We summitted Imja Tse (Island Peak – altitude 6,189m) on October 5th 2016 after 10 days of trekking from Lukla (2,860m) to Kalapather (5,545m – best view of Mount Everest) and Island Peak base camp (5,087m). My first experience in Himalayan trekking and peak climbing.
I managed to sleep… a little more than 3 hours, before Tenzing opened the tent at midnight with cups of coffee and porridge. Again it seemed like we took ages to get our stuff together and we headed off at 1am. It was pitch black so we followed Tenzing with our headlights past many other tents on flat ground over nearly a kilometer before moving uphill, where we could see the lights above from the 2 or 3 parties ahead of us.
The track was dusty and being last, I had no choice but to breathe some of it. Luckily the garlic soups of the last days had worked their magic and my sore throat was almost back to normal. The first 2 or 3 hours were just a zigzag which became rockier as we went. An extra challenge compared to the previous days was the gear I was carrying in the backpack – boots, crampons, harness, 3L of water, snacks, etc – meaning that it was probably 6 or 7kg. That made for a tougher walk than I expected. After this initial zigzag path we had to scramble over bigger formations and that was actually fun, then zigzag again in rocky terrain where I had a hard time keeping up with the others. It didn’t register in my mind right away, but we crossed paths with a party of two (or three?) that were retreating and I didn’t fully gather why they had turned back. No time to chat, to keep moving was the priority. After a last scramble on a narrow rock ridge we reached “crampon point”: a snow covered terrace marking the start of a plateau leading to the headwall and summit.
We arrived there at dawn, above the low clouds in the Imja valley, graced with an amazing view of pastel colored clouds high above and surrounding peaks lit by then golden sunrise light. I was slightly confused when looking towards the summit, for just behind it was the much higher top of Lhotse, towering nearly 2000m further up, much more sharp and well lit by the sun as opposed to our rounder looking summit, out of reach of direct sunlight for the moment.
Here we changed our hiking footwear for rigid, plastic mountaineering boots. I still had the presence of mind to place the Rayne action camera on the snow to film some of the scenery, then on my helmet for the exciting sections to come. Minutes before, I had taken a pill to shake off the beginning of a migraine which I knew wasn’t altitude related and which I was used to deal with, but up here I took no chances. The sun also came over the snow around us and I wore my sponsored SPF4 Helios sunglasses right away, which helped coping with the sudden brightness. We put on our harnesses and crampons and started up the crevasse area. I was very glad to have a lighter pack, felt second wind (new energy) and Tenzing let me go ahead first as he roped up with Yasir.
A path was very clear and the snow quite compact there so we stayed on it. I expected having to cross big crevasses but we only came down one ladder, placed by guides there early in the season. The ladder was solid and we clipped on an apparently secure rope as well, so it was rather exciting! After demonstrating what to do, Tenzing went first and I followed, but Yasir had frozen from fear and Tenzing went back to assist. We both encouraged and he did fine in the end, joking that this was not a place an Arab man was used to.
After this was a short, steep section and a nearly flat 200 meters till the bottom of the headwall. We were in the sun and the mountain was beautiful, the summit looking well within reach and my motivation spiked. I could see 2 people about 2/3rds up the headwall: they looked very small and moving so slowly that I couldn’t tell if they were climbing or descending. I figured this would be long. By the time we reached the bottom of the steep slope I was very tired again. We drank water from our bottles before leaving the packs there, I took off my down jacket and we started up towards the ropes at 8am.
From there Yasir went first and did really well, followed by Tenzing who was encouraging and keeping an eye on both of us but I slowed down considerably. Here the snow was collapsing under most steps so it took double the effort to make progress, until the slope became steeper. Making 3 steps in a row was exhausting and I had to stop that frequently to catch my breath. Looking up from that angle the wall looked huge and my energy was already so low that I started having doubts… A rope was fixed on the mountain already, connected to the summit ridge then to two anchor points along the slope, dividing it into three rope lengths, the first one being the longest. I figured in classic alpinism we would all be roped up to each other and climb with ice-axes, but the fixed rope allowed us to ascend with a jumar – a handle that slides up and bites onto the rope when the climber pulls on it. Tenzing was greatly encouraging both of us, shouting “climb! Climb!” at regular intervals and indeed, you can’t hear that and stay still.
After the first rope length, past the 6000m mark, clouds came in and we lost the view but it somehow made the experience even more magical. When I reached the first anchor Tenzing had sent Yasir up the next one and we could see people from the other group coming down. Tenzing moved while I waited for the one descending to abseil past me. He made a few chunks of snow and ice fall on me but nothing major. He was a big asian guy we’d met the day before and he was wearing an oxygen mask which surely helped maintaining energy levels. From there visibility was greatly reduced and Yasir was even out of sight, so I half-consciously started to push myself more, not knowing where the energy was coming from. Helped by the more compact snow and ice I managed to make bursts of 4 to 6 steps in a row before catching my breath, making these breaks as short as possible and pushing on till the summit ridge where a lifeline was placed.
Only about 20 meters were left to walk to the summit, but it was hard to see exactly how close and steep the slope was on either side – I stayed on the path, keeping low or on my knees and hands, clipped to the rope until the summit. It was white all around but we were there and that felt amazing. It was 10.30am. Yasir was standing, looking exhausted while Tenzing was busy tying us to a fixed anchor so we could walk around the few square meters of the summit safely. I shook hands and hugged both, we took photos with our flags and I filmed Yasir as he told a little message with his Saudi and German flags together. He might be the first Saudi up there and I the first Mauritian. I pulled out some buddhist prayer flags bought in Kathmandu and Tenzing seemed very happy about that. He took them, secured them somehow in the snow and said some prayers, after which he hugged us and said we should be going down.
