The following is my piece about climbing Island Peak (Imja Tse
) in Adventure
magazine. Originally published 11 November 2013.
Island Peak is a sky-scraping Himalayan peak that rises over 6000m (over 20,000ft), a benchmark
height, and the peak is a relatively
easy Himalayan climb. Adventure is calling from Nepal. Will you summit a Himalayan peak, too?
Roped together on a sliver of ice, the crevasses on either
side of the team could swallow a herd of yaks. On the eastern horizon a shard
of light is signaling dawn, but we still wear headlamps, causing eerie shadows
to flicker in the caverns beneath the peaks surrounding us. There’s no turning
back on this adventure that has surpassed all expectations.
According to the Nepal Tourism Board, 326 of the country’s
peaks are open for mountaineering. But apprentice climbers and enthusiastic
adventurers not prepared for the highest peaks have options too. The Nepal
Mountaineering Association (NMA) designates 33 mountains as Trekking Peaks.
With summits ranging in height between 5,700m to 6,600m, these peaks are
relatively low for the Himalaya and still higher than most mountains on the
Confusingly, the name Trekking Peaks in no way implies that
they are for casual trekkers. Some have had only a few ascents and are true
mountaineering feats requiring sufficient experience, skill and technical kit. The
‘trekking’ part of the name is because they are near trekking routes and
therefore easy to access. However, while some of these mountains can be
summited in a just a few days from Nepal’s popular trekking destinations,
others are off the beaten path and take up to two weeks. Still, Trekking Peaks
entail less climbing than expeditions to higher peaks, fewer logistics and they
are much more affordable. The climbing usually involves some technical skills
(most guiding companies give basic training) and some technical equipment (at
least crampons and ice axes). Rules stipulate that a seasoned guide certified
by the NMA must accompany all climbers on Trekking Peaks. I’ve come to climb
Island Peak which, at 6,189m, is the most popular of all of these mountains.
With frosty abysses meters away and a stream of climbers
traversing through them, I wonder if Mother Nature is ever tempted to take a
sacrificial offering to appease the mountain gods above. One by one we hop over
a slit where the glacier opens up, a half-meter fissure of gloom resembling a
grim smile from below. We make our way up to a massive snowfield at 5,800m,
just below a 60-degree ice headwall the length of a football pitch. I think
back to the decision to make this climb, which came over a cup of chiyaa
(sweet milk tea spiced with
cardamom) a world away at Endra Rai’s cozy office in Thamel, globetrotter
ghetto of Kathmandu.
Endra is one of the most affable people in Nepal, quite a
feat in a land of legendary hospitality. His friendliness and easy humor belie
an enormous physical strength, skill and knowledge from years of experience. He
is the first person of his ethnicity, the unique Rai people, an indigenous clan
in Nepal prominent in the Gurkha regiments, to have climbed Everest. Endra is
an expedition planner in Nepal, and he is even better known for his rafting
Endra and I have known each other for a few years and often
go out for a traditional Rai-Limbu drink called tongba
, named after the large wooden vessel it comes in and
traditionally drunk through a bamboo straw. Our favorite establishment
specializes in tongba
and cheap fare
of finger chips, momo
(battered and deep-fried
vegetables). The place gets packed elbow to elbow in the cold season, when tongba
consumption reaches its zenith.
During these evenings the conversation often drifts to our dream of researching
the Tongba Trail
, a journey we’ve
invented in eastern Nepal, land of Rais and Limbus, who created the
incomparable beverage and maintain distinctive traditions and spiritual
practices. This time, however, Endra had a different question for me.
“Lyons-jee, why don’t you climb Island Peak with us?”
I signed on straight away. At 43 I’m neither growing younger
nor likely to be in better shape. Endra would take care of the red tape,
allowing me to do the rest.
Summiting the number one peak in Nepal is especially
tantalizing as it puts climbers over 6,000m – a benchmark height greater than
the tallest mountains in Europe, Africa, Australia and Antarctica, four of the
seven continents. You can also do it on the same trip as an expedition to
Everest Base Camp. In 2012, Island Peak (also called Imja Tse
) received 6,010 climbers out of a total of 12,759 for all
of the Trekking Peaks that year. It’s an appetizer for anyone on their way to
attempt Everest, or a side dish for trekkers in the alpine nirvana of the
Most people tackling Island Peak fly into the mountain
airport at Lukla. An ardent trekker, I preferred to hike in, so made the
day-long scenic drive from Kathmandu to Jiri to begin walking. This route
traces the steps of expeditions that long ago passed through the same emerald
lowlands en route to the Khumbu, contouring fertile landscape before reaching
the barren highlands filled with snowy masterpieces beloved by climbers.
