Just so you know, this will not be a ‘triumph of the human spirit’ kind of post. This is really just a description of me getting my a** kicked. (For those of you just tuning in, I’m a rock climber not a mountaineer, and I’m finding out there is a very big difference.)
Island Peak is, in Himalayan terms, not very big. A mere 20,341 feet. Just a hill really. Or so I’ve been told.
This is where I’ll do my acclimatization for Ama Dablam which is almost 22,474 feet. A couple of nights up high at Island and I’ll be ready to punch it right up Ama. Or so I’ve been told.
The ropes just got fixed–anchored up the last several hundred feet–to the summit tonight. We will be one of the first parties up tomorrow, getting a head start before we end up at the back of a line of 50 people with their crampons on upside-down.
I keep asking about snow conditions (as in, avalanches) because the Indian Cyclone just left nine feet of snow here in three days. I don’t care about this summit enough to risk suffocating in an icy grave. But let’s try not to think of that too much while laying here at Base Camp attempting to sleep.
At 1:30 a.m., when the alarm goes off, I am relieved the wait is over because I haven’t slept at all. Not one second. My stomach is churning and I can’t imagine eating anything right now. It is completely dark. Headlamps. Frozen breath. Heavy boots. Rope. Crampons. Ice Axe. A water bottle full of boiled snow. Game time. Go.
I’m not too worried about this mountain because of all the stories of it being a “hike.” Not worried that is, until we get to the first few steps and I see that it’s a 50-degree slope of ice and snow straight up with no break in sight. I naively thought there would be some kind of “warm up.” At this point in my story the mountaineers all laugh, “Silly rock climber!” they say, “These are mountains!” No warm belay stances or tightly spaced bolts to clip up here. This is about suffering.
So in the dark tunnel of my headlamp I trudge, spiraling in nausea that seems magnified by this lack of visibility. Breathing is hard, not because I’m winded, just because there is no air. About three hours into this thing, scrambling un-roped along rocky ledges coated with ice, the inability to breathe begins to mix with the nausea and empty cramping stomach and tilts me towards a physical and mental collapse. An anxiety sandwich.
This is not fun. This is not pretty. But this is my job (I love it right?). And I know I’ll be pissed if I turn around here, no matter what the excuse. So I start to break the climb down into 30-foot pieces. Just 30 more feet. And then 30 more. And then 30 more. Somehow I decide that the nausea will go away when the sun comes up. Just make it to sunrise. The sun will save me.
And so, eventually, as the sky slowly lights up in blues and pinks illuminating the massive hanging glaciers and the back side of Ama Dablam, I am able to think further than 30 feet. Finally! I can use my camera! Perfect light. Absolutely perfect.
At the crampon point we rope up and gear up to start climbing steeper and deeper snow that winds through huge crevasses to the summit wall. My partner Panuru is casual. He has done this a million times and is still confused about why I could only go 30 feet at a time. He could run up this thing backwards in tennis shoes in an avalanche. That’s the Sherpa way.
Below the summit we walk through an avalanche field left here yesterday–unsettling but also reassuring since it can’t slide again. Ahead of us a few people are learning how to use ascenders on the route (mechanical devices for ascending on a rope). This is not a place to learn as you go, or maybe it is. Climbing is big business in the Khumbu. When it’s our turn we make quick progress. The sun is up and the reflective, nearly vertical wall is baking any skin we have showing, even at 7:30 in the morning. Seven rope lengths later we are standing on the summit, and the suffering was worth it. I’ve never been over 20,000 feet. Nothing I’ve ever seen compares. Pastel rainbows and icicles 100 feet long dripping from hanging seracs, Bob Ross brush strokes in every direction.
On the summit ridge behind us, an old-school Sherpa I had previously met at Everest Base Camp saunters up wearing a flannel and a swami belt, looking like he just walked around the block. A reminder that what I did was really “no big whoop”, but I celebrate nonetheless and make a few photos for you (yes you!).
The celebration can’t last too long because the summit is small, the sun is harsh, and the walk down is often as hard as the walk up. I won’t tell you about it because it’s mostly complaining about crumpling legs and slush slides and ice slips. It is what the kids like to hashtag as #BRUTAL in their social media posts. Also: #SufferFest2013, #ImGettingOld, #WeSufferForYou, and #JimmyChinWouldntComplain.
By the end of the day, between the ups and the downs, we logged 10,000 feet in a day. It hurt. Real bad. But it was awesome.
Photographer Aaron Huey recently returned from an assignment for National Geographic in the Himalaya. Over the coming days we’ll be reporting on his adventures as he discovers the joys and pains of high altitude photography while surrounded by snow and ice. You can see all of Aaron’s Notes From the Road here. You can also follow his journey on Instagram (@argonautphoto).