4/17/11 - Today I’m back at Pheriche (14,000’) to rest a couple days before the attack. I just finished washing some of my clothes in my room. When your socks and pants standup on their own and start running you know it’s time to wash them. I rigged some climbing cord in my room to hang dry everything. On a down day anything is something to do, so I really enjoyed doing the laundry.
The last I wrote my head was exploding right? Let me bring you up-to-date. The group went up to Island Peak basecamp while I hung around Dingboche for an extra rest day. That rest day was torture since I’m the type that has to always be doing something. I read a book cover to cover, watched a movie (Analyze This…love that movie), met a guy from Chile (one thing did NOT lead to another) and I stared at a yak eating hay. It was actually pretty peaceful watching her chew circularly to fill her 4 stomachs.
The following morning I was up and ready to move. I packed, ate and was on the road with Pumba Sherpa and my porter by 7:30. We stopped in Chukhung for some noodle soup. While there two little boys with runny noses kept staring and touching me. I made them both paper airplanes from a surfing magazine they had and they were about as happy as could be. Pumba, porter and I then set out to meet the others at Island Peak. I made it to basecamp (5.5 miles and 17,500’) in 3.5 hours where they were doing training. We ate lunch and then headed up a mile to the 18,200’ high camp. After getting setup and our gear primed for an early morning start we ate dinner and went to sleep. Dennis and I were out, but others were either sick or too anxious to sleep.
At 2am we were awoke by the Sherpas with hot tea. It was a beautiful night with almost a full moon igniting the surrounding peaks. At 3am we began our climb, which consisted of only a couple miles but at altitude (18,200’ to 20,300’). On highly glaciated mountains you always start your climb early because you want it to be cold and solid. Once the sun comes up the glacier warms and avalanches kick off and crevasses open up. The first mile was a mix of trail / mid-fifth class rock scramble, which is fine in normal shoes but Dennis and I had our high altitude mountaineering boots. The last section had a lot of exposure, where if you lost your hand hold or footing you’d certainly become part of the mountain. At 19,500’ I could start feeling the altitude, which is better than my headaches at Everest basecamp (17,500’). It just goes to show that a little rest can go a long way in the acclimatization process.
At 19,500’ we reached the glacier and donned our crampons and ice axe. Roped up we traversed around major crevasses and ceracs. We even went through a narrow passage where a fixed line was set. Fixed lines are rope attached to the ice via a metal bar called a picket. You connect a line from your harness to the fixed line to ensure if you fall in you don’t fall too far. At this altitude it’s very difficult to breathe unless you’re acclimatized to a higher elevation. We had only been to 18,200’ prior and we were now 1000’ higher and climbing. It’s similar to swimming under water and coming up for a breath, but there’s no air to replenish your lungs. It’s like suffocating and if you allowed yourself you could certainly have a panic attack and pass out. Luckily my time as a rescue swimmer in the US Navy taught me to stay calm in panicky situations. So why do I do this if it’s so scary and dangerous? I don’t know…quit asking!
We traversed a long snow field to the head wall, which is 400’ straight up at 55 degrees rigged with fixed ropes. This is where we came off rope from each other and attached to the fixed rope. One thing to note is the rope they use for the fixed lines is like the kind you’d purchase at ACE Hardware to tie a tarp down, but not something you’d trust your life with. We trusted our lives on this rope. Island Peak is typically marketed as a trekking peak to climb, meaning it’s supposed to be easy. It was anything but easy. Different times of the year there is more snow so you can walk up the fixed lines. This time of the year it was all upper body strength and stamina since it was a sheet of ice all the way to the top.
Carlos, Dennis and I were the first to attack the fixed lines. Slowly we inch wormed up with our harness-attached ascenders (devices that have downward facing teeth that bite into the rope as you slide it upward). The sequence is you slide the ascender up and then front point your crampons into the ice and lift yourself up a foot or two. My pack was way too heavy so I ditched a couple down jackets on one of the transition locations. Carlos twisted his knee at the halfway point and ended up rappelling down. Dennis and I continued our suffocating, jelly-legged, fall and die journey toward the top and eventually made it. From there lie the summit ridge. It is a knife-edge ridge with over a mile exposure on either side. I clipped into the fixed lines with Dennis following and we made the last 300’ to the top and enjoyed the view.
Descending wasn’t much better since we had to rappel down the uneven surface of the ice wall. We both have a lot of experience so we made it down quickly. The others took a little more time but everyone made it down safely. Chris and Dawn made it up as well so they were pretty stoked in their accomplishment. Halfway down on the rocky section, Pumba was waiting and offered to carry my pack since I had just had a big couple of days. Before he finished asking my pack was hurling across the air at him. Absolutely and thank you Pumba! I made it down to high camp quickly, took my steaming boots off and collapsed on top of my -40 down sleeping bag.
Dennis came a little bit later and then we had lunch and headed down to Chukhung (5 miles and 16,000’). It was a big day and actually 2 big days for me so I slept well. Today we hiked down to Dingboche and said bye to Chris, Carlos, Dawn and the Sherpa trekking team. We’ll see the Sherpas again in a couple weeks when they lead a group into Everest basecamp. Dennis and I are now in Pheriche to rest for a few days before we head up to basecamp. By acclimatizing on Island Peak we should be ready to go through the Khumbu icefall and onto camp one and two. After that we’ll come back to basecamp for a few days of rest, go back up through the icefall to camps one, two and three and then all the way down and wait for a 3 day weather window to make a summit attempt.
I won’t count any physiological issues such as edema out yet, but I felt very strong on my climb up to 20,300’. Plus it was after a long day at altitude from Dingboche to high camp, so I’m feeling very confident!