Saturday, 8 December 2012

The Climb

This will be the last post about Nepal - and this justifies a few more mountain pictures! Climbing Island Peak seems like an adventure worth dedicating a whole post to because actually summiting a Himalayan peak, however relatively puny it may be to elite mountaineers (the famous "Into Thin Air" describes it as a '20298-ft subsidiary bump on the Lhotse South Face'), is likely to retain a position on my list of achievements for some time. 

Summit day started at High Camp (5450m) at 2am and finished back at Base Camp at 5000m, some 16 hours later. This doesn't seem like all that much of a big deal, but it turns out that actually being active for that amount of time at those altitudes does take a lot out of you. 

The climb up to High Camp the afternoon before was tough, but manageable. We had established our Base Camp an hour's walk down from everyone else, away from the other expeditions and the dust of the moraines. This made for a pleasant rest day-and-a-half and for a warm-up walk to get used to the full mountaineering backpacks we had to carry ourselves above Base Camp. The mountainside we had to trudge up to get to High Camp, though, was steeper than most terrain we had encountered so far, and the gravelly path switchbacked its way around boulders rather tortuously. 

However, a few hours of huffing and puffing and frequent pausing later we made it to the desolate jumble of rocks where the few Sherpa - a cook, a couple of cook boys and two climbing sherpas - who accompanied us to this point had already set up our tents. Of course, the views were beginning to get absolutely spectacular by this point - I'm starting to run out of superlatives here. 

Steve looking thoroughly bored of the scenery at High Camp

The lower reaches of Island Peak Glacier, with crampon point at its bottom; the way the slope falls away beyond gives some idea of how steep the climb up to here was.

The fun started at 2am, after a few hours of tossing and turning in a freezing tent - this was the closest Steve and I actually got to considering zipping sleeping bags together for warmth. By the fitful light of our headtorches we wolfed down some porridge and struggled into our double-plastic boots (basically ski boots) and our three layers of gloves; all other gear we had slept in for warmth, and for that matter I’d worn my big overmitts over my feet.

What followed was, in hindsight, the most grueling part of the climb, a 2.5-hour scramble up a 50-degree slope of 3-6ft boulders. At the time, my thoughts were mostly along the lines of “what on Earth am I doing here…”, which stands to reason given the extenuating factors:
  • A 10kg pack containing all the gear for later sections;
  • Pitch blackness, pierced only by our headtorches;
  • Most importantly, wearing heavy, completely rigid boots and elbow-length mitts, none of which are made for good footing/grip; 
  • The difficulty of concentrating at 5500m in the first place probably didn’t help, either.
We reached the top of the scrambling section at 5900m around 5am and were rewarded with a spectacular sunrise, which I completely failed to photograph adequately; the need to keep moving and to put on crampons in the biting cold wind that had risen, along with a complete lack of motivation to do anything more than absolutely necessary, conspired to the effect that the following is my sole photo from up there. It hints at the glorious firework of colours this stunning vista was draped in for a few minutes.

It is worth noting at this point that the wind had been so strong for the last two hours at this point that our guides and sherpas were openly debating abandoning the attempt. I could see why, given my fingers were feeling rather numb even under three layers of gloves. Fortunately, though, the wind dropped a little when we reached crampon point. It did pick up later on, but at least the sun had risen by then and made a considerable difference. 

My only photo of sunrise at crampon point. It was a hell of a lot better than this in real life :(
The second thing we saw when we reached this point was the glacier we were about to ascend to reach the summit. As glaciers tend to do, it looked small from afar; up close it looked nothing short of enormous. So, however, did the crevasses which we had to walk around – and occasionally jump across – once we’d fumbled our crampons on and roped up. Island Peak Glacier was a spectacular, undulating affair which my words, as so often, can in no way do justice, so instead I’ll let some photos do the talking. These were taken on Little Camera during our descent later in the day.

Crevasses on Island Peak Glacier, and our path between them... we had to jump the right-hand one, the spot is just about visible in the background here.
More bottom in sight!
And another, for good measure.

