Fighting the Peak

By Arnav Patel

~Prologue~

We had been planning this trip for months. There were 15 of us that travelled to Nepal from the United States to hike through the Himalayas towards the end of my senior year of high school. Out of my family, both my parents and my younger brother had come with me. We had three teams, each with a different goal in their minds and a different destination in their eyes. The first team was headed to Gokyo Ri and planned on trekking around the 5 surrounding lakes. My mom and younger brother were a part of that team. The second team was the largest, they would be hiking to the Everest Base Camp. My mom had pushed me to go with them, but honestly it didn’t excite me very much. Sure, it had a hell of a reputation, but both my parents had done it multiple times and I knew it was just a normal hike. Also, the idea of just hiking to a base camp never excited me, I always want to make it to the summit to feel accomplished. I wanted to do something more. My dad and I decided to set our sights on Imja Tse, or the Island Peak. It would be the first technical climb for anyone in our family, so we were thrilled by the thought of it. Not to mention, the summit rested at 20,305 feet in elevation (higher than any of us had ever hiked to), so I would get my fair share of bragging rights from it.

Starting from Lukla, we hiked through the Everest Region for days. On day 4, the Gokyo team split off from the rest of the group, as their destination was farther west. My dad and I, along with the Everest Base Camp team hiked on for 3 more days together. Two days before we split up, blizzards began to bombard us, but we had to keep pushing to stick to our itinerary. 

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After our prolonged goodbyes with the Everest Base camp group, my dad (Dharmesh) and I went off to the right with our guide Prakash as the others went to the left with their respective guides. Snow was still lightly falling and the sky was still overcast as the day before was, but soon into our hike we hit a stroke of luck. The skies cleared and we saw the sun for  the first time in what seemed like days. Our spirits were lifted by this and the fact that the trail seemed to be relatively flat compared to what we had been facing the entire rest of the trip. But I knew this was just the calm before the storm as we got closer and closer to the Island Peak. While walking, I thought about the video I planned to record from the top of Island Peak. I’d been thinking of it for the entire trip. My friend didn’t know, but I was going to record a video for them from the top and send it once I got WiFi again. I was giddy at the thought of their surprise when receiving it. 

As we trekked on to Chukhung, we saw another group of hikers coming from the opposite direction. Not many people go to Chukhung without the intention of climbing Island Peak, so we decided to ask where they were coming from; they confirmed our suspicions. However, what they told us next, despite the sunny mood we were in, made our skin crawl and our hearts drop. The storm that we had been faring in Dingboche the past couple days extended over this entire region. And it was common knowledge among those attempting to climb Island Peak that if there’s a storm, you don’t take the risk and you turn yourself around. Climbing up those ropes when you can’t see the top is risky business and it had already been drilled into our heads that we would not be making it if the weather didn’t permit it. I felt endless sympathy for those climbers we met because I could hardly even imagine how I’d feel if it were me who had to turn around. Spending months preparing and weeks to get to the base of the summit only for nature to tell you ‘no’. Our hearts were heavy with fear of the storm coming back when we were to climb the mountain. As we walked on, we later met another group who attempted the climb the day before and met the same fate as the previous climbers. It was easily apparent how angry they were at the misfortune. On top of that, we met a group that couldn’t make it because, on top of the weather being bad, the poor weather caused one of the ice bridges to either narrow or break, it wasn’t completely clear. This caused our hearts to sink and we could only hope that the bridge would either regrow due to the snowfall or be replaced by a ladder.

