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Climbing Island Peak
By Franca Serafini and Jeremy Windsor (member of the UIAA Medical Commission)
The Upper Slopes of Island Peak
Mountain: Island Peak (Imja Tse) Coordinates 27o55’21”N 86o56’10”E Altitude: 6189m
Route: Normal South Face Trekking Route.
Whilst climbing a “trekking peak” is not as challenging as an 8000m summit, these mountains should not be taken lightly: a considerable amount of time often needs to be spent above 5000m, often in difficult weather, on slopes that need a good range of mountaineering skills.
However, easy access means that Island Peak is often combined with ascents of other nearby “trekking peaks” such as Mera Peak, Pokalde and Lobuje East.
Island Peak was first climbed by a team of mountaineers that included Tensing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, as preparation and acclimatization for the first ascent of Everest in 1953.
The First Sighting of Mt Everest
ASCENT PROFILE FOLLOWING THE MAIN ROUTE
Island Peak is situated at the head of the Imja Valley, an area that branches out east from the Khumbu Valley at Pheriche and ventures to the north side of Ama Dablam alongside the Imja River. The upper part of the valley is glaciated and ends at the Imja Lake. In 1952, a group led by Eric Shipton gave this mountain its name, believing that the mountain resembled an island surrounded by a sea of ice. It was subsequently renamed Imja Tse in 1983 by the Nepalese, however to this day its original name is still more commonly used. The name “Island Peak” is not far off from the truth, however, since it stands in the middle of three glaciers with the Lhotse Glacier on its north, the Lhotse Shar Glacier to the east and the Imja Glacier on its south side.
Despite the surrounding “sea of ice” Island Peak is closely connected to the Everest massif by a small col joining it to the Lhotse Shar. From the summit you’ll be able to admire some of the most famous mountains on Earth - Lhotse, Nuptse, Makalu and Ama Dablam, to name just a few.
According to the climbing map of Island Peak (published by Gecko Maps) the summit is accessible by four routes, however only the most frequented is described here.
In order to reach the summit you’ll be expected to be able to climb to Scottish Grade II standard (steep snow, possible use of two ice tools, possible difficult cornice exit, but technical difficulties are short) or Alpine PD (some technical climbing and complicated glaciers).
The high altitude, combined with the technical nature of the climb, makes Island Peak a challenge. Careful planning and training are required to make a safe and successful summit bid.
How To Get There:
At first the route shares the same path as that taken by the trek to Everest Base Camp. From Lukla you’ll pass several Sherpa villages, cross suspension bridges and experience dramatic changes in vegetation: from the lush green and deciduous trees of the valley to the alpine meadows typical of the higher altitude. On a clear day, whilst trekking to Namche Bazar, it will be possible to spot several well known peaks including Kangtega, Thamserku, Kusum Kangru and, of course, Everest. After Namche Bazar, Ama Dablam will become a constant feature of the trek. From Namche you’ll walk around the south-east face, whilst from Tyengboche you’ll see the north face and from Dingboche, Chukkhung and Island Peak summit, the western aspect of the mountain. After 4 or 5 days trekking from Lukla you should reach a small settlement called Samso Ogmo. At this point the path splits from the route to Everest Base Camp and follows the Imja Khola (Imja River) before heading eastwards along the Imja Valley.
The Approach to Island Peak
The first stop after leaving the main path at Samso Ogmo is Dingboche (4410m). This village has a number of clean and comfortable lodges making it an ideal place for an acclimatization stop. Although there is not much to do here, you can climb on both sides of the valley and obtain stunning views of the Himalayas. It is worth taking a guide who knows the names of the mountains as there are hundreds of them to spot!
Assuming that you are feeling well after your rest day, you’ll continue on to Chukhung (4900m), the last village before Base Camp. If you have enough time, a further day’s rest here will improve acclimatization and therefore increase your chance of reaching the summit safely. Whilst there, you’ll be able to climb Chuckhung Ri (5555m) or take a walk towards Base Camp in order to see the Imja Lake. At the lake, look carefully for crack lines in the ground. The sides of the lake are eroding and, on occasions, parts of it have fallen into the lake. This has implications not only for the sites of future Base Camps on the mountain, but also the widespread flooding and damage that could result to nearby villages if the walls give way.