The walk up the glacier took us about an hour and brought us to just over 6000m, where the final hurdle awaited. Mountaineers will judge me for this horribly, but the fixed lines up the headwall and the summit ridge – the only “technical“ sections of the mountain – were the big unknown for Steve and I. A fixed rope is, as the name implies, fixed to the slope by a number of 2ft ice anchors, and climbers use devices called jumars to ascend them. A jumar clips onto the rope and slides upwards easily but bites into the rope so it can’t slide back down, thus giving the climber a moving handhold. This sounds like it makes everything rather stupidly easy, and I was certainly a bit scornful of it before trying it at altitude – but jumaring up a fixed line is actually rather hard work. It’s a very odd sensation being unable to summon the strength and energy to take a single step because the last one – 10 seconds previously – left you so out of breath. The less-than-certain footing on metal spikes lashed to the soles of ski boots biting into a 60-degree ice slope probably contributed to our slow going, too...

The glacier, headwall and summit ridge (right) as seen from the summit.

Eventually, though, I’m proud to report that Steve and I both reached the summit of Island Peak, where the persistent wind lowered temperatures to around -35*C. We spent about 20 minutes up there, soaking up the – yet again – indescribable view and taking a few obligatory summit photos before the time came to descent. We were the first team to summit on the day which meant a lovely climb up – but now other groups on their way up were clogging the ropes so there was some faff and lots of sketchy unclipping from and reclipping to the safety rope, particularly on the summit ridge. Spending even just a few seconds on an icy ridge, a few hundred feet dropping away on either side, while buffeted by 50mph winds and trying to manoeuver around another climber without either of us unclipping from the safety rope was a bit of an adrenaline rush to say the least. I did nearly lose my footing when a particularly strong gust hit, but fortunately managed to stay on the ridge. 

The 8500m Lhotse South Face from the summit. I deem being towered over by that not overly embarassing...

And an obligatory summit panorama. Island Peak derives its name from the way it's surrounded by glaciers on three sides, one of which flows past in the bottom of this picture.

Descending was straightforward compared to what we’d done so far, mostly thanks to the light of day. Actually seeing the whole of the slope we’d scrambled up in the dark earlier was a bit of a stomach-lurcher, but apart from that the descent back to Base Camp was mostly tedious, especially due to the double plastic boots we now no longer needed. At this point the desire to eat, eat some more and then crash out overwhelmed everything else. Fortunately, we were met by hot tea, copious amounts of food (mostly egg-based) and the relative comfort of a tent no more than a few degrees below zero, which we happily collapsed into around 7pm…

Next, without further ado…India! 

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Thoughts On The Trek

Since it's been a while since I last got the chance to post here, it feels like high time to write a little something about Nepal and our weeks in the mountains. It is safe to say that in the Sagarmatha National Park lie easily the most epic and mind-bogglingly huge bits of scenery I have ever encountered. The eye sweeps in one smooth motion from blue glacial rivers in narrowly incised valleys up through gnarled rhododendron and fragrant pine forests and brown-green juniper shrubs to impossibly tall and jagged peaks rising seemingly out of nowhere. Ama Dablam, Cholatse, Lobuche, Makalu, Cho Oyu - to name but a few peaks - and of course the Nuptse/Lhotse/Everest massif were our constant companions for the best part of 3 weeks. 

Our first glimpse of Ama Dablam's sublime summit pyramid
Cho Oyu's gentle-ish summit ridge - probably still tough at 8200m...
As for life in tents during the first half of our trek, which peaked in our ascent of 6189m Island Peak, the first word that comes to mind (and the second) is "cold". From Namche Bazaar (~3450m) onwards, I wore most of my clothes in my sleeping bag at night - this included lycra, thermal base layers, powershirt and, at Island Peak High Camp (5450m), even my down jacket. Everything left outside the sleeping bag would freeze solid overnight. This includes pee bottles, a less-than-savoury concept which becomes a necessity when it's too cold to leave the tent during the night but extreme hydration levels are required to cope with altitude. They are distinguished from water bottles by a band of gaffa tape to ensure we don't use the wrong bottle in the dark at night. Even solids would be covered in a dusting of frost from the condensation from our breaths. The coldest temperature we measured inside the tent - again at High Camp) was -14C. Needless to say, sleep came increasingly fitfully with altitude, and always riddled with decidedly odd dreams. These ranged from the merely bizarre to ones I will not elaborate on here - the main thing all these dreams had in common was their startling vividness. 

