Climbing a 6000-meter mountain may be an easy task for people like the hardy Sherpas, but for regular guys like you, me, and the writer of this piece, it is a monumental challenge!
The highest point I had even been till my teenage days was Nagarkot; yes that’s the highest point almost every Nepali in the capital has been. However, things started to change when my uncle, who owns a leading travel company in Nepal, asked me one day me if I wanted to go trekking, and without a second thought I said, yes. I was so full of energy that I made it up to the Annapurna base camp like it was a walk in the park. I was proud about reaching an altitude of 4000 meters, and it was from this point, seeing the magnificent views of the gigantic peaks, that my lust for mountains grew, and I made up my mind to make tourism my career.
After my Bachelor’s degree, I started working with my uncle, where I learned all the tourism industry basics and came in contact with international tour operators, mountaineers, and trekkers. I also got chances to hop in treks with the groups, and seeing all the badass mountaineers and trekkers, my interest in tourism further intensified. I got the opportunity to travel to all the places that a regular Nepali would not even think of going, such as Everest Base Camp, Kala Patthar, Nuwakot, Samari, Sele, and a few villages in Sindhupalchok. In the hope of excelling in the future and meeting societal pressure, in 2013, I moved to Austria to pursue my Masters, and that too, in tourism.
The experience was great, seeing a new place, mountainous like Nepal, and meeting new people. I finished my Masters in May 2016 and right away I packed my bags and returned with a dream of making a career in tourism. I started working with my uncle again, and having known already that only an academic degree would not suffice and field knowledge is a must to be successful in Nepal, I again joined group tours to various trekking areas in Nepal. While on these trips, I would hear Sherpa climbers and foreign mountaineers talk about their ascents, and a few boasting about their high summit numbers.
Climbing a mountain was always a dream for me. Everest and other 8000-meter peaks would be but a dream, but I knew there were some peaks in Nepal, which even if they were not easy, were achievable with a skilled guide and basic mountaineering skills. Mera Peak and Island Peak are two very popular climbing peaks above 6000 meters that are like pre-school if you want to be a mountaineer and scale mountains above 7000 meters. Having trekked to Kala Patthar (5545 m) three times, I had always wanted to break the 6000-meter mark. I dreamt of these peaks, but at the same time was scared, too, and always used to ask Sherpa climbers in the office whether I would be able to do it. They always gave me positive replies like: “If Prachanda’s son can climb Everest, why can’t you?” which always motivated me.
And, one day, I gathered courage and decided to join an Island Peak group from the office. I was really excited and started to collect gear from my brother, who had already climbed it. The excitement continued until the night before my flight to Lukla, the gateway to Everest. It was an early morning flight, so the night passed fast and I was at the airport early, waiting for my flight. We had our annual Everest Skydive event going on at that time and were accompanied by some skydivers. I was supposed to finish the skydive operation and then carry on to meet the Island Peak group that had already started their trek from Lukla.
Normally, people who want to summit Island Peak trek up to Everest Base Camp, climb Kala Patthar to acclimatize, and then head towards Island Peak. As I was busy with the Everest Skydive group, I joined the trekkers in Chukkung, who had done likewise and descended from Everest Base Camp. Chukkung is a small settlement after Dingboche, with a few lodges, and this is the point where climbers can check their gear and hire anything additional that is required. All kinds of gear like boots, harnesses, ice axe, ascenders, descenders, and karabiners are available here on hire at very reasonable prices. We stayed at Snow Lion Lodge, which had pretty decent services for that height, and the best thing was we could store the luggage not needed for the climb there. So, the next day, taking only the necessary clothing and equipment, we trekked toward Island Peak base camp.
The walk was relatively easy, not really steep but a bit dusty, and it took us three-and-half hours to get there. We reached the base camp for lunch and then had a short briefing about our climb. The plan was that we would do a short training after lunch, have an early dinner at six, go to bed, and then wake up at 12:00 a.m. for the summit push. On asking, our guide told us that we would have a light breakfast and then go for the summit at 12:20 a.m. This way, at a normal pace we would make to the summit around 9:00-10:00 a.m. Then, as planned, we did some practice with ascenders and descenders, had an early dinner, and went to bed. It was a cold night at 5000 meters, and with the feeling of rocks under my mattress, I realized that mountain climbing was not a comfortable trip like the treks I had done in the past; it was in fact challenging and was all about surviving in difficult conditions.
I put on almost all the clothes I had, put on my beanie, doubled up my socks, and then squeezed into my sleeping bag. I tried to go to sleep, but my fear would take it away, and after some time, I woke up to my alarm on my phone. It was totally dark, with a few stars and headlamps of other climbers glowing in the shivering cold, but I had to get up, as all my team members were already up for breakfast. I went to the dining tent, where I heard that one of our teammates would not join, as she was having an upset stomach. I felt a bit bad for her, but abiding by the mountain rules, we decided to leave her there. With a few bites of toasted bread and some porridge, we were off for the longest and hardest part of our trip.