Island Peak Base Camp (Pareshaya Gyab - BC - 4970m) is situated in a flat rocky area between the south east ridge of Island Peak and the edge of the Imja Lake. During peak season it can be very busy in BC with sometimes as many as 200 people staying there. In 2010 there were two toilets in a stone built shed, but, unfortunately, there was no running water. Please refer to the “Health Issues” section for further information.
From BC you’ll have two options: either to go directly to Advanced Camp (AC) and make your summit bid from there or, instead, make a direct attempt from BC. The approach you take is down to personal preference. There are advantages and disadvantages to both:
For those who are well acclimatized, the journey to AC (5600m) takes no more than a couple of hours. The path is rocky and steep in places however it is safe from rock and icefall. Tents should be pitched on small flattened areas overlooking the Imja Lake. This is a stunning location with clear views of Ambhulapcha and Kali Himal in the distance as well as the hanging glaciers and seracs of Island Peak closer to you tent. Whilst I was there I heard at least two avalanches a day, but I was not able to see them. The route to the summit is normally free from avalanche risk.
Unfortunately there are no toilets or running water at AC. The porters will collect the water from small streams near BC and carry it there. This water is used for food preparation and drinking once it has been boiled. Further information on how to deal with water and human waste is found in the “Health Issues” section.
Although the area around AC is rocky and steep, it is usually very safe. However, at night and after rain or snow, the rocks can become very slippery and you’ll need to be very careful when walking from boulder to boulder.
From AC the climb to Island Peak normally starts at 2 am, however if you decide to start at BC you’ll need to start at midnight. This schedule allows you time to summit by midday and return to BC by late afternoon. Time to the summit depends upon how fit and acclimatised you are as well as environmental factors such as weather conditions. However one should aim to reach the summit by midday at the latest since it will take another 4-5 hours to get back to BC. Few spend a second night at AC.
From AC you’ll spend 2-3 hours scrambling through a long rocky gully. Although this is not difficult it is made more challenging in the dark. The steep terrain and the possibility of a long fall, especially as you climb up, means that losing your footing here could lead to serious consequences.
As dawn breaks you should now be close to the snowline. From here crampons and ice axe are needed and it makes sense to rope up for protection. The reason for this will become obvious as you pass a number of crevasses.
In the past the route has tended to deviate slightly to the left (westwards) in order to access the higher slopes via a snow bridge. However, in recent years, this bridge has collapsed. In 2010 it was possible to overcome the problem by climbing a small vertical wall and crossing a narrow crevasse that was approximately half a metre wide. Although the vertical wall is about 8 metres high it still needs a careful approach! This means taking appropriate steps to protect the leader and the climbers who follow.
After a short and fairly flat area, you’ll be confronted with a steep snow and ice ramp, about 200m long, that leads towards a narrow ridge and then, finally, the short climb towards the small summit. From the snow ramp onwards, the Sherpa guides often set up fixed ropes in order to protect climbers on this final steep and exposed section. Sometimes, if the wind is strong, the Sherpas might decide to set up fixed ropes on the final ridge as well. This section of the climb requires the use of an ascender device that must be attached with a sling to your harness. Later, for descending, you’ll need a belay device and carabiner too. It is vital that you know how to use these simple pieces of equipment before you start the climb. In addition, it is also important to carry a spare carabiner - this can be used to ensure that you are always attached to the fixed line when you move between sections of fixed rope. When you use the belay device to descend you may choose to use a Prussik knot for extra protection. In the event of a slip whilst abseiling this knot will lock on the rope and prevent you falling far.
Don’t forget that the snow is not a fixed feature and changes shape with time. One needs to assess the snow conditions nearer to the date of the climb. A useful feature that was there one year might not be there the next season. The local climbing Sherpas have a good knowledge of the mountains and their opinion should not be underestimated.
Things to Know
Every expedition company employs its own Sherpa staff whose job it is to set up and remove fixed ropes. If you are alone, you will need to obtain permission to use them. A fee may need to be paid. Climbing without ropes may slow you down and can increase the risk of injury.
