Island Peak is one of most popular trekking peaks. I am focusing on the normal route. I am asked many questions about climbing especially since I am not a professional climber. So here are the most popular questions with my answers. As always, this information is based on my experience and are my opinions so always consult with a professional before making any serious climbing decisions.
Q: Where is Island Peak?
It is located in west-central Nepal about 50 miles from Katmandu. It's considering a trekking peak and used often as a person's first Himalayan climb. The nearest international airport is Katmandu. Most people fly into Kathmandu and take about a week to trek to base camp.
Eric Shipton's party of 1952 named the mountain Island Peak because it stands somewhat alone. In 1983, Nepal renamed it Imja Tse, but even the locals still call it Island Peak.
Q: When is it usually will climb?
A: As with most Himalayan peaks, pre and post monsoon but Spring is popular since every day it gets warmer with less threat of snow. The Fall season is just the opposite with colder days and increasingly unstable weather.
Q: I understand that Island Peak is one of the easier Trekking Peaks. How hard is it?
A: I think this is a mistake and sets false expectations for newcomers to high-altitude mountaineering. It is a real climb, albeit a short one, but requires experience with crampons, ice axe and fixed ropes. Being termed a "trekking" climb suggests there is little objective danger as in vertical ice but there are crevasses and potential avalanches along the route so care must be taken. The real crux of climbing Island Peak is the final 150 meters or last 450 feet. It can be a bit steep and these days there is a fixed rope.
Q: How does Island Peak compare with Denali or Aconcagua?
A: The altitude is what makes Island challenging. At 20,000' is is up there with Denali but lower than Aconcagua. But it is a 2-3 day climb at the most so not weeks like other big peaks. It is similar to Denali in spirit in that you cross glaciers and climb on steep snow slopes. Also you are using fixed ropes occasionally near the summit but are not roped to other climbers.
Q: How does Island Peak compare with Everest or other 8,000m peaks?
A: It is significantly simpler both it terms of altitude and duration thus a good peak to begin with.
Q: Is a Island Peak climb dangerous?
A: It can be like any other mountain. You should understand climbing in crampons, blizzard conditions, snow camping and have other cold weather skills. Some prior snow climbing skills are needed.
Q: How many people had summited and how many people had died trying?
A: The Himalayan Database doesn't keep data for trekking peaks but I would make a wild guess that over 30,000 people have summited Island and perhaps handful of deaths.
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Q: How do you you train for this climb?
A: I climbed my Colorado 14,000' mountains mostly with a 30 pound pack. This increased my cardio, stamina and overall strength. I no longer run due to bad knees. I did not work out in an indoor gym. I feel real-world training is the best prep if possible. If you live at sea-level, find a sandy beach and walk/run with a large pack to work the micro-muscles and climb stairs in a high-rise office building.
Q: Will altitude a problem on this climb?
A: Yes, it is always a challenge on climbs above 6,000-meters. Altitude can be a problem for anyone above 8,000', much less when you are going above 20,000'. To acclimatize in route, the travel to base camp should take about a week.
Q: Can you prepare for the altitude?
A: Not really. The common approach is to move slowly up the mountain (1000' a day maximum) spending your days at a higher altitude than where you sleep up until your summit bid. As you go higher, the barometric pressure decreases, although the air still contains 21% oxygen, every breath contains less molecules of oxygen. Everest legend Tom Hornbein explained it to the American Lung Association this way:
The lower oxygen stimulates chemoreceptors that initiate an increase in breathing, resulting in a lowering of the partial pressure of CO2 and hence more alkaline blood pH. The kidneys begin to unload bicarbonate to compensate. Though this adaptation can take many days, up to 80% occurs just in the first 48 to 72 hours. There are many other physiologic changes going on, among them the stimulus of low oxygen to release the hormone, erythropoietin to stimulate more red blood cell production, a physiological and still acceptable form of blood doping that enhances endurance performance at low altitudes. Adaptive changes are not always good for one’s health. Some South American high altitude residents can have what’s called chronic mountain sickness, resulting from too many red blood cells; their blood can be up to 84-85% red blood cells. The increased blood viscosity and sometimes associated pulmonary hypertension can result in right heart failure.
You cannot do much to acclimatize at low altitudes but there are companies that claim to help the acclimatization process through specially designed tents that simulate the reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations. I have no personal experience with these systems but you can find more details at the Hypoxico website. They cost about $7,000 or can be rented for about $170 a week. Outside Magazine posted an article in 2013 questioning their effectiveness for climbing.
Q: What kind of equipment will you you use?
A: The same gear I used on Everest or Denali except no down suit or oxygen. I use a 3 layer system: base, warmth and wind/cold. My personal technical equipment included a long handle ice axe, harness, carabineers and crampons. It is always critical to protect my toes, fingers and face since these were most susceptible to frost bite. See my gear page for a complete discussion and my gear list updated for 2018. I am very pleased with all my gear but had a few standouts that I note on my gear page.
