• November 19, 2013

Notes From the Road: #WeSufferForYou

Aaron Huey

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).

There are 38 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Manoel Lucimar
    December 4, 2013

    São grandes determinações dos Seres humanos proponhe à Explorar áreas inóspes, em Qualquer lugar da terra!

  2. Anna
    December 1, 2013

    I admire your ability and congratulate you It is awesome.

  3. Sasha
    December 1, 2013

    I admire greatly your tenacity, strength and sheer will that it must take to scale a mountain of this magnitude. However, when I look at these magnificent pictures in all their grandiose splendor I can’t help but wonder if there are some things that should not be “discovered”, but, just looked upon and admired from a distance. I believe that some things should remain mysterious and unconquered. Or maybe it is jealousy talking.

  4. mitch
    December 1, 2013

    Having done Everest Base Camp and Mera Peak in the same region, I enjoyed your article! It’s hard to get used to the lack of air, especially when trying to sleep. As another commentator said, it’s hard going up, but when you’re done, it’s on to the next challenge!

  5. FatMouse
    December 1, 2013


    Your narrative of Island Peak was magnificent. In 2007, I climbed Island Peak. I regret not taking photos the day of the climb. The last few hundred feet to the summit where you said “it’s a 50-degree slope of ice and snow straight up with no break in sight,” was not too bad going up that segment, but walking down that segment was sheer terror for me. I had zero flexibility in my ankles due to opting for the cheaper double plastic mountaineering boot. When descending from the very top, I was facing downhill. My quadracep muscles were fully engaged on that segment of the downhill. With each step, I could never extend my leg, stop or sit down, so my quads remained engaged. They were shaking and beyond the lactic acid threshold. Other climbers were coming up and going down on the same fixed line. On a few occassions, I had to unclip completely from the line in order to pass others. There were sheer descents on both sides of the path. Until reaching the small plateau below the peak, I had to keep stepping forward and downward using my legs which had already given up. Upon noticing the boots in your gear photo, I thought, “I wish I had had your boots!”

    I notice any naysayers like to refer to the experiences of others and not their own inexperiences when they attempt to invalidate your personal story. You can find a Ted Talk by Dan Ariely: “What makes us feel good about our work?” Ariely mentions that mountaineering is full of misery, yet we are motivated to care about the challenge.

    After running up the mountain ahead of our group and fixing the ropes for our ascent, our Nepali mountaineering guide was smoking a cigarette above 20,000 feet, wearing his mirrored bug-eyed sunglasses and his bright red down-puffed parka. I wish I had a photo, but the visual imagery is permanently imprinted in my memory.

    I have not been on another mountaineering trip since Island Peak. Your story and photos give me the “itch” to find a way financially and physically to explore more mountains. Congratulations & thank you for sharing your journey!

  6. KarlaM
    December 1, 2013

    Winter is Coming. (I swear that middle photo looks like the ice wall in Game of Thrones.)

  7. Jim Opdahl
    December 1, 2013

    Many of us have had very similar thoughts while climbing, but haven’t had the courage to actually admit it. Enjoyable, lighthearted, and funny read.

  8. Paul Stewart
    December 1, 2013

    Nice work! Brought back old memories, -am I really doing this again?-

  9. Philip Sedlak
    November 28, 2013

    Or what we used to say on the way up to Everest Base Camp, “I am NEVER going to do this again!” What we say on the way down, “What mountain is next?”

  10. lLeonardo Mascaró Ugarte
    November 24, 2013

    Excelente las montañas nevadas,somos insignificantes en ese lugar majestuoso,imponente,silencioso,bello pero mortal . Uno de los pocos lugares donde podemos sentirnos verdaderamente libres y únicos sobre la faz de la tierra

  11. Paul McCann
    November 24, 2013

    Wow, lots of tone deaf commenters! He’s joking, folks. Lighten up!

  12. Miguel Del Castilho
    November 23, 2013

    I envy you for the journey you went on! I hope that someday I’ll be able to do something like that! You’re an inspiration! Congratulations and keep up 🙂

  13. Bijay
    November 23, 2013

    before i work in travel company. when people share beauty of our country. it feel good there is so many thing to know…

  14. Bijay
    November 23, 2013

    before i work in travel company. when people share beauty of our country it feel good there is so many thing to know…

  15. Linda Ward Kirkendale
    November 23, 2013

    What an exhilarating, gruesome and incredible journey. I so enjoyed your writings and look forward to more. Pastel rainbows, I can picture it only because you wrote it. Awesome!

