Island Peak at the head of the Imja Khola Valley


Alpine Climbing In Nepal
IN A WORLD BLESSED with numerous mountain ranges of infinite variety, it is the Himalava which epitomises the mountaineer's image of the ultimate. The abode of the gods contains a wealth of tantalising, beckoning yet seemingly unreachable summits rising up from a remote land bathed in mystique and religious devotion; above all, it offers the mountaineer a challenge which demands total commitment both in the planning and in the execution.

Most of us a have a fascination for these wonderful mountains and few would deny a secret and burning ambition to visit them and to stand upon their very highest summits. Some people have partly fulfilled that wish by visiting the Himalayas on trekking holidays, but many still regard climbing the Himalayas as the special domain of the highly organised and heavily sponsored expeditioner.

Imja Tse or Island Peak
The Small Expedition

Through this article I hope to dispel that belief and explain how a few close friends can arrange their own expedition to climb a 20,000 ft. Himalayan peak. This not intended to be a step by step guide on expedition planning, but a useful and practical guide along with details of my own experiences in leading a small expedition to Imja Tse, or Island Peak, 6189m, 20,304 ft, a fine objective in the Everest region of Nepal.

The Himalayas extend far beyond the borders of Nepal and there are many fine summits which may be climbed elsewhere. However, before dismissing other areas, I should mention that one can obtain permission to climb peaks below 6000 metres in unrestricted areas of the Karakoram in Pakistan and even Delhi lies within easy striking distance of some fine summits in northern India.

Indeed, suitable and attractive objectives may well be found in these countries with far fewer complications and at a much lower cost than for comparable mountains in Nepal, but it is my personal view that Nepal is a much more interesting country with attractions stretching far beyond those of the climbs themselves.

What is a Trekking Peak ?

The Nepalese Mountaineering Association lists eighteen mountains which can be climbed with the minimum of formalities; these 'Trekking Peaks' are relatively small yet attractive mountains which are suitable for attempts by recreational mountaineers within the average annual holiday allocation. The term 'Trekking Peak' is extremely misleading for it covers peaks up to nearly 22,000 ft, the hardest of which are serious and difficult undertakings. However, several are technically straightforward and offer a good chance of success to experienced general mountaineers who may not necessarily be accomplished climbers.

The Regulations

The simplified regulations require expedition members to obtain visas, trekking permits and to pay a modest peak fee. A local agent must be employed in Kathmandu and a Sherpa Sirdar should accompany the group to act as a local manager and liaison officer. Beyond these requirements an expedition is free to make its own arrangements, so it is very easy therefore for a small group of friends to climb in the Himalaya on a personally arranged itinerary.

An approach can be made directly to an agency in Kathmandu and economies can he achieved by arranging one's own flights, hotels and transfers. However, this requires a lot of experience and patience on the part of the expedition leadership, and many choose to employ an agent in Britain to help with much of this often complex and very necessary preparatory work. Regular visitors to Nepal will know just how easily even the best laid plans can be seriously disrupted for the simplest of reasons; I therefore always prefer to formalise most of my arrangements before leaving home even it means paying a little more.

Factors to Consider

Careful consideration should also be given to the timing of any expedition and the pre and post monsoon seasons each offer their own particular advantages. The pre-monsoon season is less prone to high winds at altitude and one can always look towards warmer weather as the season progresses; on the other hand, the post season becomes progressively colder but the weather tends to be much more stable with virtually no precipitation in November and December.

Island Peak Base Camp

Unfortunately, a paradoxical situation exists for photographers; although the atmosphere becomes much clearer after the heavy monsoon rains, the best floral displays are to be seen in the Spring. Obviously any expedition will choose according to its own requirements, but the height of the objective and its location in relation to the prevailing weather patterns should be studied most carefully.

The most common factor which contributes to the failure of small scale expeditions is inadequate acclimatisation; impatience or shortage of time often encourages climbers to ascend far too quickly with acute mountain sickness being the inevitable result. Few people are likely to suffer any serious symptoms below 11,000 feet, and I have never encountered any problems flying directly into such airstrips as Lukla, at 9,300 ft.

Above 11,000 ft, however, one must ascend gradually, the acceptable average being 1000 feet per day. It's a good policy to climb higher during the day and return to a lower altitude at night. No individual can ever predict how he or she will acclimatise and some people do better than others. Pressures to spur people on should be resisted and no-one should ascend further if they feel uncomfortable at their current altitude. On a climb this can have sudden and fatal consequences.

Why Island Peak ?