In Kathmandu there is a plethora of small companies who organize treks and climbing trips all over the Himalayas. Unfortunately there are no national guiding qualifications in Nepal and the standard of rope fixing can vary. Most Sherpas have acquired their knowledge from practical experience. Whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing, they might not have been exposed to the best examples!
If you have enough funds, it is better to go with a well known company that employs guides with the right experience and qualifications.
The whole trip should last about 20 days, assuming there are no problems with acclimatization or illness.
Local language: Nepali. But local people can often communicate in English.
Currency: Nepali Rupee (NPR) 100 Paisa = 1 Rupee
US$ are also in common use.
Visa Requirement: A Visa is required to enter Nepal but it is possible to obtain this on arrival at the airport. You’ll need your travel documents, two passport photos and the correct fee (£30 for 30 days stay in Nepal). You will also need to make sure that your passport is valid for six months from date of entry into the country.
For up-to-the-minute information see – http://www.nepembassy.org.uk/visa.php
VACCINATIONS AND OTHER HEALTH ISSUES
The current advice given to those who want to travel to Nepal is:
For up-to-the-minute advice on vaccinations see:
Considering the remoteness of the location, the possibility of injury and sickness, it is recommended that appropriate insurance is obtained that covers the cost of helicopter evacuation, hospital stay and medical treatment.
If you have a medical condition it is advisable to visit your doctor and make sure that you have sufficient medications not only to cover the whole trek, but also enough in the event of loss or damage. It is often useful to have duplicates and divide them between your daysack and kit bag.
Other important health issues to consider include:
Diarrhoea and vomiting. It is very important to follow a few simple health rules in order to avoid gastrointestinal infections:
For further details see:
Toilets at Island Peak BC
Dry Cough. Often referred to as a “Khumbu Cough”. The dry and cold air found at high altitude, together with the changes in breathing often seen, makes the lining of the throat very dry. This can lead to a cough that, in some cases, is quite severe. It is possible to avoid this problem by following a few simple measures - keep well hydrated, keep your mouth covered with a thin scarf wherever possible and use cough lozenges to keep your mouth and throat moist.
High Altitude Illness. It is very difficult to predict who is going to suffer from these conditions. If you follow a slow ascent profile with adequate periods of rest, you will be less likely to develop acute mountain sickness (AMS), high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HAPE). For details see:
The Wilderness Medical Society recommends ascending no more than 500m a day above 3000m and resting every 3 to 4 days of ascent.
In order to prevent high altitude illness, walk slowly, carry a light load and keep hydrated. To help you recognize AMS, HACE and HAPE consider obtaining “Travel at High Altitude”. This can be downloaded, free of charge, from the MEDEX website and is available in a number of different languages (see useful websites).
Headaches: The cause of a headache is often difficult to determine. At altitude one of the commonest causes of headache is AMS. This can be accompanied by nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue, lightheadedness and difficulties sleeping. Try simple measures first. Rest. Have something to eat. Drink at least 500 mls of fluids. Try taking painkillers such as paracetamol (1 g) and ibuprofen (400 mg). If there is no improvement or the headache is getting worse, then you will need to descend. On no account should you continue to ascend! This will make matters worse. Carrying on will endanger yourself and your companions.
Snow Blindness. On glaciers and snow covered areas it is important to wear protective sunglasses. Normal sunglasses are often not strong enough. The sun reflected on snow is intense and can “burn” the cornea (the outmost layer of your eyes). This leads to loss of vision, swelling and an extraordinary amount of pain. Although the condition recovers within 48 hours, for this period you will struggle to see!
Drinking Water. Boiled water is safe to drink. However there are other methods of water disinfection.
HUMAN WASTE DISPOSAL
The lack of toilets at Advanced Camp poses a problem for human waste disposal. Ideally each expedition should carry their own waste down in sealed barrels. The size of the barrel depends upon the size of the expedition and the number of days spent at locations without toilet facilities. If you don’t have a toilet space then you have to think carefully about where you designate the toilet area. This is a brief outline on how to deal with the issue of waste disposal.