  16. Pete R.
    November 23, 2013

    “The walk down is often as hard as the walk up.”

    This is so true in most hikes and treks in the Himalayas. Although, I did not go as extreme as you but I trekked the Annapurna Base Camp alone and I can confirm that it won’t be a vacation. 🙂

    Hope to do this one day myself.

  17. Rebecca
    November 23, 2013

    That was brilliant. I have considered doing island peak before, and as a casual hiker/rock climber have never had “hiking peak” properly explained! Thank you for what you have written, both for the brutal honesty and your humour!

  18. uzair
    November 23, 2013

    its amazing

  19. C G Ramachandran
    November 22, 2013

    Great pictures followed by lovely commentary. I have been to everest base camp and always wanted to go to Ama dablam, this mountain looks so prominent in the region.

  20. mark_kedk
    November 22, 2013

    Awesome pics.Thanks for entertaining. Me,you da man.

  21. Deb
    November 21, 2013

    Congrats! Thanks for some amazing images! PS #JimmyChinWouldntComplain=best hashtag ever!!!!

  22. Maryann Rader
    November 21, 2013

    Aaron, Well done. I am enjoying the photos and the article. Congratulations.
    Maryann Rader

  23. catherine sears
    November 20, 2013

    So happy to see some positive feedback re: this incredible story/journey. I developed severe arthritis a few years ago so my once active life has been seriously curtailed until I have more surgery. Enjoy every moment of your ability and mobility while you have it and wherever you can. Thanks so much for sharing your adventures! I get to enjoy, vicariously, without the difficulties of the climb. You are a brilliant photog and a wonderful writer.Again, thanks so much for sharing!

  24. jayanth
    November 20, 2013

    Its beutiful

  25. Peter Beck
    November 20, 2013

    Alan Mairson, you stated (a lot better than I could) what has concerned me for a long time~ the Society trying to appeal to some of our young people with too much time and money on their hands. Today’s youth are a lot more involved than that. Thank you.

  26. Stephen Mc Auliffe
    November 20, 2013

    Really enjoyed the piece. Ok its a tad over dramatic and steepness is exaggerated but its good to read someone finally acknowledge the difference between rock climbing and mountaineering. I fall into the latter category (in a very modest way) and I have seen first hand how some great rock climbers really struggle with the different demands, both physical and mental, that mountaineering demands. When time and funds allow I hope to visit there myself one day.

  27. gogita1
    November 20, 2013

    It’s good

  28. Laurent Pugazhendhi
    November 19, 2013

    It’s your simplicity and greatness that you expedite on behalf of us. We just read, see and know. Thank you.

  29. AZIZ
    November 19, 2013


  30. Buster Blakeney
    November 19, 2013

    Man, you’d think the crotchety people would be the ones to get the dig on himself/millennial speak. Either way, looks like an amazing adventure. I look forward to the shots.

  31. Renee Hathaway
    November 19, 2013

    Aside from the flavor of obvious risk and pain, I found it very “real” and quite entertaining. doubt id be either at 20,000 plus! looking forward to the ‘bob ross’ pix

  32. Sanjay Parelkar
    November 19, 2013

    I had gone through similar experience while going to Kalapathar I from Gorakshep Everest Base camp!

  33. Aaron Huey
    November 19, 2013

    Chill guys. This piece is me making fun of myself.

  34. Dee Acosta
    November 19, 2013

    Way to go. Good read.

  35. Pilar
    November 19, 2013

    congratulations for your courage, but above all for your perseverance.

  36. Marcy Mendelson
    November 19, 2013

    Go Aaron! Your images are beautiful and we don’t deserve the risks you take for us. Thank you.

  37. Diana Bartlett
    November 19, 2013

    A very humbling experience

  38. Jarod
    November 19, 2013

    Oh please, #WeSufferForYou, really? Hundreds of people pay over _40 thousand dollars_ to do what you’re getting paid to do! What a bunch of vainglorious nonsense, get some perspective. Thousands of photogs would trade places with you in a heartbeat and wouldn’t post such hubris.

Add Your Comments

All fields required.