the largest village in the Khumbu valley, home to the Khunde hospital and the largest secondary school in the region, both of which were set up by Sir Edmund Hillary. We had a tour of the Khunde hospital and were told about the amazing work they do in a clinic, with just two rooms, and very limited facilities. They deal mainly with pregnant women and AMS patients, and they serve the entire Khumbu region. For more serious cases, the patients are air-lifted to Kathmandu.

We carried on to Namche Bazaar from there and stayed in Monjo, just outside the Sagarmatha National Park. Then to the final destination, Lukla. We relaxed here and had a little celebration following our triumph. We drank local beer and had a “Sing off” with our new Nepalese friends, two of whom were also on top of Everest with Pat, Clare and Pemba in May. We went song for song as we blasted out some Irish tunes, and they some Nepali classics. A thoroughly enjoyable night was had, and it was a great way to end our time in the mountains.

Our flight from Lukla was on the 25th of October. I found it very sad leaving the mountains and this tranquil life we had led for the previous twenty days. I knew that from this point, it would be back to the land of cars, rushing, and pollution of every kind. I think that’s called reality!

We spent two nights and one full day around Kathmandu, which was nice. But my mind was still in the mountains. It wasn’t just a trek, but an experience of being immersed in the Nepalese culture, learning about the Sherpa people, seeing what a beautiful, simple life they lead, with few, if any, material possessions. And they were so happy and so kind to each other, with not a penny to their names. It would really make you wonder who’s better off! It was the experience of a lifetime and if it’s one thing you do before your days are up, go to the Khumbu valley, Nepal. You won’t regret it!