A mix of excitement, trepidation and the physical position of our tent make sleep difficult (a common theme on this trip).The tent has been pitched on a rocky incline so in order to find a comfortable sleeping position, the skills of a contortionist are required.
When the alarm rang at 1.30am, it was superfluous. We’d both been awake for hours.
During the night. I’d gone through a mix of emotions. At one point I was dreading the morning and the impending climb while at another, I was wishing for the off.
Up, baby-wiped, and clothed in every warm article that we possessed, we ventured out into the darkness to meet the rest of our team – Ang Kami Sherpa and Pemba Sherpa.
For the next while, we were entrusting our lives to these men. Ang Kami had lead us to EBC so we’d had the opportunity to get to know and trust him.
At 2.10am Armed with climbing harness, ice axe, crampons, ascenders, descenders, climbing boots and layers of clothing (20 kg backpack) – we powered up our head torches and headed off – uphill of course.
The first 2 hours of the day would entail hiking up a very steep hill of scree and rock in the pitch darkness. On the way up Ang Kami urged us to move quickly through one section as avalanches thunder through the chute regularly.
A group of three fellow climbers, were up the hill ahead of us and every time I looked up I could see their three head lights high above us, dancing along the hill like excited stars.
At 4.30am we got to the “Crampon Point” – where the scree and rock turns to snow and ice.
We change our hiking boots for our climbing boots, clip into the crampons (an under shoe of spikes) and take our ice axes in hand. In the 10 minutes that it took to change boots, my fingers and toes froze.
From here on. We will be roped together. Ang Kami ties a rope from him to Sherpa to me to Pemba.
Safety in numbers.
The theory is that if one person falls down a crevasse or a slope, he will be saved by the rope attached to the others.
I love the theory – but practicals are not required.
We trudge upwards across a magical scene of unsullied snow and ice towards the imposing head wall of Island Peak.
Before we can get the chance to test ourselves against this gnarly & twisted wall of ice, we would have to avoid crevasses and cross our very first real ladder bridge.
We reached the ladder bridge at 6.20am and it was even more frightening in real life.
Perched precariously spanning the banks of a 30m deep crevasse were 5 aluminum ladders lashed together with climbing rope. The ends of the ladders on both banks just lay embedded in the snow and barely overhung the edges.
Sherpa went first and nailed it. No time to wimp out now. As I gingerly step onto the first ladder, it groans as the rope joins tension. I briefly look through the ladder into the abyss below and decide not to do it again. Focusing on the rungs and getting the correct crampon point onto each one is helpful to blank out the potential of a fall. Balance is provided by throwing your arms back behind you to grasp two guide ropes and lean your body forward (into the crevasse).
Those with trust issues need not apply.
After the ladders, we cross a large snow filled plateau and finally come to the bottom of the ice wall. This used to be an even wall of snow and ice that could be climbed straight up 150m to the top. The impact of global warming and the earthquake in 2015 have conspired to make this impossible.
The ice wall is a series of broken and melted ice steps and overhangs. Previously, one could ascend straight up one rope to the top. Now, the route is long and dangerous.
This part of the summit attempt proves to be almost the end for us. Ang Kami climbs up freestyle (not roped) to set fixed ropes for us to follow.
On his signal, we take the ascender and ice axe in hand and start climbing – The ascender is a device with backward pointing steel teeth. Once pushed upwards along the rope, the steel teeth will not allow it to come back down the rope.
The method is – dig the crampons on the front of your boot into the ice wall, reach up and strike your axe into the ice for grip.
Now use your legs and axe arm to hoist yourself upwards pushing the ascender upwards along the rope to bank your gains.
It is a slow and tedious task but at this altitude it is lung busting. The ascent of the ice wall took place in driving snow and took us 3 hours.
These were our darkest hours.
The physical exertion was off the charts. We could take no more than 4 or 5 steps and then lie into the wall to try to recover. Every muscle was straining and the lungs were unable to process enough oxygen to fuel them.
On different occasions, we both doubted our ability to complete this one and silently hoped the other would call a halt.
To no avail.
Too stubborn to admit defeat, we both ploughed on climbing and recovering, climbing and recovering….
