Words by October 2023 Island Peak Team Member Jonathan McMillan
Film Photos by Vasco Hartigan
Other photos shared by various team members
“You say ‘amateur’ as if it was a dirty word. ‘Amateur’ comes from the Latin word ‘amare’, which means to love. To do things for the love of it.”
– Mozart in the Jungle
24-hour travel days don’t get any easier. But in life, I like to think of that stuff as paying taxes. Long, exhausting travel days are the price you pay for the trip away. It’s all part of the game. You can’t get to A without going through B. I’m blessed with the ability to fall asleep anywhere.
I don’t know why or how, but I only really thought about it at the start of the year when I had those three months away and caught a few long flights. I’ve got the luck of sleeping on planes.
Coming back from Nepal to Australia, one connecting flight was 10 hours, and I fell asleep before we even took off, waking up with an hour to go. Thanks for coming.
When I think of adventure, the first thing that comes to mind is the unknown outcome. When you head to a new part of the world, adventure happens straight away. You’re struck by the different climate as soon as you step off the plane, the language barrier, and then the next thought is, ‘Okay, now who is not going to rip me off and take me to my hotel stress-free?’
When the world decided to shut down for all those years, like most, my attention and attitude changed towards travel. It shifted to ‘one day we might not be able to do this,’ whether it’s towards making more of an effort in your local area to maximize adventurous weekends or hopping on a plane and heading overseas for a culture change style adventure. Opportunities are all around us.
New doors open each day, and the trip to Nepal was a door I couldn’t walk through. There’s something so special about individuals signing up solo and going on a group trip. Coming together for the greater good of adventure and to see what’s out there. The mountains are always calling my name, but heading to Nepal wasn’t on the list for the year I had planned.
Until I saw a friend of mine promoting Epic Expeditions, and once I went looking and saw the photos, there was no turning back. ‘Fine, I’m in,’ I replied
The lead-up to this expedition was like no other trip I’ve done. The gear list needed, from the clothing to these 6000m boots and a climbing harness. So many new elements to understand and wrap my head around. Like a kid discovering his new favorite toy, the trip to Island Peak took up a lot of positive space in my mind on a daily basis.
Being a photographer myself and knowing that photos unfortunately never do a place justice, I knew I was in for a treat with what my eyes were about to see and where my hiking boots would take me.
A highlight for me, even before we left the heart of Thamel in Kathmandu and headed to the Sagarmatha National Park, was that Epic Expeditions starts the trip a few days earlier, giving us a few nights in Thamel to connect.
I love that. There’s always that awkwardness on the first night when you slowly get to learn about each other. Funny how fast that ends, and before you know it, you’re connecting like one big family, like you’ve known each other for the last 2 years, not 2 days.
Departing the city was a relief. After months of chatter about the trip, departing Thamel was like, ‘Yep, here we go.’ Ready to welcome in the unexpected challenges coming our way, no doubt.
Lukla airport, known for its short runway and its title of the world’s most dangerous airport. The flight time is only 25 minutes long, but for those who fear flying, let alone flying into Lukla Airport, that 25 minutes felt like a lifetime. Smiles ear to ear as we stepped off the plane and just looked around us, in complete awe of where we had landed.
There must have been something in the air that day, a bit of luck was in our favor. For the last 8 days, no flights had landed or left Lukla airport due to the bad weather. That morning we were the 3rd to last plane to land, and for the rest of the day, no flights again left or landed due to the clouds settling in.
I always am confident that how a trip starts is the momentum of how it carries out for the rest of the duration, and at this stage, we had luck and good weather on our side.
Expeditions like these don’t happen without porters and guides. Simple as that. We were greeted by 4 legends. 4 of the strongest and happiest men. These 4 men were our porters, carrying roughly 40-45kgs… making our day pack of 15kgs look like nothing. Dipak and Bagy were our 2 local guides. They’ve done this trek a dozen plus times.
You trust their opinion, and when they talk, you listen. They bring the energy when the crew would feel low, and Dipak would bring the jokes to get some laughter out of us on a daily basis. When I reflect back on this expedition, my highlight goes straight to the days coming up. In events like this, it’s the moments you least expect that make it to your memory highlight reel.
From Lukla, we spent the next 9 days learning, chatting, exploring, hiking, and laughing a lot. The daily laughter from this trip was next to none other. Time on legs averaging from 4-7 hours of hiking, with 10 am hot tea breaks along the way, and most meals being the famous ’24-hour Dal Bhat power.’
Making our way through Sagarmatha NP, each day we were immersed in different surroundings. Some days it felt like we were in the jungle, and other days like we were walking on the moon all by ourselves, with nothing but the views of mountain peaks and the sound of the river flowing. Pausing along the way to filter some water to try and keep the thumping headaches away as we climbed higher.
Two rest days were required to let our bodies acclimatize to the altitude before arriving at Base Camp. Rest days had an optional hike, so I guess they weren’t rest days for some, but they were normally shorter days. A full day in Namche on day 3, putting us at 3240m. Namche was closer to a city rather than a town.
It had it all. Even an Irish pub, that’s when you know it’s got some population passing through. It was a town at the end of the earth with the dramatic backdrop into the valley, clouds rolling in most afternoons, with the occasional break in the sky and a surprise peak just popping through, leaving us all with jaws to the floor and a moment of ‘where the heck are we?’ Picturesque paradise.
When you sign up for adventures like this, there is so much unknown. How will my body handle it? How will my gear hold up? Will I get blisters? Do I have the right first-aid gear? Sickness was bound to happen, right?
