The first phase of our climb comprised a trek towards Everest Base Camp (5364m), followed by a summit of Kalapatthar (5545m), which the entire team managed. The second phase was Island Peak proper (6189m).
Island Peak was intended to be a manageable peak for us to gain mountaineering experience – the peak is not technically difficult, and the altitude is well within what we could achieve. But, as would soon be obvious, the unusually harsh weather conditions meant that our summit push would last an arduous 22 hours, with many other expeditions happening during that period failing. Our guide, Tulsi, who had summitted Island Peak over 20 times at that point, noted at the end of our journey that this was his hardest ever Island Peak climb. Our story unfolds below.
Our Journey to Island Peak
We returned to Chukkung (4710m) after Kalapatthar, where we rented the necessary mountaineering gear for the next part of our journey towards Island Peak (6189m), before tucking into dinner and a good night’s rest. The second phase of our climb began the next day with a trek from Chukkung to Island Peak Base Camp (5090m). As we had already been acclimatized after summitting Kalapatthar, the walk was easy and we could appreciate the scenery, with Ama Dablam as a prominent landmark along the trek.
It was snowing lightly when we reached base camp (5090m). This didn’t bode well for us, as the fresh layer of snow meant that our summit attempt would be more difficult and unsafe. Later, the porters and cooks prepared a hot meal of sandwiches and refreshing drinks which they served to us personally in our tents.
The second day at base camp, the snowfall continued unabated and with far greater intensity. After clearing the snow around our tent, we refreshed our technical mountaineering skills on a slope just behind our base camp, focusing on fixed line ascent, abseiling, lowering systems and roping up as a team. The thick layer of snow meant that we were not able to proceed to high camp (5600m). This exacerbated our concerns about the summit attempt’s difficulty or that it might be infeasible. With nothing we could do, we spent the afternoon protected from the heavy snow in our tents playing cards and chatting.
We woke up on the third day hoping for clear weather, only to find our base camp was blanketed in snow so thick that even the dining tent measuring almost 3m tall was mostly buried underneath. We had to dig the tents out and had a good laugh wondering how the cooks and porters who slept in the dining tent managed to get out in the first place. However, we soon realized that other mountaineers in the vicinity were less fortunate as some of their tents had completely collapsed overnight.
That morning, we went on an acclimatization hike to high camp (5600m). The thick snow made walking incredibly strenuous so we took turns breaking a trail. Many of us wished that we had brought more water. Despite the snow, the atmosphere was scorching hot and that made the hike extremely uncomfortable and tiring. Some of us got from severe headaches due to the heat.
During the trek, one of our teammates developed snow blindness and had to be escorted by our guide back to base camp.
Another needed help due to the severe heat and turned around.
The rest of us continued upwards and eventually reached high camp (5600m). Thankfully, the snow began to let up at this point. However, the guides determined that setting up tents at high camp for the later summit push would be exceedingly risky due to the thick snow layer and unpredictable weather.
Left without the option for a high camp (5600m), we headed back to base camp (5090m), exhausted but nevertheless grateful for hot lemon tea the cooks prepared.
That same afternoon, we came to a collective decision with our guides that we would make our only summit push at midnight, as it was our one and only chance owing to the previous delays. We rested and prepared ourselves mentally for the hard push that was to come that night. We knew that the odds were against us for three reasons. First, our push to the summit (6189m) would be a direct one from base camp (5090m), right after we had just completed a strenuous hike. Summit pushes for Island Peak typically started from high camp (5600m) and a direct climb from base camp would be somewhat out of the norm. Second, mountaineers would typically encounter snow only at a ridge aptly called crampon point (5700m). Unfortunately, we had waist-deep snow right outside our base camp and therefore had to start off trudging through thick snow at the outset. Third, we were told that three other expeditions (one French, one Italian, and another I cannot remember) happening the day before were unsuccessful for the reasons above. These made our prospects highly uncertain, but even so, we were determined to give it a shot.
