Breathless, with a biting wind nipping at our exposed faces and huge booming avalanches crashing down the mountains around us, we reach the 6,189m summit of Island Peak – the pinnacle of our 22-day adventure.
Our trip took us on a hair-raising flight from Nepal’s colourful capital, Kathmandu, through the glacial Khumbu Valley via Everest Base Camp, to the top of one of the highest trekking peaks in the Himalaya.
The term ‘trekking peak’ classifies it as suitable for experienced trekkers with no previous climbing experience. The Island Peak trip, run by the Kathmandu-based trekking company is a combination of cultural experiences and mountaineering adventure.
We arrive at the perfect time. Kathmandu is bustling and lively with Diwali celebrations and local people have crafted colourful mandalas made from food and flowers on the streets of the city. Our cultural tour includes visits to Buddhist temples (Stupa) and the cremation shrines under the shrewd gaze of the cheeky wild monkeys looking for an opportunity to steal a tasty treat. Watching families mourn their lost ones, who lay in plain view atop the pyres, feels deeply uncomfortable. Younger members of the grieving family are tasked with making a trench in the brown river, silted up with ashes from the thousands of funerals past, to allow their loved-ones’ ashes to float freely away.
We meet our mountain guides in the evening at our basic but clean hotel in Kathmandu. They kit us each out with a down sleeping bag, fleece liner and down jacket as well as harness, ice axe, crampons and ascenders for the summit attempt on island Peak.
Early the next morning we catch a flight to Lukla, which is not for the faint hearted. In 2010 Lukla was rated as the most dangerous airport in the world in a programme entitled Most Extreme Airports. If the weather is rough the 12-seater aircraft is buffeted around like a toy in the sky. With the flight cabin curtains pulled back we have a ‘pilot’s eye’ view as the 524m long runway, perched on the mountainside, comes into view. Fellow passengers exchange nervous looks as the pilot demists the window with his shirt sleeve but all is well and brakes are successfully applied before the looming cliff wall comes to meet us.
Over the next nine days we gradually gain height as we trek along the Khumbu valley through traditional Sherpa villages and forests of rhododendrons, sharing the high narrow bridges that span the foaming glacial river with yak caravans.
With no roads to this region, everything must be carried in either by porter or yak – even that full-size snooker table that we discovered in the village of Namche. Yaks are important to the local community not just for transporting supplies, for milk and cheese but also for heating. Patties of yak dung bake in the sun on the walls of houses during the day and are then popped in the common room burners when the temperature plummets in the evening. Weirdly – it doesn’t smell – or maybe you just get used to it.
The dusty trail weaves around huge boulders engraved by Buddhist monks and ornate monasteries adorned with golden prayer wheels, that we spin for good luck. We reach Everest Base Camp to see a football match between the porters in full swing – they don’t notice the lack of oxygen like us.
There is only 186m in height gain between Everest Base Camp (5364m) and the nearby peak of Kalapathar (5550m) but this seems significantly more when we set off at 3am, breathless and slightly dizzy, to catch the sunrise over Mount Everest.
We leave the throng of base camp charity walkers to head to Island Peak. Standing at 6,189m, Imja Tse was re-named Island peak by British mountaineer Eric Shipton in 1953, as it resembles an island in a sea of ice when viewed from the village of Dingboche.
Up until Island Peak Base Camp we stay in the relative luxury of tea houses. Now we wake to a morning call from the rotund, stripy Himalayan Snowcock. Our toilet is a makeshift curtain around some rocks and in the evening the temperature drops to -15 in our little two-man tents. We don’t stay up late.
The following day is dedicated to a climbing clinic where our guides teach everyone how to use the crampons, axes and ascenders, how to self-arrest in the event of a fall and basic rope management. We practice until everything becomes second nature.
At 1am the following morning, after a small blessing ceremony by our guides, we set off from base camp – a procession of headtorches pricking the dark and moving slowly up the steep scree. At around 5600m the trail becomes more of a scramble and at 6:30am we reach ‘Crampon Point’ where the glacier joins the top of the rocks. All harnessed and roped up we set off across the glacier, skirting the yawning crevasses to reach an ice headwall.
The ice wall is steep and over 100m in height. With an addled brain from not enough oxygen you can see how mistakes could be made here but the drills from our training day help us safely negotiate the ascender changeover point to the second fixed rope on the ice wall.
Breathing hard we finally reach the narrow summit ridge where our lead guide secures us to a faded and ominously fluffy fixed rope. A cold wind buffets us on the summit ridge, whipping up little eddies of snow to sting our exposed faces. Head down, we plod on. We summit at 10:30am and look across to some of the world’s highest mountains that I had only ever read about in the mountaineering classics – Lhotse, Nuptse, Baruntse, Ama Dablam, Makalu.
Only our little group of four, together with our amazing Sherpa guides, made it to the summit that day. We watch avalanches rumble down the mountain slopes across the valley and see the glacier far below – dirty brown on the edges but bright blue in the crevasses that cut across it. We feel on top of the world.
The descent and following few days trek back to Lukla seem to fly by in the euphoria of having achieved what we set out to do. But the trip was much more than just bagging the summit. Walking through this incredibly beautiful landscape, exploring the culture and heritage of the Sherpa people and finding an in-built determination, even when it felt too hard.
When to go
Nepalese trekking company, Mountain Monarch has been guiding trekkers around the Himalaya for more than 16 years.
Dates: from March to May, October to December
Grade: Strenuous plus
Cost: $2650 for the trek, flights to Katmandu are around £400