I was fortunate to meet a like-minded Canadian, Gordon, who
was also travelling at a fast and furious pace. He had camped solo around the
rural Rolwaling area, a gem rarely visited by trekkers, and was in great shape.
We made it to Namche in four days rather than the usual week to 10 days,
walking dawn to dusk, and the rapid timetable agreed with my Bohemian budget.
Namche Bazaar, gateway village to the Khumbu, is in a
magnificent natural arena surrounded by peaks to the south, east and west. I
set off to the majestic Imja River valley, east of the Everest Base Camp route.
The view is staggering. Island Peak stands alone among a sea of peaks. You can
see Lhotse and Makalu, the world’s fourth and fifth highest mountains, plus the
jaw-dropping massif of Baruntse and perhaps the most elegant of all Expedition
Peaks, Ama Dablam (6,856m). Nicknamed the Matterhorn
of the Himalaya
, Ama Dablam translates to ‘mother’s jewel box
’. The western aspect of the mountain resembles a
mother with outstretched arms and a hanging glacier is her dablam
, a pendant commonly worn by Sherpa women. But she can be a
life taker. In 2010 a helicopter crashed on a rescue mission on the north face
killing both pilots, and an avalanche in 2006 took six climbers. Island Peak
can also demand the price of a life, but does so rarely. “Island Peak is
challenging but acclimatization is easier and rescue, if needed, is
straightforward given the landscape and elevation,” says Endra.
I join the climbing team in Chukung (4,734m), an
otherworldly trekking outpost in the windswept highlands with perhaps the most
magnificent mountain scenery on the planet. The impossibly close views of the
face of Nuptse-Lhotse steal the show. The crew includes two local Sherpa guides
based there for the season, along with cooks and logistics personnel. Sherpa,
known as the Tigers of the Snow
their aptitude at high elevations, are the local guardians of the Himalaya.
They have become the most trusted climbing partners in mountains that they
consider divine. Most Sherpa guides are born and raised in the highlands of the
Khumbu, and are therefore naturally acclimatized and fit for strenuous
activities in the lofty region. Our lead guide, 26-year-old Tsering, is
literally in his backyard. “I’ve climbed Island Peak 40 times.
Twenty-three-year-old Tashi, who hails from Thame, hometown
of climbing legend Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, and a Swiss couple complete the team.
They have been in Chukung for three days, taking a mini-mountaineering school.
The next day we set off for Island Peak base camp. Before we
leave I’m given a short introduction to the jumar, a climbing device used with
a fixed rope and rent a pair of climbing boots and warmer gloves at a local
shop. Endra’s team supplies us with ice axes, crampons, harnesses and helmets.
My own warm clothing includes the new Sherpa brand that I’m honored to wear in
the Sherpa homeland of the Khumbu. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. From Chukhung
it is a pleasant 2.5-hour hike to base camp which, at 5,100m, lies along the
lateral moraine of Imja Tsho
glacial lake. We eat a meal of noodles with a packet of cookies for dessert and
are advised to take an early rest in personal tents. We’ll be leaving at 1am
for the summit.
Sleep never comes easy at altitude, and after a few hours of
restless slumber, loud Eastern European voices break the silence. They’re up at
midnight, noisily preparing for an ascent. We are soon to follow and begin the
long haul in a single-file line of headlamps, many more dotting the mountainside.
We all carry our own packs with water, snacks and warm
clothing and keep a steady pace. Our smaller group passes larger groups moving
at the pace of their slowest member. Just before 4am we reach the snowline, don
our crampons, helmets and harnesses and rope into each other. I change to the
warmer gloves at this point. Before long the skyline glows as the light of
daybreak hits the tallest peaks. But I’m soon distracted by giant crevasses
that we make an ‘S’ turn through. Endra had told me how the route changes
seasonally due to shifting snow and ice and changing climate.
The altitude finally catches up with me at a 60-degree
headwall of ice. I’m paying for the quicker-than usual journey to Island Peak
from the lowlands. I can’t gulp in enough oxygen no matter how rapidly I
breathe, and it slows me down dramatically.
At the top of the grind, using a fixed line and jumar, we
meet a wind-whipped ridge with ant-like procession of climbers going up and
down it. This perilous edge gives me a thrill that I haven’t experienced in
years of outdoor activities. Perhaps less dangerous than it looks, hard ice at
6,100m with precipitous drops makes the safety line seem a bit rickety. We follow
the short fixed-line up and reach the small knob of a summit battered by gusts
and jammed with fellow climbers who don’t seem inclined to share the space (and
there isn’t much to give).