Our plan was to get to Base Camp and do a little bit of climbing training after meeting our sherpas. Our main sherpa was named Chhewang and his secondary was Biklal. My dad and I had both done some rock climbing and scrambling before, but nothing of this magnitude. When I was told we were doing climbing training, I imagined climbing for hours and getting our arm muscles ready. Instead, we went over how to use the harness and jumar, both essential to our climb. We discussed and practiced using the jumar (which was a clip attached to a main rope that would help us climb up but prevent us from falling down) and used it to walk up a small slope while also tying the necessary knots. While I can see how this was all useful, I couldn’t help but think of how quickly I forgot how to tie a clove hitch after fulfilling that requirement for Boy Scouts. I only hoped I would retain this information for the next 48 hours. After that, we rested for the remainder of the day and waited for the next. The next day we spent time acclimatizing by climbing up the first hour of the summit. My dad and I are generally known to be the fastest hikers in our family. Which one of us is actually faster, I’m not sure of, but we operate more of as a duo so we may never find out. However, today I saw something of the likes I had never seen before. As our sherpa and I continued to hike up the incline, my dad was falling behind. I could see the exhaustion on his face as he struggled to stay with us. I figured it must’ve been the altitude getting to him, because I had never seen this problem before. It was strange because he’s been higher than we are now, both when he hiked Everest Base Camp and when we hiked Kilimanjaro together. But altitude sickness is the most unpredictable part of any high-altitude hike (besides the weather). At the base camp, we saw some of the most fit people that we met get struck with altitude sickness. We had a theory that they’re bodies required more oxygen than an unfit person’s because of the amount of exercise they perform (not that either of us had gone to med school). It can strike at times when you least expect it and incapacitate you, if not kill you, for the rest of the trip if you aren’t careful. I only hoped that this wasn’t what was happening to him. There were only two of us, so I knew that if he couldn’t make it to the top, I would turn back with him. And even if he insisted that I continue, I wouldn’t want to finish this journey without him. We hiked upwards for about an hour until we were a decent way up the foreseeable incline. Chhewang explained the summit trail to us: the first part was what we were doing (hiking on rock and scrambling on boulders), the second part would be to use our crampons to hike on the glacier, and the third part would be using the the rope and the jumar to climb up the almost-vertical side of the summit and make it to the top. When we finished our acclimatization hike, Chhewang told us that we were about a third of the way through the first part. That was exciting to hear, but little did we know that he only said that so we would feel better about what we had just done.

Some of the people we had met yesterday at Base Camp were starting to return. Today was their day to challenge the summit. One-by-one they straggled back down to the tents. With grim expressions, they informed us that none of them had made it. One man had a problem with the cheap crampons he bought, which broke on his way up. The others had to return simply because the weather didn’t permit them to go any further. It was disappointing for everyone, even us. It was expected, but if they had been able to beat the weather, that would’ve meant we had a chance too.

As we sat in the tent and awaited our time to start climbing, I couldn’t help but think about the possibility of not making it to the top. I had hiked countless peaks and never once had I failed to make it to the top. What made this one so frustrating was that it was completely out of my control. No matter how much I trained or how prepared we were, if nature decided to throw a storm at us, there was nothing we could do. If the ice bridge hadn’t been fixed in the past couple days, there was nothing we could do. The fact that it was snowing outside the tent right now, hours before we were supposed to begin climbing didn’t help give me any confidence. It had snowed for five consecutive nights now and the sky gave no indication of it ending anytime soon. I knew as well as everyone else here at the Base Camp that if the snow didn’t stop, I would have to go home, back to my mom, my brother, and everyone I left for two weeks and tell them all I failed. 

Earlier, after hearing what the hikers on the trail had to say and seeing that the snow wasn’t letting up, my dad and I had a talk with our sherpa. We discussed all the possible options and Chhewang told us that the only possibility was to give ourselves two days. We would climb the mountain on the night we planned to; if the snow didn’t let up and we had to turn around, we would come back and try again the next day. This would put us one day behind schedule, meaning that we would have to extend our post-summit days longer than expected to make up for lost time. My dad and I were completely fine with pushing ourselves if it meant we could make it to the peak. We were warned, however, if we didn’t make it to the summit on our second attempt, it was over. There would be no more do-overs, no more second chances; we would have to go home defeated. 

I’m not typically one to actively believe in a higher power. I don’t typically go to the temple and pray. But here in the Himalayas, religion was everywhere. There were monasteries built at some of the highest places in the world. Hikers attempting to climb Everest would pass through and pray for their journey. I did the same for my journey when we visited the monastery at Tengboche. All over the trails, there were rocks with religious engravings on them. These mantras came in many forms: piles of rocks, stone walls, or man-made wheels. When we had down time after talking to Chhewang, I went out to the pile of mantra rocks at the entrance of Base Camp. As I told you, I’m not one to get religious, but right now I was desperate. I concentrated on these rocks. On the air. On the mountain. There were many things on my mind and many other worries that were waiting for me back home, but right now the only thing I could ask for was to make sure our climb tomorrow morning was successful. I couldn’t bear to imagine my disappointment in myself if I didn’t make it. I knew that it was out of my control, but it still felt like giving up. So I made a decision that I didn’t tell anyone else about. No matter how bad the storm got, if I could physically keep going, I would; and I would make it to the top even if it killed me.

