Cho Oyu (8201 m), Tibet

With Adventure Peaks to Cho Oyu


I find the advert in High Magazine. The British company Adventure Peaks offers economy class expeditions to several of the world´s
mountain ranges. It is especially one expedition that catches my attention:

"Cho Oyu (8201 m), the world´s sixth highest peak provides the most straightforward opportunity for mountaineers to ascend above 8000
meters. Cho Oyu lies on the Tibetan/Nepalese border, just west of Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam.
You should be technically competent to Scottish grade 3 with previous high altitude experience up to 5-6000m or over. Summit success will
require a high level of aerobic and mountain fitness. Although Cho Oyu is described as a straightforward climb, any 8000m peak is
extremely demanding both physically and mentally."

I can find several other companies offering expeditions to Cho Oyu, but it is only Adventure Peaks that goes under £5.000, including a
return ticket from London to Kathmandu.

Day 1

We meet by the check-in counter at Heathrow. Paul, our expedition leader, is from Scotland. He has not been in the Himalayas before,
but he knows every rock on Ben Nevis. Ellis from England dreams of climbing Everest and feels very strong after having just climbed Aconcague in Peru.
The Irish friends Patricia and John are also dreaming of climbing Everest, but their only mountaineering experience comes from the green hills of Ireland.
They have barely seen snow on a trekking trip in Nepal. Steve, also from England, is the most experienced of us and has just
been acclimatizing in the Alps.

Day 3

We are sitting in a café in Kathmandu discussing high altitude medicine. For or against. Most members have already started to use
Diamox, a medicine used to reduce the symptoms of edema (an excess storage of water by the body that leads to localized swelling or
puffiness) and altitude sickness. It is also used to treat a number of disorders, including the control of epileptic seizures in those
who suffer epilepsy. Unwanted side effects while taking Diamox include drowsiness, fatigue, or a dizzy lightheaded feeling. Other common side effects
include shortness of breath. In some cases, individuals may suffer depression, pains in the area of the kidneys, and bloody or black
tarry stools. I have already decided not to use Diamox.
The streets of Kathmandu are unusually quiet. Most tourists have cancelled their trips to Nepal due to the royal massacre that
happened in June. The Maoists are also very active this autumn killing hundreds of policemen. We are told that they are not
attacking tourists.

Day 4

We're sitting in an old bus transporting us to the Tibetan border. Military have check points in every village. They are looking for
Maoists. It is a little scary to see machine guns inside the bus. The landscape looks like a jungle and I get a certain Apocalypse Now
feeling. The monsoon rain has triggered several enormous landslides. The road and many houses are washed away. We have to carry our equipment over
these areas while we see the locals searching the debris for something they can use.

We take lodgings in Lhasa Guest House in Kodari, a small village by the border. It´s pouring down. A large avalanche has stopped only a
few meters short of the house. The standard is very basic. We can hear the rats crawling inside the walls.
There are rumours of a South Korean climber who has died on Cho Oyu. Suddenly we can see a burial party entering Nepal from Tibet carrying
the South Korean in a pink sleeping bag. They place the body on a truck ready to transport it back to Kathmandu and later Seoul. A
Sherpa reassures us: "Just remember: go slow!".

Day 5

September 11th. After a thorough luggage examination, including an x-ray machine, the Chinese army finally let us into Tibet. We take
lodgings in Zhangmu at 2100m. It´s still pouring down and it´s dripping from the roof. In the evening I search for news on my shortwave radio.
I find Voice of America and hear that "a second plane has just crashed into the WTC". Is this a radio play like War of The Worlds? But when I find
the same news on BBC World Service I suddenly realize that this is not a radio play. And I have just finished Heinrich Harrer´s book "Seven Years in Tibet"!

Day 6

We start from Zhangmu at 6am. The only subject of conversation is The World Trade Center. Do we have to give up our expedition? The news
indicates that this is not the Third World War after all. We learn that the Chinese army already have closed the border behind us. We
acclimatize by climbing the nearest hill that reaches 4000m. I walk as slowly as possible. Still a bit of a headache now and then.

