After Thame Valley, Gokyo, Everest Base Camp and Kala Patthar only one big goal remained in our trek and that was the 6,189 m / 20,305 ft-high Island Peak or as it is locally known - Imja Tse. We spent a night in the relative comfort and low altitude of Dingboche and on the next day headed up the Imja Valley - the fourth major valley in the Everest area and the last we hadn't seen so far.
Thame Valley was remote and secluded, Gokyo was picture-perfect and in Khumbu Valley I saw, well, Everest from up close. So I was wondering what new sensations Imja Valley would bring. And the new sensations revealed themselves as soon as we started from Dingboche in the morning! Imja Valley starts flat and wide as the towering Ama Dablam dominates the views to the south. From the village you can see the huge south face of Lhotse blocking the valley from the north-east but because of the scale one cannot really appreciate its true size. Island Peak stands right next to it but from this angle it looks more like a pimple and is not impressive at all. But that quickly changes as you get higher up in the valley. The mountains suddenly close in and you start to see the true scale of this place.
We started from Dingboche on a beautiful morning with blue skies rutted by high cirrus clouds which as if came out from the top of Island Peak on the horizon. There is a type of shrub that grows in the area called sea-buckthorn whose red color contrasted perfectly with the white and blue up in the sky. Locals gather the fruit of the shrub and make a very refreshing bitter drink from it. Following the Imja Khola (river) the trail goes through alpine meadows and in a couple of hours reaches Chukhung – a small village in the middle of the valley. By this stage of the trek the pace of our group could officially be classified as “slow” as we took our time to enjoy the scenery and were never really in a rush. We stopped for lunch at Chukhung which was also the last place we could buy chocolates and other supplies before Island Peak base camp. The Lhotse glacier terminates nearby and the trail follows its lateral moraine as it becomes more and more rugged and steep.
Ama Dablam stayed behind as Island Peak started to grow bigger and bigger. It truly looked like an island of ice at the end of the Imja Valley surrounded by glaciers from all sides and dwarfed by the nearby Lhotse (standing almost 2.5 km taller) and Baruntse-Kali Himal massif (standing 1 km taller). We arrived at the base camp in the late afternoon and briskly settled in the three tents that would be our home for the next few days. Besides the tents for us our trekking company maintained a kitchen tent, a dining tent, a cook and a climbing guide during the entire season. That, combined with a few layers of warm clothes, made our stay at the camp really comfortable.
The base camp
We had a day set aside to prepare for the summit. The base camp itself it tucked between the southern slopes of Island Peak and the lateral moraine of the Imja glacier. The camp is relatively big, I could easily count between 50 and 100 tents scattered along something that looked like a shallow ravine on the side of the glacier. The Imja glacier itself looks almost surreal as it melts and morphs into the large Imja Tsho (lake) – both their surfaces shining in silver-grey. The rocks nearby are rich in mica. As they erode and the glacial ice grinds them into dust little flakes of that glittering mineral get blown by the constant winds in the area and literally cover everything, thus creating a landscape as if from another planet.
Many trekking companies keep their tents along with support staff and a small stash of climbing gear during the entire season. At any given time there may be present roughly 100 climbers hoping to climb Island Peak. With all the guides, sherpas and porters the camp looks like a small colorful village. But the only permanent buildings in the area are the few toilets lined along the long stretch of the camp. At nearly 5,100 m / 16,700 ft altitude the Island Peak base camp is pretty high and therefore the weather in the area can get pretty chilly at times. I was told that the constant wind I saw during our stay actually never stops ;-) But during the day when the sun is bright, it feels pretty cosy to sip a hot drink and have a pleasant conversation in the dining tent.
After a late breakfast we went through what everyone seemed to call “climbing clinic”. Lakhpa (our climbing guide) fixed a length of rope on the steep slope above the camp and we took turns to practice moving up and down on it as we would do during the last part of the Island Peak climb on the next day. I already had experience in these activities but still it was fun.
We had an early dinner and turned in shortly after sunset. We had only a few hours of sleep ahead of us as the plan was to rise at midnight and start the climb at 1am the same night.
As planned we woke up at midnight and after a quick “breakfast” we set off at 1am. Our sherpas burned juniper incense as a form of blessing before the climb. At first the trail goes eastward until it exits the camp and then turns north to start the long climb on the lower rocky slopes of Island Peak. “Switchbacks and scrambling up some rocky passages” is probably the most accurate short description of this first part of the climb. The trail is well-beaten and should be easy to follow during the day but we were climbing during the night in complete darkness and I was glad Lakhpa was there to show us the way. Only the fittest four members of the group had decided to go for the summit at this point so with a steady pace we reached the so-called Crampon Point within three hours.
