Our first task was get to Chukhung, a nice easy 3 hour stroll up a gradual hill that was a bit bouldery but otherwise easy enough. With the summit looming large ahead of us the entire way we began wondering what we had let ourselves in for.
We arrived at lunchtime and found the Teahouse we were to meet our guide at. We ate while sat next to a group of people who were on a climbing trip around a few of the more accessible peaks in the area and had just returned from Island Peak. Only 2 of the 4 had been successful in their summit attempts which didn’t help our morale much!
We chatted to them for a while and waited for our guide to appear, but with no sign of them arriving we asked if anyone knew what was going on and were told to wait and someone would appear. We didn’t know at this point if we were staying the night there, so pretty much just hung around in the restaurant chatting, reading and playing cards for a few hours. By the time it was dark there was still no guide so we booked into a room under the promise someone would be arriving in the morning. Still tired from our earlier exploits, we ate some Dal Baht and had an early night.
The following morning we still had no guide so bought some WiFi credit in order to get in touch with the company we had booked it all through in Kathmandu. They informed us the guide had changed but the new one would definitely be there soon. A little while after breakfast it turned out to be true and a man named Nima was introduced to us. If I’m honest, we were pretty nervous about the whole thing by this point and the first impression wasn’t ideal, so we were getting a bit stressed.
We were renting kit from there and despite prior warning they were worried about my shoe size. We had been promised it would be fine, so this was a bit irritating. After a while someone who appeared to have gone round the local villages looking for the biggest boots he could find arrived with a few pairs that were near enough to fitting.
It was windy, very windy, so we delayed our departure until late enough that some people we had met in Indonesia and had been a couple of days ahead of us the whole time in Nepal had come down past us. They had made it to the summit and sounded really good, which lifted out spirits a lot. About an hour later Nima said we were off, so nervous but excited, we started walking to base camp.
The walk was pleasant with nice views and wasn’t too difficult, but was very windy. We were walking up a valley and the wind was getting funnelled through it, making it seem even worse. After 3 hours we arrived at base camp, but there was a lot of swearing going on. The swearing was from Nima and was related to the fact that 90% of the tents at base camp were no longer standing. It was so windy all day that the poles had snapped on most of them and they were no longer useable, including the big mess tent that was meant to be the kitchen.
15 minutes later, we started walking back to Chukhung. Base camp wasn’t useable, so we had no other option than to walk the 3 hours back again, this time with the wind right in our faces. This was very morale sapping and meant we wouldn’t have the night at higher altitude as planned. On the plus side, it was warmer and more comfortable sleeping at Chukhung in a real bed.
We were meant to go for an acclimatisation walk on this day, but we weren’t at base camp so this wasn’t an option. Instead, we rested up well in the hope that we’d be able to start the climb that night as planned. The wind had completely stopped by now, and a team of people had gone up to rebuild base camp. This meant another slow and lazy morning sitting around in Chukhung waiting for the go ahead from Nima.
After lunch, we set off again, hoping that this time all would be well on our arrival. We walked along the ridge, crossed through the valley and along the dustbowl before the path became rocky and we arrived at base camp, this time half an hour faster than the day before. Now the tents were up and there was a hive of activity around the kitchen tent. We dumped our stuff in our little dome tent and had a 90 minute training course to make sure we were ready for the technical bits near the summit. It was all simple enough, so with the sun going down and our kit now sorted out we headed to the kitchen for dinner and a chat with the others going for the summit the following day.
After that, it was time for an early bed and as much sleep as we could manage in the tent ready for our 1am start.
Sleeping was tough, we were both in -20°C sleeping bags with our thermals, down jackets, hats, gloves and anything else we had on us all being worn but we were still both shivering. Having to tuck anything electric or liquid in our sleeping bags to prevent them freezing didn’t help either, but we managed a bit of rest at least.
