Race to the top: Nepal

I arrive in Nepal three weeks later than initially planned, having moved back my departure date from Turkey twice because I am not quite ready to leave the climbing paradise that is JoSiTo.  But after a little over eight weeks in Geyikbayiri and three flights I finally find myself in the back of a dilapidated Nepali cab headed from Kathmandu’s airport towards Thamel, backpacker central.  I drop off my bags at a guesthouse and am immediately back out the door, headed towards what from the cab looked like a climbing wall three blocks away from my guesthouse.  And sure enough, after a five minute walk I come across a little back alley with a boulder wall, a top rope area and a climbers’ cafe.  Heaven!

the Astrek climbing wall in Thamel

At the wall I quickly make friends with Julien and Michka, two Frenchmen that have been spending a good amount of time in Nepal to climb several 6000m peaks.  What starts out as a friendly catch among climbers turns into daily climbing sessions and a terrific friendship complete with many shared meals, a Nepali punk concert and a hilarious bicycle excursion to one of Kathmandu’s sport crags.  On top of all that, the guys and their mountaineering stories give me the last little nudge I need to actually go off to climb a peak myself.  Great fun is had for the four or five days that we overlap in town, and the day after the guys fly out to continue their journey in warmer climates I set off for Lukla to go tackle my first 6000m mountain: Island Peak, a 6,189m summit that requires some determination and gear but is not too technically challenging.

the boys

climbing in the outskirts of Kathmandu

packing for Island Peak

I leave Kathmandu on the morning of November 9 together with Mingma, the climbing sherpa who also guided Michka and Julien earlier in the season.  After a short but dramatic mountain flight into Lukla at 2,800m we spend five days hiking farther and farther into the mountains gaining an average of almost five hundred meters a day until we arrive at 5,100m in Gorapshep, the last cluster of teahouses before Everest Base Camp.  The next morning we are up at 4am for an acclimatization hike up to the 5,650m summit of Kala Patthar, a side peak of Pumori which offers great sunrise views of Mount Everest, Mount Nuptse and Ama Dablam.

waiting for our plane to Lukla

halfway up the 600m pass to Namche

Mingma Sherpa in Namche

en route

Mt Nuptse!

on the way back down from Kala Patthar

Since we’ve been moving fast and without rest days I definitely feel the altitude on Kala Patthar but fortunately we’re headed back down to 4,400m for another night before moving to Island Peak Base Camp.  And then, only six days after leaving Lukla I find myself curled up in my down sleeping bag in a tent in the biting cold of Island Peak Base Camp, being utterly grateful to Mingma for keeping me warm with a seemingly never-ending supply of hot soup and hot tea.  Sleep that night is short since our summit day begins at 1:30am.  For almost four hours we are climbing in the quiet of the night, relying only on the light of the full moon.  Then dawn comes, and right as I am considering giving up and turning back (the night climbing was a completely non-technical scramble on rock, but steep and strenuous and utterly draining) the sun finally comes up and we have reached the glacier – halfway mark, and the beginning of the more technical part of the climb.  Mingma feels my hesitation and pushes me to rope up, then swiftly leads me across the glacier trail towards the headwall which is the most serious section of the route.  By the time we reach the wall I am so exhausted from the lack of oxygen and long climb that every meter is a battle, but I also have the summit in sight now and just know that I won’t turn around – especially since this is where the fun really starts: the terrain is getting steeper, my ice tool finally gets some use and the views are getting better and better.  Mingma and I are behind another climbing team that is setting up fixed ropes to navigate the wall more easily, but after a few minutes of idling down on the glacier Mingma decides that the steepness of the wall is matched by my climbing abilities, and we set out without fixed lines.  The first half of the wall is no problem with nothing but a short rope, but for the last part the fix ropes are already set and I gratefully take advantage of them – I am so tired now that even ascending the fixed line is starting to be difficult.

Island Peak & base camp

onto the glacier

view from halfway up the headwall

The (exposed but non-technical) summit ridge is the hardest 100m I’ve ever walked.  Every step is a battle, and even though the summit is just a stone’s throw away I am beginning to doubt if I will be able to reach it after all.  In the end I summit briefly after 10am, more than 8 hours after beginning the climb.  Now all that’s left for the day is the long way back down to base camp, and then the hike out to Chukkhung so we can sleep at a more reasonable altitude.

the ridge

summit whiteout

looking back on the way down

Two strenuous days later and 48hrs ahead of schedule I am back where Mingma and I started the trek ten days earlier: in Lukla. Because of bad weather there haven’t been any flights to or from Lukla for six days, and we end up idling for a couple of days waiting to get out to Kathmandu.  We finally leave just in time for me to make my flight to Buenos Aires where I’m planning to meet up with Katrin for the last leg of our respective travels. Hard to believe that it’s only a matter of weeks now until real life will start again!

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