Nearest Hospital or Clinic
There are a number of private hospitals in Kathmandu that provide services comparable with those found in more affluent countries.
Nepal International Clinic ( www.nepalinternationalclinic.com)
CIWEC Clinic ( www.ciweclinic.com )
Closer to Island Peak, there are small clinics in Lukla and Kunde that provide medical support prior to evacuation. In Pheriche there is a clinic run by the Himalaya Rescue Association that treats trekkers and local residents. The doctors and nurses run the clinic until 12 o’clock midday each day, but they are always available to attend thodse who cannot wait. A portable altitude chamber is also available.
Every day at 3pm the HRA hold an “Altitude Talk” aimed at educating the trekkers about high altitude illnesses and other problems that you may be encounter during your climb. This is highly recommended!
This will depend upon the kind of injury you have. If you have a non life-threatening injury such as a soft tissue injury (e.g. a sprained ankle or a twisted knee) it will be possible to either hire a yak (or mule) or be carried down by a porter.
If you are seriously ill the only other option is evacuation by helicopter. The aircraft flies from Kathmandu and you will be charged according to the time the helicopter is airborne.
The evacuation by helicopter is not as easy as it seems. First of all you need to have valid travel insurance that covers the cost of helicopter rescue. Second, you need to have someone in Kathmandu who guarantees the payment of your flight. This could be the contact of your trekking company or, if you travel on your own, your embassy or consulate. You will need to provide all your details first to this contact: name, nationality, passport number, insurance policy number and medical condition. The message will then be passed to the airport authority. If your country doesn’t have an embassy in Nepal and you are travelling without the help of a trekking company, you will need to arrange a possible helicopter rescue before you leave Kathmandu.
Even in the best organized scenario it usually takes 24 hours to be evacuated.
The average cost of an evacuation in the Khumbu valley is $6000. This will need to be paid before you make a claim on your insurance.
There are two climbing seasons: pre-monsoon (March to June) and post-monsoon (September to November)
Several mobile phone networks work in Lukla and occasionally, Namche Bazar. Satellite phones are available. A large expedition might hire their own satellite phones. This costs approximately 5 Euros per day to hire and outgoing calls and messages are charged at a rate of 2 Euros per minute. The internet is available at Lukla, Namche Bazar, Pheriche and Dingboche.
The path is normally very good. However, at the start and end of the trekking season, snow can sometimes choke the paths and make them slippery. Reaching the summit depends, as always, on the weather and the conditions of the snow and ice. It is not uncommon to hear of groups turning back because of bad weather. If your schedule permits, allow extra days for your summit attempt.
You will experience a wide range of temperatures during this trek. Areas such as Kathmandu and the Dudh Koshi river can be hot and humid (30oC and above, at times).
However, the climate changes dramatically at higher altitudes. Sunny days can be warm but the nights are very cold indeed. At Base Camp and Advanced Camp temperatures can fall to 0oC or lower.
Knowledge of basic alpine winter climbing is essential. You must know how to use crampons and a walking axe. Since there will be fixed ropes, the use of an ascender and a figure of eight descender are necessary. Also, you’ll need to know how to tie a Prussic knot in order to protect you during the descent.
Alternative Trekking Routes
Island Peak is situated within the Sagarmatha National Park and, although the most common routes pass through the Khumbu Valley, there are many variations. Depending upon which operator you choose to go with, the routes may vary. Here are some options:
All of these detours will help acclimatization. The best have ascent profiles that allow the best way to acclimatise. This is done by following the edict: “climb high, sleep low”. They also have the added bonus that they cross some of the most beautiful and remote areas of the Sagarmatha National Park.
If you go with a trekking agency, all fees will be included in the price of the trek. However, if you go on your own you’ll need to pay a fee for the trekking peak permit ( $300 for up to 10 persons) and a fee to enter the Sagarmatha National Park (1000 rupees per person).
Other Useful Websites
Acknowledgements: The authors wish to thank Buddha Basnyat, David Hillebrandt and members of UIAA MedCom for their help in preparing this article.
All the medical information on this site is collected and presented by the UIAA Medical Commission, which is a worldwide forum of doctors who are specialized in the different fields of mountain medicine. Learn more ...