On the whole, Steve coped with the altitude significantly better than I did; I moved very slowly on even the slightest uphill gradients above 4000m or so, and very nearly didn't make it on one of the longest days. A mild bout of food poisoning at Deboche (~3750m) meant that I ate nothing and drank little the next day - one of our biggest hiking days. We descended from Deboche to a river at 3400m before ascending to Ama Dablam Base Camp at 4600m for an acclimatization and climbing practice day. After I started dry-heaving while crossing the river, one of our guides asked Steve to take my day bag; he had offered before but I had obviously refused - this was very much a last resort. From here onwards, my progress is best described as "crawling". I barely stayed on my feet and stopped, gasping for breath, every handful of steps. Fortunately Chris, an experienced mountain guide who has been on a number of eightthousanders, stayed with me and kept me going. He saw that I was not suffering from altitude sickness but was just weakened, which justified his decision - and mine - not to go back down, and I am grateful to him for this. I stumbled into Base Camp a good hour after everyone else and spent a good while just lying on the ground in an attempt to recover. 

It took a good many visits to the Base Camp outhouse - made particularly sketchy by previous users' poor aim and resulting frozen mess on the ground - to restore my health, but fortunately I was good to leave Base Camp for higher ground with the rest of the group. All these misadventures aside, though, Ama Dablam is a mountain of singular beauty: any serious climber wanting to try their hand at a really big mountain would do well to consider this 6856m colossus. Its flanks, ridges and moraines towering over Base Camp dwarfed all my previous concepts of size and scale, while from a distance the very same flanks give the mountain a peaceful look, almost like a mother's embrace. Indeed, it's name translates as "Mother's Necklace". 

The tents at Ama Dablam BC, coated in frost just after breakfast. The route to the summit is via the right-hand ridge. 

Maybe the trickiest thing to get used to, though, were the porters and cookboys who accompanied us. I was a little uncomfortable with the colonial overtones which came to light when these guys worked their way up the mountain in flip-flops with backbreaking loads of up to 100kg while we skipped along (well, trudged laboriously) carrying only day bags with water and cameras. The whole master-servant relationship only got worse when we got served a steaming mug of tea and a bowl of hot wash water at our tent flaps before getting breakfast in the mess tent half an hour later. While the sherpas do earn good wages for what they do, the extent to which we relied on their incredible strength, tenacity and above all humility made the whole experience very humbling. High-mountain expeditions would be all but impossible without these guys, and the number of times foolhardy - or just unlucky - mountaineers have been saved by their sherpas completely fails to be reflected in the plethora of adventure literature surrounding the Himalayas. 

Anyway - more hopefully soon on the actual climb up Island Peak, which I reckon warrants a post of its own, and then on our first days in India! Any feedback/requests for specifics/photos are more than welcome. Below a few more impressions from the trek...

Prayer Stone, Prayer Drum and mountains in the background
At the entrance to Sagarmatha National Park - a small mountain in the backrgound sets the mood for the weeks to come...
The single most incredible sunset I have ever seen, at Island Peak BC...
Same sunset, Island Peak on the right with the Lhotse South Face to its left wreathed in clouds. We would stand on top of that thing in 48 hours' time...
The classic shot from 5545m Kala Patthar: Lhotse (8516m), Everest and Nuptse (7855m) at sunset
Another one from halfway down Kala Patthar - this time including the Khumbu Glacier and the Khumbu Icefall on the left. That's the route up Everest, and the riskiest section on this side of the mountain.