The sunrise has drenched the sky in color and painted the
mountains rosy. We savor the panorama, including Lhotse, the third highest peak
in the world (which hides Everest from view), Makalu and Cho Oyu, the fifth and
sixth highest peaks, and even Shishapangma far away in Tibet, which at 8,046m
is the world’s 14th highest peak. After taking a few photos and enjoying the
feeling of accomplishment for a few minutes, we head back down the ridge.
We meet groups still on the way up at the fixed lines of the
headwall and have to use a different set of lines to abseil to the glaciated
plateau. Retracing our steps, the brighter light of day gives a startling view
of the crevasses that we had skirted on the way up, pre-dawn. After removing
our technical gear, we meet people who have given up on a summit attempt and
are descending the rugged trail with us.
After nearly nine hours of slogging we’re back at base camp
and enjoy a short break before continuing to Chukung. The evening celebrations
include a hot meal and a glass of locally brewed moonshine called roxy
, followed by a well-deserved, early
The next day we all say goodbye. The Swiss couple head to
Lukla for a flight out, the Sherpa and crew stay put for a return to Island
Peak with incoming climbers, and I’m off to Everest Base Camp.
Would I ever do another peak? The group’s mixed feelings
were summed up by Shanti Giri, a Nepali actor and producer who summited Island
Peak in the spring of 2013 as a potential stepping stone to Everest, when she
said, “Right now, I don’t want to decide about climbing again. I will have to
think about it!”
Trekking Peaks give you a genuine taste of mountaineering
highs and hardships in the world’s topmost stage. They serve as a
straightforward Himalayan introduction for bigger things, or as an adventurous
addition for travelers wanting to spice up trekking in Nepal. An attempt on a
Trekking Peak, towering above the lush scenery and timeless culture of the
Himalaya, can be a lifetime highlight.
Want to do this, too?
Here’s how you can…
There are not many direct flights from abroad to Kathmandu,
but various airlines make the journey with just one change. From Kathmandu most
people fly to Lukla to begin the trek. If you have time, or don’t fancy the
hair-raising landing in Lukla, walking from the road head at Jiri (a day’s
drive from Kathmandu) is excellent alternative. It will take a minimum of five
A trip to climb Island Peak will typically take a minimum of
two weeks (not including international travel), depending on route choice and
how many side trips you make. Accommodation is a combination of lodges on the
walk in and camping at base camp. Acclimatization is key for a safe trip.
Island Peak is a tough climb, graded alpine PD+. Climbing it
requires the use of crampons and an ice axe, and a jumar and abseil device.
Some companies require that you have previous experience using these; others
provide training. Either way you should be fit, have previous experience with
trekking at altitude (experience of walking on crampons will be beneficial),
and be acclimatized.
The best time to climb Island Peak is post monsoon, so from
late September to November, when the weather is clearest and most reliable.
Pre-monsoon, from March to May, offers another window of comparatively good
Most trekking companies will provide tents and technical
gear such as ice axes, crampons, harnesses and helmets. I hired anything extra
I needed, like climbing boots and warmer gloves, locally. Check what a guiding
company provides before you leave.
Bring clothes that are easy to put on and take off. Hiking
Nepal’s steep terrain can cause a swift build-up of body heat, especially
carrying a loaded pack on a sun-drenched hill. In high altitude areas, the
temperature will drop rapidly when the sun has set or is behind clouds or
mountains, and more so if your clothes are wet and cold from sweat. It is
important to be able remove or add items to adjust quickly to the conditions.
You can pick up a lot of trekking clothing and gear in the Thamel area of
Kathmandu. Be sure to check its quality, especially the seams. Some vendors
even have leftover top-quality gear from expeditions.
Bring sun cream and sunglasses that absorb UV light – at
high altitude the sun’s rays can be
especially harsh. Walking poles can help ease the load and impact on the knees.
Also pack a headlamp and flashlight (for Kathmandu’s regular scheduled
blackouts as well as while camping); earplugs (and spare pairs as they are
easily lost) and a duffel bag if you plan to hire a porter (brightly colored makes
it easier to recognize). A supply of duct tape can serve as a temporary fix for
various situations. Wind it around a flashlight handle or water bottle to store
it until needed.
There are more and more places along popular routes to
re-charge gadgets so bring an adapter – a worldwide adaptor capable of
connecting to multiple socket types is best, as socket types vary.
Nepal’s trails are steep and every addition to your load
counts! Review your gear list and pare down items beforehand.
