Achieving Himalayan Ecstasy
This is a brutally honest account of my first Himalayan climb — an attempt on the 20,305' Imja Tse — more popularly known as Island Peak. While it's a baby by Himalayan standards, only a few other points on earth outside of Asia reach a higher altitude. - CBJr
woke at 11:40 pm, having started to piss myself. I'd been hydrating for days. I pulled on my parka and braved the below-freezing, hundred foot walk to the outhouse, and relieved myself for what seemed like eternity. Wish I remembered a pee bottle.
I slipped back into the comfort and security of my Eddie Bauer Karakoram expedition-grade sleeping bag, hoping that another hour of sleep would cure my migraine. These are ordinary problems at 16,700 feet.
A light shined through our tent. "Tea?" It was 1:30 am and TJ, our Sirdar, woke us with breakfast-in-tent. I don't get that kind of treatment at my parents' house. My migraine was still present. Turns out that my body doesn't like sleeping at an elevation more than 2,000' higher than Mt. Whitney's summit — the highest point in the contiguous United States.
A few minutes later our guide LB, TJ's older brother, showed up at our tent door. The brothers are from Jiri, a town 100 miles away where we started our trek. LB was the first person to summit Everest from the Jirel ethnic group. By the time this article is published, he'll have completed a solo first ascent on an unclimbed 6,000 m peak outside of Chukhung. We were going to be his 2nd group to take up the summit of Imja Tse in two days; he'd take up three more groups in the three days after our climb.
"Are you going to climb?" he asked. I had gotten sun poisoning from napping outside less than two days before. The previous morning, I couldn't eat solid food and I could barely walk. By the time we hiked to base camp, I was feeling better. We had a mountain to climb. "Yes," I responded. "I just need to cure this headache." A dose of ibuprofen would do the trick.
Thirty minutes later, we were hiking out of base camp. "Bring poles," LB had ordered.
The first four hours of our climb would be a combination of Class 1 cross country hiking and Class 2-3 scrambling. Clouds had rolled in during the night and the sky was pitch black. Tiny headlamps danced on the mountain ahead of us - we were among the last groups starting the climb.
"Move faster!" a voice shouted from behind. "Hey asshole! If you haven't noticed, there's a dozen people in front of us moving just as slowly," I thought. Not a word escaped my lips, I had to make oxygen choices at 17,000'.
Onward and upward we continued. I stayed close to LB; Daniel and TJ trailed a few paces behind. Our headlamps illuminated only the path in front of us; any excess light was absorbed into the black abyss below. We marched silently through the darkness for hours, the air thinning with every breath.
As we climbed more than half a dozen people passes us on their way down. They hadn't summited, they were turning around.
We finally reached the glacier at 6 am. By this point, we had climbed to 19,000'. The eastern sky was on fire. One man who was presumably suffering from a serious altitude sickness was being helped down by three climbers. He didn't look good. This was no joke, we were on a real high altitude climb.
Our team sat down and donned crampons. Roped up. We'd be walking on snow from here on out. The distance we traveled across the glacier was relatively short compared to the night's scramble. We climbed a couple of steep pitches of snow before planing out on the glacier above. We could see the summit up ahead. The first part of our climb was hard. The next would be harder.
We dropped our rope, then attached our jumars to the fixed lines for the last 1,000' to the summit. The slope started around 50 degrees; each pitch was steeper than the one before. The snow was hard from an entire season of climbing; we were walking up steep stairs of ice that crumbled under the occasional step. Step. Step. Slide the jumar up. Rest. Breathe. Rest. BREATHE! With each step, my strength and confidence faded. There was no way I'd make it to the summit.
Fixed to a new line. My mind had slowed to a crawl, but my body moved even slower. Every limb was filled with lead. At 20,000', there's less than half the oxygen levels found at sea level. I trudged on. Fixed to another line. There was no way I'd make it to the summit.
Yet somehow, there was the final pitch. I attached my carabiner to the last line and stumbled 60 feet to the summit. Collapsed on top. I made it. TJ attached my harness to the safety line; LB and Daniel made it to the top a few minutes later.
We remained on top only long enough to snap a few photos, clouds blocked the sun and icy winds blasted all around us. The four of us clipped in and rappelled down the 1,000' face. Elevation that we had fought so hard to gain was now lost in minutes.
Once back on the glacier, we roped up and marched off the ice, dodging abysmal crevasses along the way. We removed our crampons back at the rock; I forced down a Snickers bar, a couple of crackers, and a bite of Tibetan bread. It was laborious just to chew; as such, I hadn't eaten during the last twelve hours of exertion. I was completely and utterly exhausted; there was still 3,000' to descend.
"What goes up, must come down" I repeated to myself, step after step after step. My pace slowed to a crawl; I couldn't keep up with the rest of our team, but at this point it was an easy hike/scramble down so I involuntarily took my time. I fought back the urge to vomit once. Twice. Three times. My body began to tremble uncontrollably; I shoved my face into a rocky crevice so that my puke wouldn't blow back in the wind. Heaved once. Warm bile gushed out onto the ground below. Heaved again. Nothing came up. Punched in the stomach once more. Nothing. I spit, wiped my beard, and continued hiking down. Bestady, bestady — slowly, slowly, in Nepali.
Daniel and LB were waiting up ahead. They took one look at me, then took my pack, divided the weight between themselves, and we continued hiking down. Bestady, bestady. Eternity passed. My mind focused on one thing: getting down. Left. Right. Left. I marched on until finally we reached the valley below.
I made a beeline for our tent and collapsed inside. Tears began pouring uncontrollably from my eyes. It was the hardest thing I had ever done. I climbed higher than I ever had; and I made it down alive. [H]
Chris is an intrepid explorer who quit a fancy job in Los Angeles to pursue his dreams of adventure around the globe. You can follow his ongoing journey via Instagram. And to learn more about how he made it to Nepal, read the full story here.
Images by Chris Brinlee Jr. and Daniel Bruce Lee