We woke up a few hours later at 1130pm and had a meal before setting off in the dark with headlamps. The Milky Way and countless other stars twinkled in the vastness above us, making a magnificent sight as if to provide hope and support for our journey. We pushed up the same route we took earlier to high camp, with the guides and some of us taking turns to break a trail through the thick snow. We had a bit of fun arguing among ourselves who was to be the first to walk ahead after the guides, as we all knew whoever was at the back would exert least effort given that the trail would have been broken for them.
As the exhaustion grew, however, we became silent and all we heard in the darkness were the sounds of our deep panting, and our boots and ice axes chucking ice and snow. We knew that the journey was going to be hard, and it was indeed. Many of us had not recovered from the hike up to high camp that took place hours earlier in the afternoon. Nonetheless, the team made it to high camp (5600m) once again. We stopped for a breather, before heading on to crampon point (5700m). Along the way, Nicholas and I (Alvin) heard that the rest of the team had decided to turn around at high camp.
Slippery Slopes and Crevasses Beyond High Camp (5600m)
It was going to be a 5-hour journey given the snow conditions, and hearing this ETA from the guides sank our spirits somewhat. After a few hours of scrambling, we found ourselves on an exposed face of the mountain with dawn beginning to break, making a truly spectacular sight with the mountain slowly being bathed in orange light. The terrain made it hard going, as we had to climb a steep rock face covered in ice and a thin layer of snow that our boots were not able to grip on.
Pushing ahead through difficult rock faces, we climbed up a particularly steep portion and finally reached crampon point. At this point, we put on our gear, before roping up as a team.
Past crampon point the terrain was completely white, covered in thick snow from the earlier snowfall. Walking was difficult.
We reached a crevasse, which we crossed by ladder and with fixed rope uneventfully.
As the sun rose, it became unbearably hot. Our water was quickly running out and even what water we had to drink was still frozen from the earlier climb and too cold to drink. We were extremely thirsty, and the sloping white mushrooms of snow before us posed a challenge. Thankfully, the landscape opened up to a welcoming plateau, at which point we had a clear view of the summit. We also saw the steep but final headwall that we would have to climb to reach the summit.
At this point, both Nicholas and I, and even our guides, were exhausted.
The Final Push Up Island Peak (6189m)
We arrived at the headwall after a short rest. Looking up at it, the 200m vertical ascent looked extremely daunting. Nicholas remarked that the headwall and vertical ascent came as a surprise to him as he expected us to traverse in a gradual, zig-zag sort of trail upwards. As we clipped on the jumars, we didn’t have very positive thoughts running through our mind – only the exhaustion and the awareness that the slope was covered in loose, slushy snow. Nicholas went first – he took one step up and immediately slipped.
The 2 hours moving up the headwall was undoubtedly the toughest part of the summit push for us. The snow had covered the rocks making up the headwall, making each step a guess until the surface snow was kicked off. On many occasions, we took one step up and slipped two steps down. The sun was unbearably hot, the headwall providing almost no grip, and we had run out of water. The ice axes were almost useless as the snow was too soft to act as an anchor. The slope steepened as we got closer toward the summit, but the views were priceless and we knew that each step brought us closer to overcoming this challenge.
This was also the first time we saw the guides looking exhausted. They stopped to rest, looking visibly tired. Some of us felt like giving up, but were spurred on by the summit just visible ahead. Finally, we conquered that terrible headwall and reached the summit ridge. The last 10 meters on that ridge to the summit was nothing short of a celebratory walk up compared to the jumaring we had just done.
Narbin and Astani reached the summit first, followed shortly by myself (Alvin).
Thankfully, Nicholas and Tulsi arrived minutes later as well.
We took a photo with MIR’s banner and spent some moments to savour our success and the views.