It was still snowing at midnight when we got called outside to get ready for our summit journey. Time passed strangely in the dark and cold tent and I’m not sure if I actually ever fell asleep. All I could remember was laying awake and starting at the ceiling; trying to get some rest but never drifting off. It seemed like I was laying there forever and I felt a strange sense of relief when Chhewang called us to get out of the tent. I had all of my clothes for the trek ready to go: an omniheat shirt, a fleece, ski jacket, rain shell, balaclava, facecloth, beanie, 2 layers of socks, gloves, and ski mittens. After spending close to 10 minutes putting on the excessive amount of layers that I brought (I hate the cold), my dad and I got up to eat the warm porridge to fuel us for the coming expedition. If you asked the people I typically go on big hikes with, they’d tell you that I’m usually the one who doesn’t get altitude sick and will finish everyone else’s plates, as a common symptom of altitude sickness is a loss of appetite. I could definitely see it happening with my dad, as I had to force him to finish his food the past few days like he was a child. However, for the first time, I also began to feel it in myself yesterday. I could eat endlessly on hikes, but something about that white bread they kept feeding us… I couldn’t choke it down for the life of me. We picked at our porridge against our desires because we knew that we would need the energy in the coming hours. 

It was nearing 1am when we finally started the hike. This is what we had been waiting for for months. Now it was time to see if we were as prepared as we thought. That was, granted that the snow stopped and we could actually test our limits today. We started hiking with the snowy wind hitting our faces with our only hope being that the storm would stop soon. We started going up the slope from yesterday again, only this time it was almost pitch black with only our headlamps to see where we were stepping. There’s typically around 15 people every day who try for the summit, but we must’ve started relatively early, because I couldn’t see anyone in front of us. After trudging along the icy rocks for a while, we made it a decent ways up. I was doing okay with the hike so far, but, as I feared, my dad was struggling. I knew the hike would only get harder but I pushed him on regardless, with the threat of altitude-induced death having left my mind as I focused on getting us to the top. As I looked down at him, I could see specks of light from lower down on the mountain. It was the other hikers making their way up towards us. We stopped to get out our water bottles, of which we filled with boiling water to help us with the cold, and kept making our way up. As we hiked on, my dad very often asked to stop and rest, saying that he was having trouble breathing. Even when we were moving, it was a slower pace than I would’ve prefered. The lights of the hikers kept getting closer and closer. Every now and again, one of the lights would reach us, and another hiker would pass us on the trail. Being a relatively fast hiker, getting passed isn’t something I typically am accustomed to nor enjoy, but there was nothing I could do as my dad was already pushing himself to his limits. He kept asking me, “How much farther until we’re done with the rocks?” I would look up at the mountain, which we could now start to see as time went and our eyes adjusted. I could see a point on the horizon where it seemed that the mountain stopped, where it curved out of view. It didn’t seem that we were too far away from it; halfway there at least! I told him that that was where the glacier started. He saw the end of our trail that I pointed at and kept pushing on. He kept asking, though, similarly to how as a child I would ask him how much longer we would be in the car before reaching our destination. Every time, I would give him the same answer and show him the farthest point we could see. However, every time I looked up at this horizon, it never seemed to get closer. We kept hiking, but it looked as if we were walking in place. The end of the first section stayed infinitely far away from us and at this point I had figured that what Chhewang told us yesterday about making it a third of the way up was bullshit because we had been hiking for hours. It was probably around 3 in the morning; the last hiker had passed us on the trail and now we were in the back; we took our water bottles during a break to rehydrate ourselves, but the caps were frozen on and we couldn’t get them open. There we were, tired, cold, dehydrated… but at some point we finally reached the end I kept looking up to. We were ecstatic to reach the glacier! But after a quick look around, we realized that there was no glacier in sight. We were still on the first part, but these weren’t just rocks anymore; we had reached the boulders. 

For me, it wasn’t too bad. I wasn’t too tired yet and I’ve been scrambling and bouldering in various places I can find them since I was a kid. My dad has been too, but right now he didn’t seem to be in any condition to be climbing over these huge boulders in our path. Not like we had much of a choice, though. We scrambled over these boulders along the ridge of the mountain for a decent amount of time (not nearly as long as the hike leading up to it, though). 

