What It’s Like to Summit 20,000-Foot Island Peak in the Himalayas

What It's Like to Summit 20,000-Foot Island Peak in the Himalayas

I’m standing breathless on top of a frozen precipice the size of a ping pong table in the Nepalese Himalayas. The view from 20,000 feet is not exactly average. I’m staring at two of the tallest mountains in the world, Lhotse and Makalu, on the summit of Island Peak with my guide, Mingma Sherpa, who, at only 28 years old, has climbed Everest five times. The situation is surreal seeing how I committed to this climbing expedition only days ago with little mountaineering experience. If you’re headed to the Everest region and looking for a unique experience to break outside the world of trekking, look no further.

Dingboche is a place that defies human settlement. At 15,000 feet above sea level, vegetation ceases to exist. The nearest road is more than 100 miles away—which, converted into yak speed, is about a six-day ride hoofin’ it. Dingboche is a well-known stop in the Khumbu valley. Climbers and trekkers alike often take a rest day here as they prepare for the next leg of their Everest adventure.

Rolling With the Punches: A Happenstance Opportunity in the Himalayas

It had been two weeks since rendezvousing with my Canadian pals Dallas and Caitlin in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Our trek through the Everest Three Passes, one of the more demanding “hiking” routes in the area, was going off without a hitch. Dingboche presented itself as the perfect pit stop for an acclimatization day while our bodies got used to the increasingly thin oxygen.

To avoid the busy October crowds, we took our chances at one of the smaller guesthouses near the start of town, the unassuming-but-cozy Amadablam Lodge. It’s how I met Mingma. He runs the lodge with his brother Tashi.

Author (Jarek) with his Island Peak guide, Mingma, and trekking partners, Dallas and Caitlin. Jarek Strecko

We settled in and headed to the dining room for breakfast, sipping instant coffee and scalding our mouths on piping-hot fried potatoes, seemingly the only vegetable capable of growing at this altitude. From the window, I caught a view of the legendary climbing peak Ama Dablam piercing through the clouds above.

I asked Mingma if he’d ever summited. “Multiple times,” he said, adding the climb is more technical than Everest. Because of that, Ama is reserved for experienced climbers only, though I wondered what possibilities existed for someone with limited mountaineering skills like myself. And then it hit me.

I’d heard tales of a far-off mountain near the Tibetan border called Island Peak—a “trekking peak” as the elite Nepalese climbers like to call it, which required no prior mountaineering skills. Intrigued, I dug deeper, but was left conflicted. Pictures and personal accounts looked both exciting and riskier than most sane people would willingly undertake, so I asked Mingma what he thought.

“If you want to climb, I can take you,” he said casually, as if I’d asked for a ride to the airport.

I was apprehensive—due in part to Mingma’s nonchalance and my own naivety. Was it possible to climb a 20,000-foot peak in the Himalayas with little mountaineering experience?

Though trepidatious, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to trek with a local climbing prodigy. Mingma organized everything—permits, gear, and logistics. The total cost for the two-day, one-night trip was just under $700.

Basecamp Island Peak
Jarek Strecko

The Journey to Island Peak Begins—or Does It?

The expedition to basecamp started early the next morning from Chukhung. The village was a three- to four-hour walk north from Dingboche and quite possibly the last human settlement before the Tibetan border. A light dusting of snow set the stage for a dramatic approach toward our destination as we set out at 17,000 feet. In the distance, I could make out a sea of multi-colored canvas, our makeshift homes for the night.

We coalesced with the rest of the crew at basecamp, which included another guide/client pair and our chef, who welcomed us with Nepalese tea. The overcast morning turned into a storm in a flash. We hunkered down—blips in an agitated snow globe—and enjoyed a warm lunch while Mingma ran through the logistics of tomorrow’s climb. The summit bid would include three main sections: a long, easy hike to highcamp at 19,000 feet, the icefall, and finally the snow field to summit wall.