Our friendly expedition to Island Peak developed out of a desire to climb a 20,000 ft. Himalayan peak. All six of us were competent mountaingoers, most had trekked to 19,000 ft. in Nepal before, a few were experienced alpinists but none of us were specialist climbers. I would recommend Island Peak for a first attempt; it has much in its favour, being in an area of easy access and great interest: it's also of reasonable height and offers a worthwhile challenge with a good chance of success.

The mountain is surrounded by the Imja, Lhotse and Lhotse Shar Glaciers and is dominated and sheltered by the Everest group to which it is connected by its north ridge. We elected to make a summit bid during the last week in November in the hope that we might enjoy clear weather without encountering the ferocious winter winds which would likely affect the higher altitudes.

The Approach

We flew to Lukla on schedule and proceeded towards the main Sherpa village of Khunde, at 12,000 ft. We completed our first period of acclimatisation with a two-day diversion up the Thame valley before moving on to Gokyo at 15,600 ft., a fine situation directly below the south face of Cho Oyu and beside several beautiful lakes. It was from here that we adopted our climb high-sleep low policy in preparation for the climb; each day we attempted to reach 18,000 ft. and ascended several small yet delightful peaks which revealed spectacular views of the neighbouring high mountains.

Once in the Khumbu it is difficult to resist a closer view of Everest. We therefore completed our acclimatisation by crossing the Cho La pass and heading for the peak of Kala Pattar to see the sun setting over the south-west face of Everest. The view is a classic and well worth a cold night at Gorak Shep in favour of the busy, dirty yet lower campsite at Lobuche.

During our stay in Kathmandu we had obtained permission to climb the lesser trekking peak of Pokhalde, 19,048 ft, which stands above the Kongma La pass linking the Khumbu and Imja valleys. While making our way into the Imja valley by this route, one member of our expedition, along with a Sherpa climbed this difficult but interesting peak along its west ridge from the Kongma La. They later revealed that, although it was lower than Island Peak, contrary to popular belief it is quite a tricky proposition.

The Climb

The traditional site for Island Peak base camp was reached three hours after leaving Chukkung at the head of the Imja Valley by way of a devious but clear path which climbs beside the lateral moraines of the Lhotse and Imja Glaciers. The camp's situation is far from ideal. It is located at a height of 17,000 ft. at the foot of the mountain's south ridge and on a slight rise at the head of an open and shallow valley.

Island Peak Summit Ridge

Upon our arrival a very strong westerly wind was whipping tons of sand off the adjacent glacier and the location seemed like the bleakest spot on earth. In the event, the lowest night time temperature of -22 Centigrade was also recorded here.

From base camp the initial grass and moraine slopes of the ridge posed no difficulties and in just a few hours the expedition established an attack camp on ledges hacked out of the moraines at a height of about 18,400 ft. The site was unpleasantly littered with the debris from previous expeditions, but its situation was magnificent and at dawn the following morning it gave wonderful views down the valley towards Ama Dablam, Kwangde and Numbur.

In the same view, gathering clouds heralded a sudden and imminent change in the weather. It was a cruel blow for the expedition to encounter only its second day of bad weather just as it reached its climax, however the stronger members of the team agreed to risk a summit bid.

The Summit

After an early breakfast and with three Sherpas in support, they climbed up and out of a shallow gully to arrive on the glacial basin on the mountain's east face. Their route then circumvented a broken and highly crevassed area of the glacier to reach the foot of a mixed rock and ice wall leading up to the summit ridge. The wall was the most difficult section of the whole route and lay at an average angle of forty five degrees; in the UK this would probably warrant a grading of Scottish Grade III.

In view of the impending arrival of poor weather, the group placed five hundred feet of fixed rope up to the summit ridge. Two members along with one Sherpa finally reached the ridge between the mountain's central and southern summits at a height of just over 20,000 ft. The three of them visited the south summit and enjoyed some expansive views towards Ama Dablam before traversing the narrow and sometimes steep ridge to the main summit. Their arrival on the summit was greeted with thick cloud and increasing winds but it could not diminish the joy of their ultimate success. An uneventful descent was followed by a cheerful alcoholic reunion back in the safety and comfort of the lower Imja Valley.

In Conclusion

On reflection the expedition was the happiest of any we had been on and was certainly more enjoyable than any commercially arranged trek. As a small group we had better communication with our Sherpa friends and this enabled us to develop a close bond with and an understanding of them. Through them we had also learnt so much more about Nepal itself. Perhaps our only regret was that we could not all stand on the summit together, but the overall success of our expedition had always been of greater priority than any individual ambitions.

We had proved that a small friendly expedition could climb a worthy peak, and a measure of that success is evident in the fact that we are now planning our next expedition, this time to climb Mera Peak in Nepal in 1988.

A full list of 'Trekking Peaks' can be found on the website of The Nepal Mountaineering Association.

This article was originally published in the magazine 'Climber' in 1987