Day 12

We are leaving Chinese Base Camp (4830m), a windswept check-point by the end of the road. The Tibetan yak-drivers will transport the bulk of our
equipment to Advanced Base Camp, a three day walk away. We camp at 5400m. I have a splitting headache because we walked too fast to find our camp
site before dark. I feel cold and sick and I am shivering in my sleeping bag.

Day 14

I jog along - far behind the others - and reach Cho Oyu Advanced Base Camp on September 20th. ABC is situated on a rocky moraine overlooking
the Nangpa La Glacier at 5600m. I meet the members of the Norwegian Himalayan Expedition. Their camp functions as a kind of headquarters well equiped
 as it is with facilities like a satellite phone, Internet, a DVD player and a large tent with an oven. They even have a daily feature on Norwegian
Broadcasting Corporation. Their tent often function as the local cinema in the evenings. I watch Gladiator and Pearl Harbor with an
international group of climbers. Unfortunately the Norwegian expedition leader has to leave for Kathmandu due to High Altitude
Cerebral Edema where the brain swells and ceases to function properly. Our expedition gear looks really poor compared to the Norwegians.
Most of our equipment has been used on a previous expedition on Mount Everest. The tents looks worn out, half of the gas burners doesn´t
work, the chocolate bars must have melted several times and the food bags are not freeze-dried and contain almost no energy.
We try to send e-mails, but Adventure Peaks has forgotten to pay their telephone bill...

Day 16

I walk in slow-motion on the Gyabrag-glacier with Ellis. This is our first trip to Camp 1 at 6400m. Ellis tells me that he has dreams that
foretell the future. A quality he has inherited from his mother. Last night he dreamt that only three of us would reach the summit. I am
one of them. The others are himself and our expedition leader Paul. This will happen on October 13th.

Day 18

Drama on the mountain. A Swedish woman gets severely ill with cerebral edema at 8000m. She survives thanks to the Sherpas who
manage to carry her back to ABC in less than one day. It´s scary to see them walking into ABC at night with a screaming woman on their
back. Somebody starts crying.

Day 20-22

On September 26th I start climbing up to Camp 1 for the third time, this time to spend the night there. I pass John on the glacier. He
tells me that he is tired of being on the mountain and feels homesick. It doesn´t surprise me. He has not been very sociable since
we left Kathmandu. A side effect of Diamox? He starts vomiting in Camp 1 at night and is helped back to ABC the next morning.

While I am still asleep Steve and Patricia climb up to the ice fall, one of the steepest sections on the route at 6600m. Patricia has
never climbed with an ice axe before, nor with crampons, and when she sees the ice fall she says: "OK, that´s it.". She turns back. But she
still want to be the first Irish woman on the summit of Everest. Cho Oyu is just the practising ground.
The next morning we learn that John is feeling worse and has decided to leave the expedition. Patricia has nightmares all night about the
ice fall and decides to leave the expedition too. Maybe Ellis´ dreams can foretell the future after all.

Day 27

It´s late in the season. Snow is falling in ABC and several expeditions have already left the mountain. Why did we arrive in ABC
several weeks after all the other expeditions? I have spent one night in Camp 2 at 7100m, but I feel that our group
lacks the motivation to climb the mountain. We are spending too much time in ABC. I visit the Norwegian camp. Several of them have been on
the summit. They look extremely exhausted. I "bribe" them with dried fish and receive a face mask, bags of top quality Norwegian
freeze-dried food, Norwegian chocolates, etc.