At some point, the sky began to lighted as what seemed like the first dawn in ages approached. The rocks went from bare to snow-laden. If we weren’t careful, it would’ve been easy to slip and tumble all the way down to where we started 4 hours ago. The jagged trail we climbed up wouldn’t be forgiving if you made that mistake. And when the trail got especially narrow and sketchy, there would occasionally be ropes for us to hold onto. At least we could see where we were going now. The sky was light now so we could finally see the frosty white peaks ahead of us. On top of that, the snow had stopped by this point, which was promising. I think the sunlight and the change in scenery (or the addition of any scenery at all) really helped us because dad didn’t seem to be struggling as much as he was before. For the first time that day, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and started taking pictures and videos to make sure I would never forget the beautiful snow-filled sight I was seeing. We marched up the rocks like we were walking up to Elsa’s castle in Frozen. Once we finally reached the end, we could see the icy glacier ahead of us.

We made it to the glacier and began to attach our crampons to our boots. Our sherpa advised us to leave one of the backpacks here, along with our hiking poles. He insisted that this would help us get rid of unnecessary weight before the hardest part and we could come grab our belongings on our way down. Seeing that my dad couldn’t take much more, I insisted that I would be the one to keep my pack. He put everything he needed into my pack and I put everything I didn’t need into his. Chhewang asked if we wanted to stop here for lunch, but seeing as we were so far behind schedule because of our slower pace that morning, we figured there would be time to eat later and we could just continue our ascent for the moment. We tried to get water again, but we could only find one bottle that wasn’t frozen shut, so we finished what was left in that one.

With ice picks in hand and crampons on our feet, we set off behind our sherpa as he led us farther into the glacier. We hiked along on the ice, still feeling tiny compared to the pitch-white peaks surrounding us. The thing about this glacier is that it wasn’t just a flat sheet of ice; we made our way through a jungle of ice walls and gaping chasms. Without Chhewang leading us, we would’ve gotten lost for sure. There was no trail on the glacier, and if he had just been leading us in some random direction, we wouldn’t have known. But it seemed like he knew this place like the back of his hand because we were weaving around the dips and rises in the ice, around the bends of the walls, and he did it without ever thinking twice about the path. The thing we knew about this glacier, which gave us a mixed feeling of dread and excitement, was that sometimes we would have to cross over those chasms we were seeing. The only way to do this was to climb/walk on rickety metal ladders that were staked into the ice and stretched across the holes. 

Not too far along was when we saw our first ladder. We had to keep going straight to make it to the peak, but in between us and the rest of the trail was a deep hole that I couldn’t see the bottom of. But believe me when I say even I wasn’t curious enough of what was at the bottom of that hole. Chhewang was walking towards the ladder, but then he looked to our left and got a better idea. The ladder stretched across a part of the chasm that was probably 7 feet wide. However, to our left was a section of the gap that was only around 2 feet wide. Same endlessly deep void, but Chhewang thought this part would be an easy jump across. Normally, I would never complain about having to clear a 2 foot gap, but the fact that it was on ice, I was wearing clunky crampons, and the stakes were around 100 times more intense with the drop made me a little nervous. And what also didn’t calm my nerves was the fact that when Chhewang tried to lead the way, he jumped, slipped as he landed, and his body slid towards the edge as he struggled to find a handhold; followed immediately by him struggling to his feet and laughing, insisting on us jumping next. Admittedly, it was only a 2 foot jump and I think being a couple decades younger gives me greater agility, so I cleared the gap with no problem. But after watching your own sherpa almost fall into nothingness, it gets a little freaky, okay? 

Anyways, after that small intrusion to the trail, we continued across the ice. Some portions of the trail were so narrow with a drop on one side that we would have to hug the ice wall on the opposite side, but in all honesty it was all very exciting. Before not too much longer, we reached another ladder. There would be no way around this one, so it was finally time to climb one of the ladders we had heard so much about. This ladder didn’t stretch across flat ice with a crack in it, though; this time we were on a higher plane of the glacier and had to get to the ledge below us. The ladder hung from one shelf to the other, but there was a seemingly-bottomless abyss between them, no less. Having to situate yourself to climb down backwards was definitely unnerving, as it would’ve been without being on a glacier. My legs grasping for the first rung of the ladder that was too far over the edge for my eyes to see. Although my harness was attached to a rope up above, my hands clutched the ice in front of me as if letting go would’ve been the last thing I ever did. Stepping down rung by rung, I tried not to stare into the void below me. Finally I reached the bottom and it was my dad’s turn to descend. I thought watching someone climb down the ladder would look a lot less scary in third person, but I was wrong. Now I was praying for my dad to hold on to each rung as tightly as he could.

