BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH
by Ellis James Stewart
Cho Oyu is one of the world's highest mountains (26,906 feet [8,201 m]), in the Himalayas on the Nepalese-Tibetan (Chinese) border about 20 miles(30 km) northwest of Mt. Everest. The Nangpa La, a glacier saddle (pass) 19,050 feet high lying south of the peak, forms part of the trade route between Tibet and the valley of Khumbu. Glaciers and a bitter climate delayed the climbing of Cho Oyu until Oct. 19, 1954, when an Austrian party including Herbert Tichy, Sepp Jöchler, and Pasang Dawa Lama reached the summit.
During the autumn season of 2001, Ellis travelled to Nepal, where he then travelled by transport and foot into Tibet, to attempt to reach the summit of Mount Cho Oyu. Of the world's fourteen 8,000-metre peaks, Cho Oyu has a good record of success and posed little technical threat. However any peak over 8,000 metres should be considered a serious under taking, and Cho Oyu at 8,201 metres high was a very stern challenge for Ellis, pushing his limits and the body to a very high degree. Ellis was climbing without supplemental oxygen, making the climb even more arduous and gruelling. The dangers of climbing at high altitude are numerous, and Ellis and the whole climbing team had to be 100% prepared, mentally and physically.The route attempted on Cho Oyu was the North West face. The team established a series of camps up the North West ridge, to a high camp at approximately 7,400 metres. This is the camp where the team will made their summit attempt.
Below is a detailed report of the expedition:
At 8,201 metres above sea level, Cho Oyu is our planets sixth highest loftiest perch, with only the summits of Everest, K2, Kanchenjunga, Makalu and Lhotse higher.
The route we were to tackle was the normal route of ascent through from Tibet, promising to be no more than a gentle snow plod on slopes no steeper than 30°. There were a few exceptions where the route steepened to 60°, although these sections were protected by fixed ropes requiring nothing more technical than clipping in a jumar and simply ascending up the rope. I was assured that Cho Oyu provided the most straightforward opportunity for Mountaineers to ascend over 8,000 metres. The objective danger was minimal, and providing that we had good weather and we were fit enough, we had a very good chance of reaching the summit of the world’s sixth highest peak. So the trip itinerary said anyway.
And so it came to pass that not content with having reached the summit of Aconcagua earlier in the year, I found myself at Terminal 3 of Heathrow on a warm Septembers evening about to board a flight to Kathmandu, from where we would travel in Bus’s and 4 wheel drives overland to the land of Tibet, and on to the foot of the North side of Cho Oyu.
After an overnight delay in Doha, we finally arrived in Kathmandu where we were to spend the next few days sorting out our Tibetan Visas and also getting to know one another and also our Sherpa staff of which we had one climbing Sherpa and two cook Sherpas. There were six of us in the climbing team, the leader Paul, a highly experienced Scottish climber also having his first taste of 8,000 metre climbing. John and Patricia, both from Ireland and both hoping to go on to Everest after Cho Oyu, Steve, the second of the British Contingency and probably the most experienced climber on paper with over 19 years of Alpine experience tucked under his belt, and apart from myself the third of the Brits we also had a Norwegian called Geir, who back home in his native Norway was a chart topping ambient musician. Six complete strangers but all bonded together by one common denominator. The desire or obsession, call it what you will of reaching the summit of an 8,000-metre peak.
After spending a couple of days in Kathmandu trying to avoid picking up any food poisoning or sickness bug, we began the journey that would eventually take us through Nepal and across the border into the mystical land of Tibet.
A bumpy five-hour bus journey brought us to the border town of Kodari, where we rested for the night awaiting our crossing of the Friendship Bridge into China, or should that be Tibet. Since the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet the place has lost a lot of its identity, and the Chinese occupancy is evident everywhere. Non more so than here at the border, where armed Chinese guards patrol up and down the friendship bridge like Nazis in a concentration camp.
The following day after all the beaurocracy of the Chinese we were finally allowed in to Tibet after we convinced them that are motives for being here were nothing more sinister than Mountaineering. You would think that after allowing 25 teams in before us, all heading to Cho Oyu that they would believe our story. But it took much persuasion and gentle coaxing by our Chinese liaison officer who we met here, before the Chinese customs officials relented and finally allowed us into Tibet and the border town of Zangmu.
