I couldn’t sleep at all. It often happened before a big ascent. I was too excited.
Only about a year earlier I was summiting my first 4000 metre peak, and learned that the only limits are the ones we set for ourselves. I decided to push them further every time. I had fallen in love with mountains. They are like a drug, one that you become addicted to easily, causing you to want more and more. There is no apparent use in putting one’s life in danger, nor in putting one’s body through the pain of going up, high above the clouds, on the icy slopes.
But here I was, in the Himalayas, the playground of mountaineers and alpinists of all sorts, sleeping at the foot of a peak higher than 6000 metres, Island Peak, which I was hoping to successfully summit in the next hours.
Summiting a 6000-metre-plus peak in the Nepal Himalayas is relatively easy for those with a good level of fitness and previous high-altitude trekking experience. You’re not allowed up the mountain without a proper permit. It’s possible to apply for an independent trekker permit if you are an experienced mountaineer, but most people are required to get a guided permit. This means you cannot climb it without being accompanied by a guide. While this makes it more expensive, it is safer. A guide will help you along the way, will arrange everything at the mountain’s base camp and shows you how to use the equipment.
I chose to hire a guide only for the peak days, and trekked to Island Peak Base Camp independently. The trek follows the Everest Base Camp trek route. I was happy to have a guide for the climb as I wouldn’t have wanted to try to find my way up in the middle of the night. Ascents begin around 12.30 am.
In the dark, I could only see the whiteness of the glacier. Billions of stars were frozen in the stillness of the kerosene sky. We put on the equipment—harness, rigid boots, and helmet—tied our ice axes and crampons to our backpacks, packed lunch and started off. It was taking me some time to get comfortable in my rented boots. Ideally, I should have had my own equipment. However, carrying it for two weeks—the time needed to reach Island Peak Base Camp and properly acclimatise—was not an option. Luckily, the equipment was included in the package I purchased, and I chose my gear in the small village before Base Camp.
Gradually, I fell into my guide’s footsteps. We seemed to be moving incredibly slowly but I could barely catch my breath. At 5000 metres the oxygen is thin, and you constantly feel thirsty for it. That is why the pace has to be even and slow. The climb was steep, and we could only see the beam of bright light cast by our headlamps, round, in front of our heavy steps. From time to time we stopped and tried to make sense of the dense darkness around us. The moon was faint so there was not much to see other than phantasmal silhouettes of huge, silent mountains.
After about three hours of mind consuming, steep ascent on rock, we reached the crampon point. This is where things get really exciting when climbing a mountain, so I was really looking forward to this. We roped up together to cross the glacier. From here, the ascent was a bit gentler. The cold was more biting though. My feet and hands were numb. Around me was a frozen world that I can barely see through the timid light of the approaching sunrise.
This section is the most exciting of climbing Island Peak, as you must climb an ice wall up about fifteen metres. I must admit that the guide almost pulled me up it. Then came the infamous ladder crossing over the open mouth of the crevice. The last part is the most daunting. A 200-300 metre climb that seems vertical, even though it is at an angle of about 75°. Everything else before that seemed easy in comparison.
I could barely breathe as I was pulling myself up the fixed ropes. The air felt empty and I was constantly struggling for oxygen. However, this was why I had chosen to climb this peak. From the three most popular peaks above 6000 metres that can be climbed in the Khumbu region—Mera, Lobuche, and Island Peak—the latter is the most technical. Mera Peak is the highest, at more than 6400 metres, but it’s only a walk up. It is said that Lobuche has better views, but it is still less technical. Island Peak seemed like the best compromise between technicality and views.
I expected to be exulted when reaching the peak but, the truth is, I felt exhausted. I threw myself on the ground and breathed big gulps of empty air for minutes on end.
The rising sun started to cast its light on the white beauty around. Behind me, to the right, the intimidating Ama Dablam was rising. In front of me, the silhouette of the 8000 metre Lhotse was rising above the ‘small’ peak I had just conquered. I started to feel alive again.
It’s not possible to stay up there for long. The way back is almost as exhausting as the way up. The dehydration, altitude-induced headache and exhaustion made the return long and difficult. You can only celebrate climbing a mountain once you’ve successfully come down from it.
And I did! I came down safe and sound. Once again, I looked humbly up at these giants, covered in glaciers, who had allowed me to touch their foreheads. Most people only get to see them from below, but few of us are allowed to climb them.
This article and photos originally appeared in Issue 6 of Inside Himalayas magazine.