The glacier definitely boosted our adrenaline, that’s for sure. Everything there was designed to keep us on our toes, but at least we couldn’t feel the exhaustion anymore. However, it was starting to get hot. Not the weather itself, but the sunlight combined with my excessive wardrobe was heating things up, especially with all the exercise we were doing. The others down at base camp were saying I put on too many layers, but I didn’t believe them, thinking my shell of clothes would keep me at the optimal temperature. And even if it got a little warm, I prefer that to a little cold any day. But now I was starting to think that they were right. If the hike wasn’t tiring me anymore, the sweat and heat of baking in my oven of layers definitely was slowing me down. I didn’t want to waste time to take off the layers, but I just unzipped my jackets and hoped that would be enough. On the flip side, at least my dad seemed to be doing okay. He showed no signs of fatigue like he did during the first stretch, he was hiking on like normal again almost as if he’d been reborn. 

At one point we reached a crevice that had not a ladder spanning across it, but a thin segment of the glacier itself. This must’ve been the ice bridge the previous hikers were talking about. It was definitely thin, with either side of it dropping down into the heart of the glacier. But the snow from the previous few day’s must have helped restore it in some manner, because it looked to be crossable. There was a rope spanning across the gap alongside the bridge. My dad decided to be the first to cross it after Chhewang. He attached his harness to the rope and slowly started to cross the bridge. As I waited for him to cross, I decided that this would be a prime time to take a video, so I pulled out my phone and began recording. Even looking back at the recording, it’s hard to describe exactly what went wrong. One second he was standing a few steps into the platform, and the next his ankle started to wobble as he lost his balance. My heart dropped in fear as I watched him tumble off the ice bridge towards oblivion. 

It all happened so fast that none of us had time to react, but lucky for him, the rope that he was attached to held. He was dangling above the chasm with the rope being the only thing keeping him up. Chhewang began to shout orders to me from the other side and I started pulling the rope up from my side. My dad scrambled to get back on top of the bridge as I continued to film the whole scene. Using the rope, he was able to pull himself back up and scurried across the rest of the length of the stretch on his stomach. I sure was glad he made it to the other side, but I could’ve done without him further narrowing the bridge by scrambling all over it. Nevertheless, I trapeezed across it, one foot in front of the other. It was like when you walk on the sidewalk and try to balance yourself on that edge strip of it, only when I looked down, I couldn’t see the bottom of either side of the fall.

After that, there wasn’t too much more to go until the third and final part of the hike: the peak. At one point, we had to get from the shelf of the glacier that we were on to a ledge that was around 50 feet above up. Fortunately, there were ladders to help us get up. Unfortunately, by ladders I mean there were 5 metal ladders tied, end-to-end, together by rope. I could see all the ladders and the ropes holding them together creaking and straining against each other when I put my weight on the first one and I only hoped the ropes would hold. The drop this time wasn’t into a chasm, but still, if I made it to the top and fell off, I’m sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed the 50-feet drop onto ice either way.

Before the summit, there was just one last ladder to cross. This one was no problem compared to what we’d already crossed. This was just a horizontal ladder laying across a nearly 6 foot wide crevice. My dad went first again, getting on all fours and crawling across the ladder. If I turned my head 90 degrees he would look just like he was climbing up a vertical ladder. That was the smart and preferred way to cross it, but I decided I didn’t want to go through the effort of kneeling down when crossing so I thought I should cross it standing up, simply walking across it. I also saw my dad crossing on all fours and thought that this way I would look a bit cooler. Anyways, right as soon as I started walking across the ladder, I realized what a big mistake that was. The rungs that my feet used to get across were cylinders only a couple inches across, and the spikey crampons on my shoes meant I had to step on the rung just right to avoid slamming a spike down on it and slipping. I also only had two of my appendages holding me to the ladder instead of all 4 (both my hands and both my feet). On top of that, the crampons were plain metal, so all the grip my hiking boots would normally have was thrown out the window. Or, in this case I guess, thrown down the bottomless abyss beneath me. I made it across just fine, but that was probably the scariest ladder crossing of the entire hike for me. Unnecessarily so.