Q: Anything special in your gear for Island Peak?
A: I used everything on my gear page under Everest except the full down suit. It was be extremely cold and windy at times, especially on the summit, so multiple down layers were required. I did make a last minute change and rented a Mountain Hardwear 800 Fill Down jacket and was glad I did as I would have gotten pretty cold without it. The Sunrise Lodge in Chhungkug offers all the gear needed to climb Island at a very reasonable $100 flat fee. They also off base camp services complete with roomy 3 person tent with think sleeping pad plus a cook for breakfast lunch and dinner and clean water for about $65. This greatly simplifies the logistics of hauling gear in from Lukla as well as cooking, food and, stoves and fuel.
Q: How did you communicate back home?
A: Most of the teahouses offer Wi-Fi through Everest LInk at about $5 for 1GB of data. Ncell mobil phone service was sparse once outside of Namache. I did use my Thuraya sat phone. For details on my expedition communications, please see this tutorial.
Q: Which route is most popular?
A: There is really only one standard route that leads from the base and advanced base camp on the Chhukung side of the mountain. I'm sure there are other routes that have been climbed.
Q: How long does it take?
A: A week to get to base camp, a few days to summit and four days to get back to Kathmandu. It takes between 2 and 3 weeks in total.
Q: How much does a standard climb cost with and without a guide?
A: The costs can range from $1,000 to $5,000 depending on who you use. If you use a logistics company only, you might be able to cut the highest cost by a third. See my Guide page for more details. The Sunrise Lodge in Chhungkug offers all the gear needed to climb Island at a very reasonable $100 flat fee. They also offer base camp services complete with roomy 3 person tent with thick sleeping pad plus a cook for breakfast lunch and dinner and clean water for about $65. This greatly simplifies the logistics of hauling gear in from Lukla as well as cooking, food, stoves and fuel.
Q: Do I need a permit to climb?
A: Yes a climbing permit is required through the Nepal Ministry of Tourism of $300 per person.
Q: Do I really need a guide for Island Peak?
A: You will need help getting a permit and entering Nepal at a minimum thus need a ground agent. Once there, It all depends on your skills, money and time available. Many people go to Island Peak without a formal guide and contract with local agencies for yaks, porters or carry everything themselves. There are usually a lot of climbers on Island Peak so you would probably not be alone but easily could be. In harsh weather (white-outs) or in a medical emergency, you will be on your own so consider your skill level carefully. Climbing alone or in too small of a team is never a good idea.
Q: How do you get on an expedition to climb Island Peak?
A: Since it is relatively straight forward, most guides will take anyone, even with no experience. But most anyone can get on a Island Peak commercial expedition these days without many questions so be careful who you select since you may get caught up in a mess. There are horror stories of using low cost Nepal based guides but also some with excellent results.
Q: What is involved if I plan my own climb?
A: Basically everything: permits, travel, hotels, food, gear, routes, communications, emergency contentions - everything. There are local companies in Katmandu who can provide some services such as getting food or heavy tents to base camp. And some can provide a Sherpa at low costs. You can save a lot of money this way but as I said before, consider your skills in the event that something goes wrong - are you 100% self sufficient? What are your medical skills? HAPE and HACE are really possibilities on Island Peak - do you have the proper medicine and training to deal with it? And a hundred more questions. See my guide page for more. Again, climbing alone or in small teams is never a good idea. Saving a few hundred dollars is not worth your life.
Q: Did you you summit?
A: yes around 10 am on October 20, 2018.
Q: Who did you climbing with?
A: I climbed with Kami Sherpa, just the two of us and no commercial team
Q: Which route did you plan to take?
A: We took the regular route from Chhukung From there we used an established base camp and then went to the summit and returned to Chhukung 15 hours later.
The climb began in the dark. For the next five hours, the route was lit by bright headlamps. Climbers were ahead and behind. Often we all switched places as those behind moved up and those ahead slowed down. For me, I learned from many expeditions years ago that climbing at this level is not a competition and you go at your own pace. I estimated there were over 50 people on the route this October day.
We reached crampon point about sunrise as we left the rocks for the snow. Before I go on, the rocks were more than I had anticipated. As we left Base Camp, for half an hour it was a fairly level walk until we began to go higher, and higher and higher. The route followed rock walls cliffs, at times it was on narrow ledges. I cannot for the life of me understand why Nepal labels this a ”Trekking Peak” as it is full-on rock scrambling at altitude with all the risks. I think it sends the wrong message to prospective climbers.