A knock on the tent woke us up at 1am and after grabbing our bags (we were basically already dressed) we went for a light breakfast of toast and porridge. Then it was time to start, so off we went along the rocky path to the start of the uphill. It was very cold and the sky was completely clear with bright stars and a full moon which made it light enough that we didn’t even need our torches. It was beautiful seeing the purple colour of the mountains and the sheer quantity of stars in the sky, but sadly no chance of a photo with the lack of light.
The first section was steep up, walkable but hard work at that altitude so early in the morning. After a couple of hours of this, we made it to High Camp, where you can spend the night to make the ascent shorter. Generally this is a bad idea though as its hard to sleep and most who do it don’t make the summit. There are no supplies of food or water there and it’s even higher and colder than base camp, so isn’t very appealing.
After high camp it became a bit more of a scramble and we had to start using our hands a bit. There were some pretty steep drops which it was probably a good thing we couldn’t fully comprehend in the semi-dark as we struggled along & across the occasionally loose rocks. This was on and off for another couple of hours, with lots of short rests to catch our breath without getting too cold. The air was getting thinner and thinner and it was becoming harder all the time just to get enough oxygen in to keep us going. Eventually, after about 5 hours of walking, we made it to the start of the ice and put on our climbing gear.
With crampons and harnesses now on and enough light from the rising sun to see clearly we stepped onto the ice, leaving our regular boots behind (which Claire was convinced would be stolen) to save weight, and worked our way – very slowly as each step by this point was hard work – around a small crevasse, along an ice bridge, up a ladder (which was actually 3 metal ladders tied together to make 1 longer ladder) and onto the plateau that would take us to the final climb.
It was fun walking along the ice with plenty of grip thanks to the crampons. It was clearly a well used route that was well maintained by the sherpas, with plenty of evidence of where they had changed from previous routes as the ice shifted over time. The ladder was by far the hardest part – trying to climb up steep steps when you’re exhausted and have metal spikes on the soles of your feet was surprisingly challenging!
The plateau we had reached was around 400m long and the walk across it took us about half an hour as the air by this point, at roughly 6000m above sea level, was very thin (just 40% of the oxygen available at sea level). That brought us to the start of the final ascent to the summit, before which we needed a rest in the sun which had finally risen and was providing some beautiful and much appreciated warmth.
After 10 minutes or so and a couple of snacks, we dumped our bags, clipped onto the ropes with our ascenders and starting going up. We had thought the rest had been hard, but this was another level. It was pretty similar to being on an icy step machine, but when you’re already exhausted and having to take a breath after every single step. After an hour of this, we were only halfway. We’re both pretty stubborn, and there was no way we were getting that close and not making it so we kept going – step, breathe, step, breathe, step, breathe, step, a few breaths & repeat.
The route became a bit harder towards the top as some of the rock started poking through and crampons don’t grip as well when there isn’t any ice, which combined with the ever increasing exhaustion only made it harder with every step. Nima was with us the whole way and even had to bail out one of the other guides as he was coming down with his client (who had shot up very early on) and was now struggling to get himself back down. Sadly, Nima showed not a single sign of tiredness and was bouncing around all over the place, which was both comforting and frustrating as I could hardly breathe! The guy had climbed pretty well everything in Nepal though, including Everest from each side, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.
After 2 hours, we made it to the ridge line, from where there was a 20m gentle walk (with sheer drops off both sides) to the summit, where we clipped on, sat down and drank in the absolutely astonishing views while slowly realising we had actually made it.
We spent 20 minutes, just the 3 of us, at the summit. We had victory chocolate bars, took a load of photos and even had time for a small dance at the top (Nima’s speciality apparently!). We watched as the next group came up behind us and just as we started to leave they made it to the ridge. This resulted in a little shuffling of people as there isn’t much space up there. Once we’d navigated round them, we abseiled our way down to the plateau in much less time than it took to get up – but even that was incredibly tiring.