Finally, we could see the peak in sight. It towered over 1000 feet above the ground we were currently hiking on. The path to get there was a rope dangling down the 60-70 degree slope. For reference, if any of you have ever climbed Half Dome, which is around 40 degrees, this is one and a half times as steep and over twice as tall. Not to mention that the peak I was staring at was made entirely of snow and ice, and was at over 20,000 feet in altitude. Despite that, we were almost there. I could physically see the end in sight! I mean, 1000 feet couldn’t be bad, right? (these were the naive thoughts of a child who hadn’t yet experienced the most difficult and physically demanding challenge in his life) The summit towered above us as we approached it and took it all in. Finally we were no longer in the cavernous jungle of the glacier. No more climbing up and down ladders to stay on the trail; everything was flat in between us and the base of the peak, willing us to approach it and attempt the climb. I’m not sure if it was my prayers or the Himalayan weather fronts that worked in our favor, but the skies were blue for as far as the eye could see. The day, the scenery, our mood, everything seemed so optimistic. Things looked to be perfect. And then we started climbing and shit hit the fan real quick.

Right before we started the final climb, also known as the ‘third part’ that I was talking about earlier, was our last chance to move anything in or out of our packs. This also meant it was our last chance to eat anything or drink anything. We still hadn’t had lunch, but we could see other hikers coming down the peak, so we were clearly behind and we didn’t want to get stuck hiking down in the dark. So we decided to eat lunch later. After all, it was only noon. We found a bottle in which we were able to break the ice in, but the freezing fluid didn’t encourage us to drink much more than a few sips.

There was a rope that dangled from the top of the summit to about halfway down the peak. At that point, there was another rope fixed there that travelled all the way down to the base, where we were standing. We finally grabbed the most important piece of equipment that we brought with us: the jumar. It looked like a cross between a large carabiner and a clamp. It was a device capable of fixing itself to the rope so that it could slide up but it wouldn’t slide back down. That way, we could continuously pull our weight up using the jumar, grab the rope with our other hand, slide the jumar further up, and pull ourselves up again. This cycle would have to continue over and over until we reached the top. Since the wall we were climbing was nearly vertical, there was no place to stop, no resting, only ascending. To be honest, it started off pretty fun. I had never done a technical climb before using ropes and harnesses, so this made me feel like a professional mountain climber. We attached ourselves to the vertical rope and started making our way up. At the very beginning, we were doing a combination between pulling ourselves and using our crampons to half-walk up; this was the first couple minutes before the slope made it so we had to go straight up. I wanted both of us to make it to the top at the same time, so my dad was in the front and I figured I would just stay at his pace below him. 

As the slope increased to the 60-70 degrees I was telling you about earlier, the crampons became less useful. I wasn’t spiderman, so walking up the side of this mountain wasn’t something that would help me. The only thing I found myself able to do was pulling myself up using only the jumar and my upper body strength. The sherpas were telling us to dig the crampons into the cliff to give ourselves support as we climbed up, but that was easy for them to say considering they’d done this climb dozens of times. I slammed my foot against the wall as hard as I could, but the solid ice didn’t give. There was nothing I could do besides hold myself up using only the jumar. Using logic and understanding the jumar, I knew that technically I could let go and still have the jumar dangle me there without me falling, but I need you to understand that at this height off the ground, your faith in ropes and devices will all be compromised as you feel the need to hold onto that clamp for dear life. I used my right arm to keep holding myself up on the jumar, never letting my full weight rest on the rope (even though it could take it) like it was life-or-death. As you can probably imagine, holding up my entire weight for hours on end became the most physically demanding thing I ever did. And in addition to holding myself up, I also had to keep climbing, and therefore keep pulling myself higher and higher. My right arm was getting a hell of a workout today as I did what felt like hundreds upon hundreds of one-armed pull ups. 

I was being drained. All my energy, stamina, strength, everything I had in me was being drained almost until depletion. I looked up and I hadn’t even made it halfway yet. Each time I had to pull myself up the rope, I felt like I was dying. I consider myself to be reletively in-shape, but this was like nothing I had ever faced before. I was so indescribably exhausted by the time I made it to the halfway point and had to switch my jumar to the next rope. Usually, when I have climbed high-altitude mountains, it’s the thin air that gets to me. I’m sure that it had an effect this time, but that wasn’t the main issue. On Kilimanjaro, my main issue was that I felt like I was going to pass out because of the lack of oxygen. That wasn’t the case here. Perhaps it was because we spent a lot of time acclimatising? Either way, this wasn’t the same feeling. I was not about to pass out. I was fully awake for this. Painfully awake. I struggled in my fully conscious agony for what felt like eternity as I tried to keep elevating myself up the mountain. My burning arms felt like they were about to break off from the amount of weight they’d had to hoist up to this altitude. The pain in them was red hot, but not even the freezing temperatures could help soothe that torment. And we still weren’t even close to being done. Every second I spent on the side of that mountain, whether I was pulling or not, was draining me until it felt like I couldn’t keep going.