The snow remained relentless but we headed out in the late afternoon for rope training. I suited up in my climbing gear and practiced ascending and repelling the fixed line behind camp. I wondered how this relatively easy simulation would transfer over to high-altitude conditions. We had an early feed of classic Nepalese dal bhat for dinner and retired to our snow covered tents well before dark. If the storm continued through the night, there was a good chance the trip would be compromised.

Ice Wall Island Peak
Jarek Strecko

Highcamp Climb: Man VS Rope

My alarm broke the silence just past midnight. I shook the sagging snow from my tent and poked my head into the dark abyss. A beautiful sight: Although more than a foot of the fresh stuff had fallen, it looked like the Himalayan mountain gods were on our side.

Snow crunched under our boots as we navigated out of basecamp, the beams of our headlamps illuminating the way. Thankfully the other climbers had already packed down an easy-to-follow trail. When we reached highcamp, early morning light started to break, revealing the behemoth silhouettes of the Himalayas.

Now the icefall stood before us. It reminded me of the notorious Khumbu icefall on Everest, with interwoven chunks of ice bigger than a two-story house separated by deep, dark crevasses. The task was to navigate through this treacherous terrain on a series of ropes and ladders. It was like a game of chess; we made slow, strategic moves through the precariously placed ice. With sheer perseverance and Mingma’s gifted ability, we overcame the toughest section of the climb.

Above the icefall, the landscape opened up into a massive snow field. We could now see the summit wall, the last obstacle between us and the top. It was a series of fixed ropes on a vertical section of ice soaring hundreds of feet tall. The storm had caused a small slide of snow, which covered the first section of fixed rope. I turned to Mingma and asked him if we would be able to push on. He just looked back at me and in true Mingma fashion said, “Sure, sure.”

We freed the rope from the debris with our ice axes and I clipped the jumar (ascending device) onto the line behind Mingma. It was a gruelling battle of man vs. rope. One, two: slide the jumar up the line. Three, four: shuffle the crampons. I was only able to repeat this process a couple of times before I had to let myself hang, breathless. We were several hours into the demanding climb and exhaustion started settling in.

Island Peak Summit
Jarek Strecko

Joy High in the Himalayas

Things started to go south about halfway up the wall. I felt lightheaded, and deep grumbles bellowed from my lower stomach. I also made the mistake of bringing water in a reservoir with a hose, which was now completely frozen. So there I was, hanging several-hundred feet in the air with no water and feeling sick. This was no place for an emergency No. 2.

I took a few deep breaths and calmed myself down enough to push on. I wasn’t about to give up now. Only a hundred feet of line separated me from the top of this bloody mountain.

It was so steep I couldn’t actually see where the line finished, but it felt like we were close. Mingma, who was still ahead of me, disappeared. With one more heaving thrust I was surprised to see there was no rope above me. Mingma extended his hand and helped me to the summit.

We clipped our safety lines into the fixed bolt holes before attempting to stand on the small, icy peak, tears springing to my eyes.

The landscape resembled nothing remotely familiar. Apart from a few other climbers, human life seemed non-existent. Looking out from the summit ridge, we were surrounded by a panorama of expansive glacial valleys and snowy peaks of the interior Himalayas. It was now 7:45 a.m., only taking us a little over five hours to reach the summit. Mingma leaned over for a high-five, remarking how only Everest climbers make it to the top this quick.

After a brief celebration, we started the descent. The climb down was quick in comparison. We arrived at basecamp as the sun poked out behind the clouds. I collapsed in the tent, exhausted after pushing my body to the brink of its limit. We learned that out of more than 40 climbers today, less than a handful made it to the top due to the severe winter conditions.

We couldn’t stay for long though. We still needed to get back to Chukhung, where we could enjoy a much-needed rest before continuing on our Everest adventure.

Van Morrison sang, “If we wait for mountains, then we’re gonna miss a lot.” But I’d argue the opposite—especially in the sacred ranges of the Himalayas.

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