I underestimated the harsh realities of existing at altitude and was dealt the hand of daily headaches, drinking as much water as I can, but clearly still not enough to keep enough space in my brain to relax.
We all, in some way, shape, or form, got dealt a fair share of issues in terms of how our unconditioned bodies handled the elements. Some worse off than others, but again, our incredible porters and guides saved the day, especially on the days when we felt like it wasn’t going away. We had a few close calls too, with Lucy, whose body was just rejecting everything she put in it at around the 4500m mark.
Around 10 pm, she got carried down to the tea house below us, sitting around the 4100m mark, and woke up feeling tenfold better than she was 18 hours earlier. The porters and guides making the right calls, and we all felt so safe with each decision made. Epic took care of everything, and the whole 18 days couldn’t have run any smoother on the logistical side of things.
Nights were my favorite. Family-style meals each night that ended in an hour or two of card games and laughter. Sipping on honey ginger lemon tea and picking at some biscuits for dessert as the tea house slowly got quieter with each group heading to rest their heads to do it all again the next day.
Each day I’d wake up, put on the same shirt I’ve worn for the last 10 days, thinking about the last time I changed socks. ‘Hmm, one more day out of these,’ I think to myself. Repack the duffel bag just in time before the porters come and collect them, making sure I’ve got enough snacks for the day ahead.
A few Snickers bars and a bag of nuts normally sorted me, plus hydration packs to try and keep the fluid intake up to date, praying that no headaches would bother me today.
Summit day eventually came around, and we were then faced with the reality of what we actually came here to do. The last 10 days, we were so distracted by the hours of conversations and endless views that the end goal of Island Peak sometimes slipped our minds, in a good way.
Arriving at Base Camp, we were faced with not only sitting at 5100m altitude but our hardest challenge yet. A few hours of practice on the climbing ropes after lunch made us feel a little more comfortable with what the night was going to present itself with, but you never really know until you are in the depth of it.
Rest at Base Camp came around quickly. From arriving at midday to having lunch to practicing on the ropes to getting told 11:30 PM tonight we have to be back at the main tent to get ready to depart at midnight was a bit of a ‘Here we go.’ Laying down at 5:30 pm, praying to get a few hours in and just hoping that the headache gods are on your side and they’ve let you off this time round.
I woke up feeling the best I ever have, which caught me off guard. Still a minor headache and nose running like a tap, of course, but others were worse off. My roommate in the tent was in the wars. Thumping headache. So far from ideal on summit day. We knew we had a good weather window, and when you get good weather in the mountains, you make moves, and the energy from everyone was how you’d imagine the grand final morning.
It was quiet, and everyone was in their own head, but you knew, oh you knew that everyone was fired up and ready to go to war with themselves and this mountain.
The support we had around us was surreal, from the climbing sherpas to the support we gave each other. Epic Expeditions attracts such a powerhouse of humans, with a few guests from previous trips coming back, which speaks volumes on its own.
Head torches on. Bags ready. Climbing gear packed. Water bottles topped up. Looking ahead of us was just a line of lights from the other groups that got off earlier than us. Each time we looked up, it was a moment of ‘Oh, geez, we’ve got a long way to go…’ Everything just seemed so much scarier during the night. One wrong move and it’s a nasty drop down, so with each step you take with full control and back yourself in.
I personally didn’t do much research into Island Peak and here are the pros and cons to that approach. I didn’t need it until I wish I did. After 5-6 hours of scrambling up a side of Island Peak, we made it to crampon point where it was time to get into your harness and get your crampons on.
It hit me then that maybe I should have looked more into what happens after crampon point. Every step at 5800m makes you work for it. It was step step, break. Step step, break. Repeat. As the sun started to rise, it felt like we were given a second life.
The excitement of seeing the mountains to our left and right gave us a push. The next leg towards the summit felt like it wasn’t getting any closer. Each of us charged on like champions to put a close to what we came here to do.
I’m normally a pretty headstrong guy, and I’ve done some challenges in my life that I know I can reflect back on and channel an inner strength to get me to the other side, but for some reason, I was battling mentally on this one. Negative self-chatter hit me like a ton of bricks. It was thanks to the team ahead and behind me that got me through the harder bits.
Arriving at the rock wall was daunting. All we had left was 300m till the summit, but goodness me, they weren’t letting us off easy with the final push. Here’s when the climbing harness really played a role. I was no mountaineer before this, but add rock climbing, crampons, 6000m of altitude, a skill you learned less than 24 hours ago, and you’ve got a challenge ahead of you.
Left, right, and pull forward with the ascender and pray the rope holds you, and just hope no one above you knocks a loose rock or vice versa that you don’t knock one below you. Again, the guides play such a big role in this journey. I remember so clearly Bagy at the top of this rock section just yelling down, ‘My friend, you are so close. I’m here waiting! Come, come quick!’ And I’m just in an absolute world of exhaustion questioning all my decisions on how I got myself into this situation.
With that last push feeling like a lifetime, arriving at the summit was a surreal moment. I didn’t expect it, but a single tear dropped from my eye as I whispered, ‘We fucking did it.’ And with that, I just dropped to my knees and tried to take it all in. Looking around, seeing views you can’t even explain. No words can put you in the feeling we all were feeling in that moment of time. And with that, I have 7 new friends that I now call my summit family.
The ‘why’ is always hard to answer before you go on a trip like this. You can point out the obvious like adventure. But the ‘why’ doesn’t present itself until you least expect it. The ‘why’ became more obvious with each day, from the laughter we shared to the down days we all felt. The ‘why’ is the people you come across in the mountains and who you get to walk alongside for hours a day.