Surprisingly, my dad seemed to be doing alright. Hell of a lot better than I was doing. He was a good distance above me, but he kept looking back down to make sure I didn’t get left too far behind. I knew he still found it extremely difficult, I would be amazed if he hadn’t, but his pace had definitely surpassed mine. If I wasn’t in so much physical and mental torment, I might’ve chuckled at the memory of me thinking that I would be slowed down by his pace way back when we were at the bottom. The bottom seemed like eternity ago; the only thing now was the wall. The endless wall was the gift that kept on giving. No matter how much you pulled yourself up, you never seemed to be making it closer. I only realized later on the way down that the fact that we hadn’t eaten anything since the porridge 11 hours ago and had only drank minimal amounts of water probably contributed to the fact that we were struggling so much on the way up. I shouldn’t have been surprised at my lack of energy, but I know that this still would’ve been almost just as difficult even if we had eaten our lunch when we were told to. In our defense, we were running behind. The last hikers were making their way down at the same time that we were making ours up. I couldn’t dwell on that now though, it was too late to eat or drink anything and at the moment and the other hikers were the last thing on my mind.

I looked up to see my progress. The only thing I could think was that I still wasn’t there. My arms couldn’t pull anymore. There was nothing left in my body to give to the mountain. Never in my life had I felt so defeated. There was still so much ice above me before the summit. I wasn’t going to reach it. This is the point in which I realized that even though the weather, the timing, everything had worked out for us perfectly, I wasn’t going to be able to finish this climb because of my own pitfalls. Because I was incapable of climbing any higher than this. Finally, I couldn’t even hold up my own weight anymore. It no longer mattered to me that my full weight would have to rest on the rope. If it couldn’t hold me, there was physically nothing I could do to stop it. I couldn’t keep holding myself. So then I finally let go of the jumar and let myself fall. I jerked down for a couple inches, but obviously the rope held. But there I was, both hands off the rope, completely dangling off the side of this mountain at the mercy of the rope and my jumar. I had never felt so helpless. It was time for me to go back down. There were no excuses I’d be able to give them at the bottom. The weather didn’t stop me; I had failed for no reason other than myself.

I saw my dad above me. He looked down at me and shouted for me to keep going. I couldn’t, though. He would have to make it without me. He stayed where he was, waiting for me to start to catch up to him. He didn’t understand that I couldn’t make it. Chhewang was telling him to keep going and leave Biklal to watch over me. My dad resisted, but after Chhewang’s persistent pleas, he finally gave and continued elevating. However, every few pulls up, he would turn back and shout for me to make it to him. He was making sure he wouldn’t get too far ahead of me, even though Chhewang insisted that he wait for me at the top, where he could rest. Maybe if I just made it to him… 

I was looking at my dad calling out to me when I started searching my mind. I pushed through all the anguish and almost every thought in my head was telling me to go back down. All but one. The one reason I gave myself, before even coming to Nepal, for why I wanted to get to the top. Disregarding the overall goal of summiting the mountain (which I had thrown out the window already when I decided I had to go back down), I remember telling myself who I would take a video for once I got to the top. This entire trip, every step I had taken was another step towards making it to the top so I could record this video and send it back home. I knew exactly what I was going to say in the video; I had practiced it over and over in my head every day of the trek. This stupid little desire of mine was what I held onto. I was no longer making it to the top for myself. I was making it to the top for my friend that I planned on sending this video to. I kept them in my mind as I looked back up at the infinitely far peak and I grabbed the jumar once again.

I found what little strength I still had in me. I jerked the jumar up with whatever energy I could muster. It only ascended a couple inches, but it was progress. It was higher than it was before. I hauled myself up and once again jerked the jumar up. Another inch or two. It wasn’t much, but it was progress. Little-by-little, I was making it up. I couldn’t keep holding myself up like I did at the beginning, though. After every couple inches I ascended, I let myself dangle and regain the energy for the next couple inches. Biklal saw this, but he knew at this pace we would never make it to the top and back down in time. He verbalized this to me, and although I hated hearing it, I knew he was right. I was going to have to push past whatever physical limits I had if I wanted to make it up. So that’s what I did. I found energy that I didn’t even know I had and with a burst of movement, I pulled myself up and up and up again in rapid succession probably 10 or so times before once again getting that dying feeling. Each pull was still only a few inches, but I was doing each successive pull faster than I had at any point on the climb. After those 10 hasty pulls, I had made it up the incline a good few feet and once again let myself dangle and regain energy for the next burst. After 15 or 20 seconds, again I made a burst of pulls, somewhere between 5 and 10, and ultimately pulled myself up the cliff a few feet. I repeated this cycle over and over, of making a barrage of quick yanks up the rope and then resting at a dangle, for what seemed like infinitely many times, but each time, I could feel myself getting closer, I could see the peak approaching me. Every time I did this, I kept that person in mind and imagined myself recording that video for them. I’m not sure why this is what kept me going, but it was the only thing left that I held onto. Maybe it was because it was something beyond myself. Even when hiking Kilimanjaro, I had a dumb reason in the back of my head which kept me going when I was on the brink of fainting. All it takes is a reason that you give yourself. The why of whatever your goal is. Anything that keeps you going, even at the bleakest of times. Some mantra that you can keep repeating to yourself, over and over, until you finally make it to your goal.