With our eyes hardly fully open, we put on our headlamps, carried our gear and packed lunch, and started to walk towards the mountain. We had to walk on our trekking points to a place called crampon point, where the ice would start and we would need our trekking boots and crampons. We moved forward slowly, climbing the big rocky hill. It was a strenuous hike, at least for me, as I had not really walked for the past few days. We were the ones ahead of everyone making the summit attempt on that day. Taking a time of six-and-half-hours, and doing a four-point climb, using both our legs and hands, we finally reached the crampon point dead exhausted and thirsty. Form this point, the real mountaineering started, as we had to put on our boots and crampons, fix a main rope to all our climbers, and climb towards the peak. We put on our gear and took a small rest to drink some water that was already frozen.
With all extremely excited, we started our main-rope walking, which was led by our climbing guide. The main-rope walking was all about teamwork, and we did pretty well as a team. The walk on the ice was not much of a challenge until we came across a ladder, which for me was the most perilous part till then. Two ladders were fixed over a crevasse, and we had to go over them one by one. A little slip or imbalance would take you straight down the crevasse. I was third on count on the main rope, so I had my full attention on how my two team members before me descended. Similarly, I also got down the ladder, which was like a confidence booster for me. We carried on main-roping, and in about twenty minutes of walking, we reached the point where we had to use our ascenders to climb 250 meters straight up and then we would be on the summit.
We had already walked eight hours, all uphill, by this time. As there were a few people before us, we had some time and I just turned around to look at my team mates. One thing I realized here was that, the closer I went to the mountain, the bigger it got, and it also increased my fear and anxiety. Then, from the side, I heard one of our members talking in a soft voice to our climbing guide, saying he would not go further than this. The guide tried to motivate him by saying you have come this far and it’s only another 200 meters up and you should try it. He replied that if he would go up he would not be able to get down, as he was really exhausted. He asked us all to move ahead, which was a bit difficult for us, but we all knew that Island Peak was not going anywhere, and he could always come back for it.
Pushing My Limits
It was three of us now, and it was our turn to move ahead, using all the skills we learned the day before at the base camp. I fixed my ascender to the fixed rope and started to push myself up. Fixed ropes are ropes that are fixed from the summit to the bottom by experienced Sherpa guides, using ice screws. Everyone who comes to climb Island Peak reaches the summit using these ropes. As I was pushing myself up, I was getting much more scared. I had very less remaining in me, and after climbing like 60 meters up, I had to stop. Resting was okay, but then I made a big mistake by looking back—the height and the view of climbers far below scared the life out of me. My heart started to skip beats, my head began to spin, and I was sweating even in such cold conditions.
Little did I know that mountain climbing would be so challenging and one would have to give it a lot. I was so scared that I decided to back off, and told our guide so. He gave me some water and asked me to push up as I was already so close. Thinking about my dream, the time and effort I had put in, I told myself that I had to go up and there was no looking back. I again started to push myself up. I pulled my ascender so quickly that I moved up very fast; now, I just had to change the side and move 70 meters to the right, and the summit was there. I was struggling a bit to change my karabiners, but our guide came in and changed it. The last part of the summit is a bit risky, especially for someone who is dog-tired, and you have to walk along the top ridge. I literally crawled through the third part and managed to get to the summit. As my guide had instructed, I fixed my safety line and sat down for a while. I took out a can juice and a Mars bar, the best one I had had till now, and came back to my proper senses after about five minutes. With the 360-degree view of majestic mountains like Nuptse (7,789 m), Lhotse (8,510 m), Makalu (8,745 m), Baruntse (7,129 m), and Ama Dablam (6,812 m) before me, I felt so proud and happy that I stayed on the summit for almost twenty-five minutes.
Very excited, I took a couple of photos and decided to make my way down. During my work, I had heard many mountaineers say that, when it comes to mountain climbing, the most difficult part is the descent. So, I was still a bit nervous, but somehow managed to rappel down. The descent was quick, and in another three hours’ time, we were already at the base camp. We had a heavy lunch, and though it was getting dark and we were tired, we still decided to walk till Chukkung to celebrate the much-deserved summit. The feeling was great; we ate, and of course, drank a lot, as it was a big achievement for all of us. The overall expedition was very inspirational and motivational for me, which ultimately turned me into a much stronger person. Next, I am hoping to do a basic mountaineering course from the Nepal Mountaineering Association and go for a higher summit. The taste of mountain high has left me wanting for more. I recommend a few doses of mountain high-ness for all!