Day 29-31

A blizzard wakes me up in Camp 1. I am used to this kind of weather from my hometown and feel fine in my tent. Steve and Ellis feels
uncomfortable and returns to ABC. I hear a pessimistic Slovenian climber convincing them: "I've been in the Himalayas before. This
will last for at least 5 days!".
I just can´t stand the thought of walking all the way back to ABC. I listen to my shortwave radio. I also try to read a climbing book left by Steve,
but Chris Bonington (or was it Doug Scott?) at this altitude is just too much. The sky clears in the afternoon. 20cm of fresh snow combined with bright
sunshine triggers several huge avalanches down the South face.

The wind is very strong the next day. It´s only me and some very experienced Japanese climbers moving up towards Camp 2. The wind is
relentless. It´s too cold to stop.

Climbing the ice fall takes all my energy. I find an empty Italian tent in Intermediate Camp just above
the ice fall and crawl into it to escape the wind. I find a bag full of medicine. It belongs to an old Italian professor and his guide. He
wants to be the oldest professor on an 8000-meter peak.

Because of the wind I decide to stay in the tent until the next morning. I wake up at night feeling sick. I vomit outside the tent and see the summit
 bathed in a fantastic moonlight. Ellis has found live insects in the dried fruit mix he purchased in Kathmandu. Why didn´t I throw mine away?

I am feeling fine the next morning. A Sherpa reaches my camp to take the tent back down. The professor has given up. I can have everything
I want: "We have gas boxes, biscuits, Italian cheese, noodles... This is very good!". I can´t carry much more, but I do take some cheese
and a pair of socks with me.

Less windy today. I struggle up to Camp 2. I find a huge pile of food in my tent. Somebody didn´t bother to carry it back and left it in my
tent instead. It is very normal to lose your appetite at these heights, but I am eating constantly. I have a huge appetite.

Paul reaches Camp 2 in the afternoon, but looks finished. He is constantly coughing and has no ambition to climb higher. He seems
happy to have reached Camp 2.

Day 32

The weather is still quite good but windy. Shall I continue alone up to Camp 3 at 7450 m or have a rest day and wait for Steve and Ellis
who will climb up from Camp 1? I decide to wait. Steve reaches Camp 2 in good shape in the afternoon. But Ellis turns back below the ice
fall because of the wind and his frostbitten fingers. In the evening we have a fantastic view of a thunderstorm moving up a valley far
below us. It´s fantastic to see all these peaks being illuminated by lightning.

Day 33

Krishna, our only climbing Sherpa, reaches Camp 2 before noon the next day. He is a bit worried:
"Where is Geir? Did he go for the summit?". He is relieved when he finds me in my tent. If I had climbed alone to the summit he would
have lost his summit bonus fee. But he doesn´t tell me that. Steve and I follow Krishna up to Camp 3. We meet two apathetic German
climbers coming down from Camp 3. They look totally exhausted and can only take a few steps before they have to sit down. We talk to them,
but they do not reply. Luckily we can see two other Germans climbing up from Camp 2 to help them.

Camp 3 is situated on a very steep snow slope. The wind is very strong when we reach the camp. Steve has changed personality from a
very funny guy to a dead serious person now. He is not joking anymore. It looks like his survival instincts have kicked in.
Suddenly he is only pouring tea for himself and shows no thought for others.

Day 34

October 10th. Our plan is to "wake up" at 1am and be ready for the summit bid at 3am. But it´s hard to sleep at this altitude. I am
already making breakfast around midnight. Even if I put my feet inside my down mittens, inside the sleeping bag, they still feel a
little too cold. I spend half an hour heating them over the gas stove. The extra pair of socks from the Italian professor also helps.
The weather is fantastic when we get out of the tents. It´s a very cold, starry night with moonshine and most important: no wind!
Perfect conditions. Steve behaves a bit nervously and sets a punishing pace, but after a few meters he suddenly stops: "Oh, maybe
this is too fast" he says, while he gasps for air. We climb on hard snow up to the yellow rock band, a near vertical section with fixed ropes.
It is very difficult  to use the ice axe and the ascending device in the cold darkness. The mittens are too large and have to be taken off.
Steve is lagging more and more behind. Krishna yells: "Don't go so slow!". I yell: "Steve, are you OK?". "Yes, I'm OK.". 
A few minutes later he just disappears. We cannot even see his torchlight. We later learn that he had decided to turn back due to very
cold fingers.