I could see my dad at the top. Although it felt like an eternity, it had only been 3 hours since we started the final climb. He finally made it and he with an outstretched hand he beckoned me towards him. As I approached the top, the slope began to become more calm and leveled. It was still steep and upwards, but no longer like a near-vertical surface. Now I could begin to use my feet again to push myself upwards towards him and towards my destination. As I pulled myself over the final crest to where my dad was, I found myself collapsing to my knees. All around me was an endless white sea of snow-capped peaks. The blue skies contrasted them just perfectly. After 12 hours of hiking, we had finally reached the Island Peak! The peak was tiny, the 4 of us could barely fit on it; if there was anyone else with us at the top, there would be no room for any of us to move out of fear that someone would fall all the way down the cliff that we had just spent the last 3 hours climbing up. My dad was crying out in bliss at the fact that we made it! If I hadn’t been so exhausted, I would’ve been cheering at the top of my lungs. All I could do was laugh with him at the crazy journey we went through to get to this spot. The halo of peaks surrounding us reminded us how small we really were, but standing in triumph in the center of them was a feeling unlike any I’ve ever experienced before. Although I knew there were taller peaks out there in this very mountain region, I couldn’t help but feel like I was on top of the world.

~Epilogue~

I had used up everything in the tank and more on the way up. I had been so focused on getting to the summit that I intentionally disregarded the thought of the hike back down. I assumed the hike down would be a wonderful relief after everything we went through coming up, but I was surprised by how wrong I was. First things first, we had to get off the peak. We used the jumar once again, but this time to lower ourselves down. I didn’t realize how terrifying it would be to do the whole climb backwards and let yourself fall little-by-little. After that, we still had to get off the glacier and down the rocks to base camp. We had a lot of time to make up because we were far behind anyone else who had summited, but we assumed that the downhill would be a good time to regain lost time. We especially had to hurry because we had hoped to make it back to Chukkung that day.

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize how difficult even the downhill would be. All the adrenaline had left my system by the time we finished going back across the ladders and getting off the glacier. At this point, my entire body felt like it was weighed down by all the exhaustion I had collected in the last two weeks of hiking. My body felt like a sack full of the rocks I was treading down. Even though gravity was assisting me on the downhill, lifting each leg to put it in front of the other was laborious on its own. Going downhill on the icy rocks was especially difficult because it was easier to slip and trip when trying to go fast. With my body lacking the energy to make any quick reactions, I slipped and fell on the rocks countless times on the way down. Scrapes and cuts inflicted onto my skin, and at one point I even snapped my hiking pole when trying to use it to regain balance.

But finally, after the 6 long hours it took to make it down that mountain, we finally stumbled back to base camp. We savored our first real meal since the porridge from 18 hours earlier, but unfortunately base camp was only a pit stop. After collecting everything we had left at camp and meeting up with Prakash, we set out for Chukkung. As we made it down hours after we had expected to, we needed to use our headlamps to finish the trip once the sun had set. After another 2 hours of hiking, which was thankfully flat, we reached Chukkung amidst the darkness of the night. Our fatigue got the better of us and we crashed immediately, resting from this adventure in preparation for the next few days it would take to hike out of the Himalayas. Little did I know, across the mountains, my mom was crying tears of joy when she received word that we had summited the Island Peak.

Arnav Patel is a freshman at UC Berkley, studying Economics and Data Science. He is an Eagle Scout, avid hiker and adventure traveler. He took this trip in April 2019 when he was a senior in high school. You can also listen to this audio story where he describes his experience of summiting Mt Kilimanjaro when he was 15.

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