The Long and Arduous Descent
Having taken in our triumph, we set off on our descent. Going down would soon prove to be a nightmare. We had been climbing for 12 hours straight, only taking a few 5min breaks along the way. Tulsi shared that had the conditions been normal, we would have been back at base camp by now. Our bottles were nearly empty and we only brought snacks for the climb. Although we knew the summit push would take longer due to the conditions, we did not expect that it would take that long. To make things worse, it began snowing heavily after we descended the headwall. Sticky snow began accumulating on our boots, making each step heavier than it already was. At one point, my knee buckled and I (Alvin) fell down the slope. I was lucky that the area did not have any crevasses.
We were so exhausted that when we looked at each other, we were completely expressionless – no one could make the effort to say anything. Our fatigue began to affect our footing and balance as evident by the number of times we fell on the descent. Each time, we did not have the energy to get back up ourselves and had to rely on each other’s support to do so.
A Close Encounter
When we reached the ladder crossing, we knew we had to be careful given our physical state. I (Alvin) clipped a fixed rope anchored in the slope above the crevasse into my belay device, and started belaying down and across the ladder. Despite my caution, I hooked one crampon on the other and, having lost my balance, fell off the ladder into the crevasse. Adrenaline took over at this point and I became instantly alert. The fixed rope had caught my fall, but was gradually slipping despite my hard grip as it was slippery and slightly smaller than my belay device. Tulsi was positioned at the top of the slope above the crevasse and shouted for me, noticing that I had disappeared from sight. Fortunately, I managed to dig my crampons to the ice wall behind me in a mild state of panic and managed to climb my way out. It was a stark reminder of the risk involved and that most accidents in mountaineering happens on the way down.
It took us a long time to get back to base camp. When we reached a flat section approaching our base camp, Nicholas and I were relieved and started chatting again. We realized that uncannily, both of us had similar experiences of feeling like the entire journey down was like a dream, and that we were not confident whether what was happening at that moment was real. We finally arrived at base camp moments later and gulped down what food and water was available, having climbed for 18 hours with only snacks and 2L of water each.
The Journey Was Not Over
We thought our journey for the day was over. Then came the bombshell – our guides told us that we had to walk back to Chukkung that same day as we had ran out of supplies at base camp. We were devastated – we would have to complete what was supposed to be a full day’s journey from base camp to Chukkung, immediately after we had just finished a summit push that started directly from base camp. That felt almost like a sort of punishment for making the summit attempt.
We headed off for Chukkung after a short meal. As night feel, we found ourselves walking in the darkness once again. Mental fatigue quickly set in as daylight disappeared and I (Alvin) was no longer able to discern whether what I was sensing, or even the summit push, was real. Everything felt like a dream. As a test of reality, I tried jumping to see if I would fly (as I often fly in my dreams). By virtue of the jump not being exaggerated or me taking off in flight, I deduced that what was happening was still real.
We arrived at Chukkung at 2200hrs. In total, our climb from base camp (5000m) to the summit (6189m) and subsequent journey back to Chukkung took 22 hours. Our teammates, Geraldine, Jia Xuan, Bingxuan and Brenda greeted us warmly. They remarked that we looked starkly thinner than the day before – perhaps due to dehydration, or perhaps due to the amount of exertion our bodies have been through in a day. To us, that day marked the end of ascension and our trip was over for most purposes.
Island Peak was supposed to a relatively “easy” peak, and neither Nicholas nor myself envisioned that it would turn out to be such an eventful climb. It sent home the message that we should never underestimate any mountain we climb, and that we should always be prepared for the unexpected.
On the way down, Nicholas looked up at Ama Dablam, with its ridges of snow and hanging glaciers. He noted that to climb that mountain must be many times more difficult than what we had went through, and that it stood there, like a challenge waiting. Perhaps we will climb that mountain one day.
Written by: Nicholas Leong and Alvin Chan Peng Siang
The 2014 May Island Peak Expedition comprised members from:
Alvin Chan Peng Siang
Teo Jia Xuan