At 5,800 m / 19,000 ft Crampon Point is where the upper glaciated part of Island Peak starts. We spent almost an hour donning harnesses, changing boots, putting gaiters and crampons on and roping up. So it was almost dawn when we finally started up on the icy cap of Island Peak. With head lights still on we navigated the labyrinth of crevasses in the glacier above us and after half an hour we were on the flat ice field below the summit. The sun came up and chased away the morning chill as we approached the base of the ice wall that separated us from the summit ridge.
The ice wall looks like a wall from a distance but it not really vertical. It is steep enough to require the use of ropes though so the guides from all camps get together and maintain at least a couple of fixed lines to help the climbers go up and down safely. We clipped our ascenders (jumars) on one of the fixed ropes and started up. Pull yourself up on the ascender, move your ice axe up with the other hand, kick one crampon in the ice, kick the other one in after, then repeat a few hundred times! We were approaching 6,000 m / 20,000 ft and the lack of oxygen was quite apparent with this vigorous physical exercise. The wall is actually not that long. Once on the ridge I sat on the ice to catch my breath and contemplated a bit on the scale of my surroundings. The south face of Lhotse (out of sight during the climb) was now looming full size over me. I had just broken my personal altitude record passing the 6,000 m frontier, yet Lhotse stood 2.5 km higher than I was as if mocking any attempt to give this climb any significance ;-)
The summit was just 60 m / 200 ft further up on the ridge but it took me more than ten minutes and a lot of stops until I finally made it to the top and sat on the ice for a well-deserved rest. The actual summit has a very small flat area where only a handful of people can stand at the same time as the slopes quickly become steep in all directions. The northern slope is particularly steep and creates the sense of constant exposure that gives climbing its thrill. Anything dropped from the summit down that slope would find itself within seconds on the surface of the huge Lhotse glacier more than a kilometer below where I stood! Looking north-east I could see the pyramid-shaped summit of Makalu (the 5th-highest mountain on the planet) showing up behind the less formidable Num Ri and Baruntse-Kali Himal massif. Looking back west Ama Dablam was still standing tall but now it looked more like a small part of an endless chain of jagged mountains rather than a standalone giant. I was so excited that for some time I even forgot to take pictures and started shooting only when it was time to go back.
My descent was very quick. Not that I tumbled down the slope but I had some previous experience manipulating ropes and using the figure eight descender. At the bottom of the wall I unclipped from the fixed line and sat there to wait for the others. But that wait turned longer than expected because of a traffic jam that happened right after I came down. Some climbers started moving up on the ropes that my team-mates used to descend literally jamming their descenders as they tensed the ropes. The altitude, the exhaustion and probably some of the food I had eaten the night before had conspired against me all morning and finally they got to me. Suddenly I was weak and dizzy and felt the urge to descend further as quickly as possible. As the others came one by one we roped up again to cross the crevasses and after a short while we were drinking hot tea at Crampon Point which our good porters had carried for us. That restored my strength and after a short rest to change back into our regular boots we were prancing down the rocky trail to the base camp.
We reached the base camp around noon and had plenty of time to descend further down the valley but the plan was to relax that afternoon and stay at the camp for one more (third) night.
Down to Pangboche
I woke up in the morning and noticed that the inside of our tent with Nevena was covered with our frozen breath that came down like snow upon touching the fabric. My lens-cleaning liquid had turned into a chunk of ice in its container. This had been the coldest night of our stay so far but after fifteen days of rough trekking and spending much of it above 5,000 m I didn’t really care anymore.
We packed our luggage, bid our farewells to our climbing guide and our cook who were staying behind at and retraced our steps from three days ago back to Dingboche. We stopped at the same lodge we had stayed before but only for a quick lunch and after some rest we continued down alongside the Imja Khola to the point where we joined the Khumbu Valey and the Everest trail. The lower we descended the busier the trail became and we started to see more villages. We passed Tsuro and Somare and shortly after that entered Pangboche – one of the bigger villages in Solu Khumbu.
The village has a supposedly interesting old monastery but we had come a long way from Island Peak base camp and we also arrived pretty late to we chose to stay in the lodge and recover from the climb. That evening we even got a sip of raksi – local rice brandy usually served mixed with a lot of water!
Pictures from this part of the trek can be found in the Imja Valley and Island Peak album.