I am now the only expedition member left with Krishna. We turn off the torches and continue climbing in a surprisingly steady tempo. 25
steps followed by a short breather. The fixed ropes have been removed above the rock band because it´s the end of the season. This makes it
impossible to rest properly on the icy snow, and I can just hang over the ice axe. I am afraid of sliding down the face if I sit down.
At 5am I can see the sky become brighter in the East. A thin blue line with daylight. What a view!
Around 6 we reach 8000m. The sun has reached the highest summits, but we are still in the icy cold shadow. My down mittens are enormous,
but I can still feel the cold metal of the ice axe in my palms. Krishna puts down our only oxygen bottle which he has carried for
emergency use.
A little later my perceptions are distorted. I am hallucinating. The rocks are changing colours. The snow moves like waves. Their
formations are like white sofas inviting me to sit down. The brown desert landscape of the Tibetan plateau becomes phosphoric. I have
tinnitus in my ears for a few seconds. I understand that I need to drink and eat something. When I open my flask it´s empty. I cannot
remember having drunk from it. A jelly bar makes the landscape stop moving a little.

Around 8 we finally reach the summit plateau. I can see Krishna move into the sunshine. The highest point is still 500 m away. It feels
like an endless distance. I feel extremely tired. The snow becomes deeper. Why didn´t I bring my ski poles? Krishna lends me his. He
disappears in front of me and I follow in his tracks like a very old man with a walking stick. I fear that he will return to me saying:
"Sorry, you are walking too slow. We have to return now", but after a few minutes I can see him on the summit communicating with ABC.

I can also see Mount Everest for the first time and I know that I have reached the summit. At 9:25 it´s still quite early in the morning.

We take a few photos, share an apple, make a quick minidisk recording and just enjoy the fantastic view.

I feel quite strong on the summit and tell Krishna that he doesn´t have to wait for me on the descent. He disappears out of sight very
quickly. I feel that I have all the time in the world. I therefore try to enjoy the descent as much as I can.
It´s very steep. I climb unroped and I know
that most accidents happens on the descent.
I have some technical problems when I prepare to abseil down the yellow rock band. The fixed ropes are too tight to get into my
descender, and I have to improvise with a sling. It takes time. I am afraid of making mistakes. Still no drink. I reach Camp 3 around 1
pm. A Slovenian is waiting with a cup of tea. Fantastic!

After lunch I make several attempts to pack my stuff and continue down to Camp 2, but every time I try to stuff my sleeping bag I just
fall asleep over it. After the 5th try, several hours later, I finally manage to pack my gear (including the tent) and struggle down
to Camp 2.

Day 35-36

The wind is whipping my tent from early in the morning. I am glad I made it down to Camp 2. I can see our last remaining tent in Camp 3
fluttering in the wind, totally ripped apart. The rest of the descent is just a fight against the wind. The fixed ropes are high up in the air.
It´s really annoying being pushed back and forth by the wind.

Camp 1 is empty. My tent has been ripped apart. I leave most of the equipment in this camp and continue down
to ABC feeling very happy, but also extremely hungry and starved. I have been above 6000 m for a week now.
The wind never relented. I rested there for 2 more days, eating as much as I could do restore my bodyweight. At night I woke up
regularly, gasping for air. It felt like I was suffocating.

Then back to Katmandu - Italian restaurants, pizzas and pasta, cappucinos and ice cream. The whole trip took 45 days. I'm not sure
I'd ever undertake a similar journey. Once was enough?


The album Cho Oyu 8201 m - Field Recordings From Tibet is available here.

Ellis´ expedition report: Betweem Heaven & Earth

© Geir Jenssen 2006