Arriving at Crampon Point, we put on our harness, cows tails (a rigging of a carabineer and a jumar connected to the harness with webbing) and of course crampons. We left the point and continued to climb higher. Soon, about half an hour later, we navigated a series of deep crevasses, yet navigable, crossing that invited rappelling and climbing up the last one was a four ladder scenario that took us to the flat crossing to the base of the headwall. It was now early morning and the sun was warming the glacier on this clear day.
A bit of introspection. About four hours from base camp, I began to feel dizzy, light headed. Not sure what was going on but it soon passed. A half an hour beyond crampon point, I began to stress to catch my breath.
Just short of the headwall, I began to doubt my capability to go higher. With these recent experiences bouncing around my head plus the echoes of the Twin Sisters incident and a year of recovery, yes, my confidence was low. I knew this would be a test of my fitness, confidence, mental discipline and that if I needed help, I wouldn't’t hesitate. Another thing I’ve learned in climbing for the past 25 years is that it’s silly to let pride stand in way of safety.
I continued to feel worse, short of breath, low energy. I wanted to turn back. We had left base camp at 1:00 am, reached High Camp around 3:00 am and Crampon Point at 5:00 am. While I wasn’t tired, leg weary or spent, I was short of breath. Every step higher was painful. At times my lungs felt like there was a 4th of July sparkler exploding inside, the base of my esophagus and trachea burned like acid was being poured on them. Each time I coughed and coughed hard, my abdomen exploded. It was painful yet I somehow knew I should not turn back.
With this conundrum, I called Jim Davidson, my trusted friend who had extreme experience plus knew me and my psyche well. “Jim, I need your help to think through this.” I explained what I was feeling, at 19,500’ what was left to get to the summit. “Jim, I really want to summit as this is my last big climb, but also I didn’t want to fall over.”
Jim then gave me the most salient advice I’ve ever received on a climb “Alan, climb at the pace your body will provide oxygen” And with that, I asked Kami to slow down and let me take the lead. Of course, he agreed and I was soon in front climbing step by step, jumar attached to the fixed rope. It was painful. I often coughed long, deep and hard creating a strong explosion and burning in my chest. I thought deeply about my purpose, “I was not hurting, I was hurt.” But deep inside I knew I needed, “needed” to make the summit.
The last 18 months had been complicated in my life with respect to climbing. The broken leg, the recovery, the lost dreams of more 8000ers. And the last 18 months had been a joy, marrying Diane, creating a new home and family, extending my speaking writing and coaching business to new levels. Yes, so much was good yet it was climbing that fed my soul.
I reached the two-thirds mark on the headwall. It was laborious and painful. The slope was 40 to 60 degrees, it had nothing to do with trekking. It was similar to the Lhotse Face without steps. At the time, I pulled hard on the jumar. My crampons dug in.
I thought about why I was climbing, my purpose and asked myself these questions as I made the last push: “Am I hurt or hurting”, “Is this hard or impossible” and “What is the one reason to go on and not turn back”. The answer to all of these was Ida.
I was climbing Island Peak as a continuation of my effort to raise money for Alzheimer’s research. Alzheimer’s killed my mom, Ida in 2009 and I have been steadfast to use what many consider a selfish sport to raise awareness that the disease has no prevention, cure or reversal and is 100% deadly.
As the morning developed and the crowds grew on this popular climb, in the spirit of “misery loves company” I saw a few people struggling as I was. I began to take a step and count breaths, something I’ve never done, even on 8000-meter peaks. Suddenly, my breathing came back under control, the pain lessened and I felt a surge of confidence. This was similar to my K2 experience. I pushed on nearing the summit ridge. And then we were there.
The final ramp to the tiny summit was like a staircase, perhaps only 10 meters long at a 20-degree angle. I walked up it with ease – surprising myself and creating an entirely new set of questions within my self-confidence crisis.
Kami and I stood together on the summit. We shared it with a rather large group of about 10 from various countries. Smartphones, selfie-sticks and a few old-fashion cameras were hauled out, asking one another “Will you take our picture?” Apparently, Kami appeared to be most in control and became the cameraman for almost everyone there. In the midst of this, he grabbed my camera, gave it to another Sherpa and said: “Take us.” I smiled deeply inside that my friend wanted our picture together on the summit.
Q: What kind of weather conditions did you have?
A: It was calm and clear when we started at 1:00 am but the winds picked up and gusted to 25-25 mph on the summit. Overall it was fine.
Q: Did you use supplemental oxygen?
A: No, it is usually only used over 23,000 feet for 8,000-meter mountains.
Q: How did the fund raising go for the Cure Alzheimer's Fund go?
A: Over $40,000 was raised for Cure Alzheimer's Fund in October during Kami and my summit of Island Peak. 100% of all donations go to research, none to overhead, marketing or ever to me. My deep appreciation to Jim and Carol Beers for the matching $20K donation
Island Peak is not to be underestimated. It is real climbing with rock and the headwall. It is NOT a trekking peak i.e. walk up.
Island Peak Resources