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Island Peak 2017

My EBC and Island Peak October 2017

Returning to the Himalayas after 5 years I was filled with excitement and anticipation. This time it wouldn’t just be hiking up to Everest Base Camp but also continuing on to take on the Summit of Island Peak. Island Peak stands at 6,189m above sea level. My training  and preparation was a lot more intense than ever before, training 5-6 days per week with a mixture of hiking, climbing, gym work, circuit training and yoga.  The big question now and my one real fear or doubt was how my body was going to react to the extreme altitude of the Himalayas after all the preparations.

The journey into the Khumbu region begins with the infamous flight into Lukla airport, notorious for being one of the most dangerous airports in the world. Check it out on Youtube, it’s absolutely worth a look ! The trek to Basecamp itself is truly spectacular and the pace is slow to enable our bodies to adapt to the environment of having less oxygen.  We spend 10 days on the trek, sometimes catching glimpses of Everest herself and other iconic mountains like the beautiful Ama Dablam. Our nights are spent recovering, eating lots of food and rehyradting,  It’s all part of the tried and trusted method of the acclimatization process used by Ian Taylor Trekking, our guides for this trip.

I caught a cold before I left which I couldn’t shake off.  It had me worried going to altitude with it.  I spent all year training hard for this trip and I couldn’t believe I got sick just before I left.  One of the worst things you can do is go to altitude with an ailment. It will only get worse.  By Namche Bazarr I decided the cold was getting worse and a chest infection was coming on so at this point I decided to start taking antibiotics.  Something I really wanted to avoid but felt it was the best option for me.  

After a successful trip to Everest Base Camp and an early morning summit of Kala Patthar for the sunrise shot of Everest, 7 of us left a group of 20 and started making our way up to Island Peak. So when we set off from Dingboche, I was feeling strong, well acclimatized and I was confident about tackling the altitude ahead, however I still had doubt in my head, would my chest clear up or will it get worse.  One day later my challenge became even greater than I could have imagined as I had finished the antibiotics and the chest infection seemed to be getting worse the higher we went, now my chances of summiting Island Peak stood at 50/50. I was not improving at all and because of the difficulty the chest infection was giving me with my breathing I was beginning to strongly feel the effects of altitude sickness. It was at this point that I had to really take a pause and rethink how I was going to continue, not just physically but also and probably more importantly mentally. Looking back at it now, the lessons from this journey was not what I expected them to be at all. I have envisaged myself testing my courage and strength and climbing skills against the greatest of element challenges. What it turned into was something completely different. I had to change my whole mindset and learn how to not worry about being sick and enjoy each day and each new experience. Being unwell really diminished my chances of getting over 6000 metres yes,  so my goal was now to focus on relaxing, breathing and to allow  myself to enjoy every step forward that I took,  knowing that I might not get the outcome I was looking for. A massive help with this was the incredible sherpas we had guiding us. The dancing and singing in the evenings with the Sherpas really helped me enjoy the moments and experiences and not to think ahead of the unknown and uncertain.

Island Peak

The next few days were spent having our climbing skills assessed – ladder crossing, jumaring and abseiling.  We then progressed up to the Base Camp of Island Peak and spent 1 night there.  Now at  the higher altitude I was starting to feel confident that my body was going to keep going and I would be able to continue at the same pace as the rest of the team. I wasn’t feeling any better physically but I was keeping my mindset strong and positive, so far so good. Once we reached high camp at at 5550 we were sitting at the cusp of extreme altitude. We were set, the weather window was good, it was time to prepare for the summit attempt.  At high camp everyone went straight to their tents to pack, eat dinner and rest. I was asleep for 8pm and back up at 12.30am food and dressed, I was on my way to the summit.   

The climb up to crampon point is steep, with lots of exposed edges and ridges to scramble over, and uncomfortable in mountaineering boots. Up at crampon point and time to change gear and as the name suggests put on our crampons. Things were becoming very real now ! At about 5am we came to a very big and wide crevasse that had 4 ladders stuck to one another crossing it.  Still pitch black we had to cross the ladder one by one while wearing our crampons and carrying full packs. I remember standing in front of it, one guide had gone over and I was first across, I remember clearly thinking I have no idea how this is going to turn out but just go for it.  Its those moments I love about myself. When I feel fear and I don’t know the outcome but I put it to one side.  

Daylight was soon upon us and the head wall of Island Peak came into view for the first time,  this was a special moment for me. Years of dreaming, thinking, building, preparing and there it was.  I was a little anxious, so I assessed myself and I was feeling ok, strong and in good spirits, keep going. Now at the bottom of the wall I talked about 600 metres instead of 6000 metres and it was pointed out to me, Stay focused Emma, don’t let the altitude get to you !!

The head wall was tough.  Angles of 60-70 degrees. Jumaring up, this is what I had prepared for.  All the exposure training meant that I wasn’t afraid at all, not heading up that wall, not when I landed up at the small ridge at top, I was focussed, I was ready.  Finally after what can only be described as a lung busting, leg burning climb, I stood at the top of the wall, I was finally at that ridge that I looked at for the last 5 years. I always wondered how I would feel when I finally got there, would I be afraid, would I be able to cope with the vast exposure. The only word I have is – tired.  I could see the summit, it was only minutes away. There stood the mighty Ang Kami and Pasang my Sherpa guides, waiting there for us after setting the fixed lines at the top.  Walking up the ridge I was very aware of the huge drops into oblivion each side but the training allowed me to manage my mind, stay focused,  aware of my surroundings but able to cope with it. Finally I was on summit.

I was so happy to be there but knew what was ahead of us – getting back down safely. It’s amazing how quickly exhaustion can come on but for now I felt strong still so I headed back down the ridge to get onto that head wall and abseil down. Tired but completely focused, I took my time abseiling back down this 150 metre wall, carefully clipping on and off over the anchor points and making sure I held on tight to the rope.  Back down to the ladder and crossing it when it is bright was an experience I will never forget either and I have just summited a mountain in the Himalayas. Crossing that ladder so tired and yet trying to not allow myself to be overcome by panic and a desire to just be finished. I remember saying don’t be the only one to fall !! I was soon across and the walk out was spent looking back at what I had just achieved. Summit day was a long 14 hour day but the team of 7 successfully summited Island Peak and back down safely again.

Island Peak

I was and still am extremely proud of what I had just achieved but it’s important to remember how difficult everything was and how challenging it was for me on so many levels. It wasn’t difficult to stay humble. While watching a documentary a few days later resting in Namche, I remember Tenzing Norgay’s son saying that a mountain is not to be conquered, you climb it like you are climbing onto your mother’s lap. That hit home for me, I felt like he was talking to me. I didn’t feel like I conquered anything, not the mountain and certainly not myself,  I dragged my arse up that mountain and I can’t say it looked pretty but as a coach of mine says many times, “ It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to be done”

So yeah Job done !!

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