From there we went back the way we came, but this time could appreciate the views the whole way back. It really was stunning and we could see why it’s called Island Peak, with glaciers the whole way around the base. Every step was easier thanks to going down & having more oxygen in the air, though we were still tired. Claire decided to make it more challenging at one point by accidentally kicking her bag down a particularly steep bit of mountain. Fortunately, Nima & I were below and able to catch it! 4 hours after we left the summit, we made it back to base camp, had a quick bowl of noodle soup and crashed in our tent.
The following morning, my toe was feeling a bit odd – it turned out a few days later that I had managed to pick up a bit of mild frostbite, but at that point I just got on with it as there wasn’t really any other choice. With the mountain complete, it was time to get out of the mountains and back to civilisation for showers, food that isn’t Dahl Baht and all the comforts that Kathmandu had to offer.
The first day was all the way to Tengboche, via Chukhung to pick up the rest of our kit that we had left behind. It was the 4th and final time we had to do that walk but this time we could really appreciate the beauty of the views all around us.
Our next stop was Dingboche, to pay for the climbing kit rental and pick up Claire’s broken walking pole which we needed to carry back out to dispose of. We also grabbed lunch here before carrying on down past all the little villages we had passed on the way, moving very much faster on the down than we had done on the way up. We arrived in Tengboche just before dark and selected a tea house based on where the yaks we had been following were spending the night.
The next day was much the same – whizzing back down the path we had struggled up 2 weeks before, overtaking the slower moving groups and generally rushing to Namche where we knew we could find the glories of a hot shower, beer and cake. As we went we took in all the views for the last time and chuckled about how ridiculously hard it had been to go up the hills that were now so easy to get down.
When we arrived in Namche, we found some accommodation and had the best showers ever. The shower was crap, but the fact there was flowing hot water felt like a minor miracle. The monks praying away & chanting in the next room also gave the whole experience a very bizarre feel but we both felt a million times better afterwards.
Next stop was cake. We’d been looking forward to the massive slabs of chocolate cake for ages and they did not disappoint. Nor did the the beer in the world’s highest Irish bar, a place full of happy people on their way down after (mostly) successful expeditions.
Our final day in the mountains, this was hard work. Loads of ups as well as down, lots of kilometres to cover and some very tired bodies. After what felt like forever, we made it to Lukla and just had the challenge of booking a flight remaining.
This was made more challenging by the power cut which meant there was no way to withdraw cash or to pay by card. I had no intention of hanging around any longer than absolutely necessary in Lukla and fortunately one of the teahouses had a generator which they allowed the airline to plug their card machine into so that we could buy our flights for the following morning. Dinner and beer saw the night off, now all we had to do was hope our plane actually went as intended.
Obviously, the plane did not leave on time. The entirely arbitrary time of 9am that was supposedly the departure time came and went and we still weren’t even allowed to check in. After an eternity of being sat in what must be the world’s coldest building we were allowed out onto the runway to board the plane that we had watched arrive and leave again at least 5 times as we hopefully watched our bags but were left disappointed when a different batch were loaded on instead.
Then, at long long long last we took off and bumped our way over all the thermals and turbulent air all the way back to Kathmandu. After managing to retrieve our bags from the world’s most inefficient system, we hopped in a taxi and returned to the hotel, and had about 3 showers each before putting on clean clothes for the first time in weeks.
We barely moved for the next few days, bar my trips to the doctor to have my frostbite checked out and when we needed food. That combined with a little shopping was all we could really manage.
To get home we flew to Delhi, had an argument with a taxi driver who tried but failed to scam us, spent the night, went back to the Airport and discovered that flying Upper class thanks to our air miles is an extremely pleasant experience!
Island Peak was incredible. Tough, really tough – much more than I expected – but totally worthwhile. After that we were done though and the walk back was a bizarre blend of tedious, exciting, exhausting and energising. We were glad to be heading home for a bit for some rest and Christmas with our families.