2 1/2 hours into the ice wall struggle, we both ended up on a narrow ridge waiting for Ang Kami to secure the next rope. I could see in Sherpas face that he was spent. He looked like I felt.
It was a seminal moment. One where a word from either of us could have brought the whole house of cards down. We avoided eye contact.
When Ang Kami gave the signal to proceed, I lead out first, planted my axe in deep and thought “one last big push and no one can ever take it from us”. Each lurch upwards hurt like hell but I took encouragement when I managed a brief look behind and saw that Sherpa was also digging in and coming on.
Then, just as I despaired, I lunged upwards and there it was, a small odd shaped plateau about the size of a snooker table. The Summit.
I hauled myself up and connected to the safety rope that was affixed atop and within minutes was joined by Sherpa and Ang Kami. It was 10.28am.
Imagine the celebrations. The whooping, the hollaring, the high fives, the hugs, the shouts of “We nailed it!”.
There was none of that!
We were both exhausted. Clipped onto safety, we lay on the summit breathing deeply and wondering how the hell we got there. We were at 20,423 feet.
The views across the Himalayas were non existent due to the heavy snow but the view into the neighboring valleys was terrifying.
We summoned up the energy to record the moment by taking a few photos but then it was time to go back down.
Going down involves using a descender or figure of 8. This device is attached to our harness and we link the rope through it and lower ourselves by feeding the rope through the device.
While training on rocks, this was ok. But now, we had to avoid sharp edges and deep pockets in the ice as we stepped down.
Having finally descended the ice wall and crossed the snowy plain, we agin negotiated the crevasse ladders and absailed down a couple of formidable ice steps.
Then I became aware of some unease among the guides.
It had been snowing all day and now visibility had closed right down. Pemba the junior guide who had been leading refused to lead any further as the waymarks and fixed ropes had been obscured by the falling snow. Ang Kami took over and inched us forward, all the time checking for obscured crevasses with his axe. It was a worrying time.
Finally, and with great relief, we found ourselves back at the crampon point. The hiking boots that we had left there earlier were almost lost in the snow.
Quickly, we changed from our mountaineering boots into hiking boots and began the task of navigating down through the rocky scree that was now covered in snow. Picking our way through was slow and deliberate. There were quite a few slips and falls on this section. Thankfully, our rucksacks took most of the hammering as we fell, however Yak came down heavily on an elbow.
At 5.30pm, shuffling silently through exhaustion, we arrived at Base Camp.
We entered our dining tent, threw down our rucksacks and pulled chairs up to the table. I threw my gloves on the table, placed my head on the gloves & within seconds, I was sleeping.
But not for long. Ang Kami reminded me that we still had a 2 hour trek to Chukkung and would need to leave soon. It was like a dagger to the heart. My energy was sapped, my back was in spasm and my hips screamed for pardon.
Immediately the team sprung into action and hot soup was produced. It was very good but we were so exhausted we just weren’t interested.
At 6.10pm Sherpa threw on his backpack and declared that we were going to smash this hike to Chukkung. We put on our torches and headed out into the cold and snow. Sherpa took the lead. Setting the pace for the guides and I. It was what I needed. Drive on so…
At 8.30pm we eventually climbed the 13 steps (yes, I counted) to the Chukkung Resort. When we entered the food room, there were seven people (all European) pulled up around the wood stove in the middle of the room.
When they turned to face us, their conversation dwindled to silent. An Austrian among them asked incredulously “Where have you come from?”. Their looks were of pity and disbelief.
We were soaked from the snow, gaunt from the exertion, shaking from the cold and haggard from 2 1/2 weeks of the Himalayas.
They invited us to join them at the fire but, as welcoming as the fire was, neither of us could handle conversation. The energy required to comprehend and construct sentences was not available to us.
We chose a table close enough to the fire so that it wasn’t freezing but far enough away that we could be on our own.
Having failed to finish a pizza we ordered to share, we got two nalgenes filled with hot water and went to our room. The resort hadn’t changed since our visit three days ago and the rooms felt colder and less welcoming than previously (if that’s possible).
We both collapsed into our sleeping bags without much conversation. In the darkness, I reflected on the achievements of the day but couldn’t keep them in focus as the coldness was in my bones. For the first two hours, I shook and shivered while hugging my Nalgene bottle.