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! 

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