Knowing that I was comfortable with abseiling, he sent me first and that was surely the easiest part of the day. I could see our bags at the base of the slope, looking tiny from here, then was surprised to spot small crevasses on either side of the rope that I hadn’t noticed when climbing. One of the first times I saw crampons was in the movie Seven Years in Tibet, where the hero accidentally stabs himself in the leg with them, so I was careful to keep my feet apart, which you normally do when abseiling anyway.
The last anchor marking the end of the rope came quickly and it was time to carry my own weight again, down 30 meters more to where our bags were. I started sliding down on my bum but Tenzing understandably opposed to it, we drank a few sips of water (the first since nearly 3 hours) and when I looked for a snack, Tenzing advised that we have them back at the crampon point. He wanted us to move away from the snow and clouds, back to solid rock but this is when I felt inordinately slow and my spirits dropped considerably. I had sat down when we reached the bags and allowing yourself to relax there, after all this effort but still high and cold was not a good idea. I hardly recall passing over the crevasses again but I do remember walking along with a terrible and heavy feeling of disappointment! I must have expressed it somehow because Tenzing seemed sad to see me that way and offered some comforting words, along the lines of “hey don’t say that man, you did great, not many people can do this and you made it, you can be proud of yourself”. Deep down I knew my disappointment was indeed coming from an expectation of higher strength and stamina as opposed to feeling miserable and even considering giving up on the headwall, a hundred meters away from the summit! I do expect too much and am too hard on myself sometimes, especially when doing things I highly value, but I guess at that point my energy level and lack of oxygen were depleting my already-low morale. I could barely pay attention to how Yasir was doing, while Tenzing looked completely normal and in control of the situation, thankfully so indeed. At crampon point we had so sit down to remove our crampons and mountaineering boots: best feeling in the world. Sitting down that is. We assuredly had a long way to go still, and Tenzing didn’t want to hang around too long. He took my boots into his backpack and repacked mine pronto, surely to bring me back to my feet soonest.
Only a few steps away we traversed the rock ridge to find the trail again, faint among the rocks but clear enough to follow. The trekking poles proved invaluable here as I used them like to take much of my weight as I descended, ensuring secure placement to avoid face planting should rocks slide under them. While I didn’t face-plant I did loose my balance and fell on my arse a couple of times, but kept repeating to myself “don’t hurt yourself on the way down: that’s when most accidents happen”. I’m glad I still had this lucidity and descending became easier when we reached the bigger rock formation. We scrambled on these and the trail onwards was less rocky and more secure. Having walked up in the night, we were only seeing it properly now as part as the wider slope and we were still very high above the valley where basecamp awaited. I thought climbing it by night was a blessing because it eliminated the sense of distance, turning the slope into a sort of treadmill on which only time mattered: you just had to keep going, unable to see precisely where you were on the mountain. As we came down on the other hand, we could see everything and therefore how slow we were moving. The zigzag of the trail was never ending and I was relishing the idea of collapsing into the tent for an early night, noticing that Tenzing went regularly out of sight. On the topic of sleeping Yasir surprised me with an unpleasant info that I hadn’t gathered. Up to now he had relied on me to understand our itinerary, but this time he knew we would have to push on back to Chukung the same day and I got quite pissed about that. No way, I thought, I’m not walking another three hours after this. When we finally made it down to the valley we couldn’t believe how long the last flat kilometer was, well into a kind of zombie / sleep-walking mode now and actually walking fast, tapping into an absolutely unknown source of energy to finally reach salvation. That’s how it felt.
We arrived at basecamp around 2:30pm and our turn to use the tent had passed. New climbers had arrived and we collected our stuff in a larger “dining room” tent, which was hot under a now blazing sun. Tenzing served us tea, a noodle soup and some kind of desert then joined a group of guides and porters, all looking merry and fit. I just ate and sat there, nearly falling asleep with the forehead resting on my folded arms over the table. Perhaps we stayed at basecamp an hour or a little longer, but our day wasn’t done yet: we had no other choice but to hike back to Chukung. When we left, Tenzing gave me the impression of “being done” with us, as if he would have just stood and waved if we didn’t walk over to shake his hand. Perhaps he thought we had said a rude kind of goodbye already when we gave him a tip in the dining tent? In the end it doesn’t matter, he had been an excellent guide for us and sees different tourists nearly every day, so it’s perfectly understandable that clients are only clients unless they return and create a real opportunity for friendship. Tenzing had summitted Everest once and been up to 8000m several times, before he chose to stop going so high and through dangerous glaciers for his family’s sake. You just want to bow in respect to the Sherpas working so hard at those elevations.
We left with our quiet porter Balram and hoped to cover the distance in two or two and a half hours but that didn’t happen. Yasir punched ahead of me while Balram intentionally stayed behind. Dusk slowly painted its pastel tones on the mountains and high clouds and we arrived in sight of Chukung at nightfall. Approaching the small village with headlights on we caught up with Yasir, confused about which of the windy trails lead the right way. Balram went first, we followed and soon found Arjun who was anxiously waiting just outside the village. With hearty greetings and congratulations he welcomed us back and we surely had the most satisfying dinner and sleep of the whole adventure!