As the saying goes, "No Man is an island" and our team proved that yesterday when they successfully took the March to the Top expedition, on behalf of the True Patriot Love foundation, to the summit of Island Peak (6,189 metres)!
After nearly three weeks of hard slog, uncomfortable conditions and thin air we finally 'topped out' on this Himalayan giant!
The first stage of our ascent took us to a high camp for the night at 5,640 metres. Our eyrie's nest gave us an enviable moonlight view of the dramatic mountains surrounding us. I think you'll agree from how wrapped up Chris Drewes, Craig Tourangeau and Dave MacDonald are, that the hot lemon we were given on arrival really hit the spot. The expedition crew also proved that not even a bivouac in a three-man tent can stop six people from having a 'high altitude meeting.' It's a pity that a camera doesn't record the temperature, because it was absolutely freezing. For the life of me, how did it remain so cold with all the hot air that mountain guides can produce!
The following day, the team hit the trail early and slowly made its way up to a spectacular glacier field, where we roped up and attached our crampons. The glacier was fissured with deep, icy crevasses and I was so grateful for the excellent training that we were given on the Athabasca glacier back in the summer. With so many experienced guides, the entire team felt very safe and well taken care of.
The biggest test of the day was the 50-degree head wall that lay between the team and their goal. All of the climbing skills that we learnt in Canmore back in July were put to the test. But at the end of the day, the only thing that carried every individual soldier to the top of that rope line and ultimately the summit was their own legs and gritty determination.
The final push was up a narrow, metre-wide snowy ridge line that no photo could ever do justice to! As we pushed for the summit, a tiny red and black 'bird' could be heard coming up the valley, as our cameraman Richard Vandentillaart came pounding up the valley by helicopter. It should be noted that to fly at helicopter to 6,500 metres would have been unheard of up until only a few years ago.
But to film at that altitude? Incredible! Richard was as Rock Star. With the door on the chopper wide open and Richard braving the freezing conditions attached only by a harness and with no supplementary oxygen, he recalled later how he had started to see stars as he became hypoxic. But he kept telling himself that if these brave soldiers were able to get to the summit, then he'd be damned if he wasn't going to get the shot!
The sheer magnitude and drama of what these Canadian Forces vets have just put themselves through and the knife-edge that they have walked to get themselves to the summit of Island Peak...will be there for all to see when the March to the Top documentary airs on CBC and Documentary at the end of January.
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