Traditional dishes include daal-bhat tarakari
, a heaping plate of rice with lentil soup and
curried vegetables; shyakpa
bowl of handmade noodles with potatoes and other seasonal vegetables which is a
Sherpa favourite; and tsampa
buckwheat or barley flour mixed with hot water or butter tea. And potatoes in
many variations. Typical drinks include chiyaa
a sweet milk tea, and solja
, which is
salt-butter tea and an acquired taste. Fermented spirits include chyang
(not distilled) and roxy
You can arrange an adventure through the Himalayan travel specialists www.neohorizontravels.com
(affiliated with the author or ask him directly for information and to recommend a talented peak-climbing Himalayan outfitter -- his email address is email@example.com).
6 Top Tips For Trekking
1 Scan a
copy of your passport and itinerary into your email account and make hard
copies of your passport, itinerary and important documents and leave them with
friends or family back home. Keep a set for yourself too.
credit card companies know that you will be in Nepal and bring their customer
service phone numbers.
at altitude will be cold, particularly at night. A water bottle filled with hot
water and wrapped in clothing is a good source of heat to keep in your sleeping
several handkerchiefs or bandannas. A bandanna can be useful as a makeshift
facemask in windy, dusty areas and during vehicle travel, and to dry cups,
plates and hands.
trekkers carry reading and writing materials, and hotels along the popular
routes often have paperbacks to sell or trade. A pack of cards or miniature
versions of board games can be a good way to pass time and get to know fellow
6 Do not
trek alone. Attacks are rare, but when they do happen it is usually against
lone trekkers. If you are single, check online for partners (try www.nepaltripadvisor.com
) or please contact the author directly at firstname.lastname@example.org -- he can suggest Himalayan specialists and talented outfitters for a top Himalayan adventure including Island Peak (Imja Tse
) and the following peaks, too, and beyond:
5 More Trekking Peaks in Nepal
Already did Island Peak, or fancy a different one? Here are
five more Trekking Peaks to choose from, ranging from not-too-tricky to
With nearly 3,000 climbers in 2012, Mera Peak is Nepal’s
second most popular Trekking Peak and one of the tallest. The remote route to
its base camp, northeast of Lukla, traverses astonishing territory rarely
visited by tourists. From the top, you’ll have an exhilarating panorama of lots
of Nepal’s major peaks, including four nearby 8,000ers – Everest, Lhotse,
Makalu and Cho Oyu – and one in the distance, Kangchenjunga. Most agencies
ascend Mera Central rather than the true summit of Mera North. The climb
involves ice axe and crampons and a fixed rope and jumar for the last 30m or
so. The recommended acclimatization period is 12 days from Lukla. Other routes
on Mera are more demanding and require extensive mountaineering skills.
Lobuche (also spelt Lobuje) East is one of the most exciting
and technical Trekking Peaks in the Everest region and, like Island Peak, can
be climbed as a side trip from the Everest Base Camp route. The mountain is
about 14km southwest of Everest and towers above the Khumbu Glacier and the
settlement of Lobuche. It consists of two peaks – Lobuche East and a false
summit called Lobuche Far East. Lobuche East, the Trekking Peak, is usually
gained by the south ridge and saw 1,200 climbers in 2012. Lobuche West is an
Expedition Peak connected by a ridge that is nearly two kilometers long.
This impressive summit is a coveted peak in the remote
Rolwaling region of Nepal. The route to the mountain is tough, passing through
isolated territory that sees few travelers other than those seeking an
exhilarating back trail into the Khumbu, and negotiating the Tashi Labsta pass,
one of the most challenging passes in the Himalaya. Pharchamo is often combined
with the nearby peak Ramdung (5,925m) and both are more challenging than most
other Trekking Peaks.
In the Annapurna region of Nepal, Chula East is one of the
highest Trekking Peaks. It’s often combined with a nearby summit known as Chulu
Far East at 6,060m (they share the same base camp) and these peaks, and Pisang
Peak, can be done in just a few days from the iconic Annapurna Circuit Trek.
From the top, enjoy views of the Annapurna Massif, Gangapurna, Dhaulagiri,
Manaslu and more. The Annapurna Circuit has a well-deserved reputation for its
fascinating cultural and scenic highlights along the way.
Also known as Ganja La Chuli, Naya Kanga is in Langtang
National Park, famous for its natural landscape and mountain scenery yet much
nearer Kathmandu than other trekking regions, allowing relatively easy access
to its peaks. From Kyanjin Gompa, the uppermost settlement on the Langtang
Valley Trek, the route ascends through yak pastures and timberland to high
camp. The climb is straightforward, with steep sections that require ropes.
Many people combine Naya Kanga with nearby Yala (5,732m), another Trekking
Peak. Also try traversing the thrilling Ganja La high pass (5,106m) out of the
Langtang Valley and into the serene Helambu region for a trek through
picturesque villages of the Yolmo people and their unique Buddhist culture.