After another overnight stay in Zangmu, we were ready to proceed on towards Nyalam along the friendship highway. This 920km stretch of road between Kathmandu and Lhasa is well travelled nowadays and presents little problems apart from when monsoon rains wash huge sections of the road away, which needs to be rebuilt each year by the Tibetans. This road has got to be one of the most spectacular in the whole world, leaving Nepal at Kodari it begins its steep climb up and up through Zangmu on to Nyalam (3750m) and up to the La lung la pass (5050m), from here it descends back down a little to the hamlet of Tingri (4342m) where climbers and travellers rest before going on to Everest, Cho Oyu or further a field to Lhasa. From here you get you’re first real view of Cho Oyu and Everest, towering magnificently over the high Tibetan plateau.
It was whilst at Tingri that I experienced my first bout of sickness, not able to participate in an acclimatisation walk due to constant vomiting and diorreah picked up from a dodgy meal in the lodge restaurant. However I soon recovered and we continued on our way to Cho Oyu. Next stop Chinese Base camp (4700m). After spending a further two days here resting and acclimatising we finally began Trekking, and left the jeeps behind. We trekked for three days using three camps on route to Advanced Base Camp at 5,700 metres at the foot of the mountain.
When ascending above 4,000 metres it is important to allow your body time to acclimatise, therefore rushing straight from Chinese Base Camp at 4,700 to Advanced Base Camp at 5,700 is not advisable, hence the need for the three intermediate camps on route. This more leisurely approach also allowed for more time to go on useful acclimatisation excursions up near by hillsides.
The six of us finally arrived at ABC and were ready to begin the actual climbing of the Mountain. The whole route that we were to tackle was clearly visible, and we arrived during a spell of fantastic weather with clear blue skies and excellent snow conditions.
As a result we sat around during our rest watching teams summiting under perfect conditions.
The northwest ridge of Cho Oyu, or more commonly called ‘the normal route’ was our intended route of ascent, and we were to share this route with some 25 other teams this season on Cho Oyu, so my first 8,000 metre peak wasn’t going to be an isolated affair. Infact during some days the route to the top well and truly became a highway, with dozens of climbers scrambling up and down between the three official camps on the mountain. With the exception of Camp two that was hidden from view, camps one and three were clearly visible as was the snake of climbers strung out between these camps.
Camp one (6,400) was a 5 hour climb from ABC and involved nothing more serious than a stiff climb up steep scree slopes at the head of the chaotic moraine of the Gyabrag glacier. In fact you didn’t even require climbing boots for the trek up to camp one, a good pair of solid approach shoes would suffice. Camp Two located at 7,000 metres was a different proposition and the climb up to camp two required the use of fixed ropes as a steep serac barrier had to be climbed at 6,600 metres. However this was relatively straightforward and once at the top of the serac, the route relented again, lessening in angle back down to around 30-40°. The climb to Camp two took around 8 hours from Camp One. Camp three (7,400m) was only 400 metres higher and four hours from Camp two, yet the altitude certainly makes itself known at this, the high camp on the mountain from which all summit bids are launched.
After resting up at ABC we began working towards establishing our three camps on the mountain and began the first of many forays up to camp one. With the help of our climbing Sherpa and a few local Tibetan porters, we carried all our tents and food and personal equipment up on to the mountain ready to be moved up to the higher camps.
After spending a few nights at camp one acclimatising we retreated back to ABC to get some well-earned rest in the richer oxygen and comfort of our mess tent, where our Sherpa cooks would present us with all manner of western dishes that had been meticulously prepared. The cooks were very eager to please, and some of the delights that we encountered at meal times included everything from Fish and Chips to a Garlic and Egg pizza.
With camp one now in place we began working towards getting camp two in to play. In between spells of good weather we would sluggishly drag our weary bodies up and down the mountain carrying loads for the high camps. It was exhausting work, and the slightest exertion left you bent over double desperately trying to get some air into you’re lungs. All in all it took us the best part of three weeks establishing the camps and acclimatising, getting ourselves prepared for our summit bids.
The six of us soon became four as John and Pat the two Irish members were early casualties. Upon reaching Camp one for the first night stay John became very ill, and had to descend back to Base camp (BC) for rapid recovery, however he didn’t recover and his altitude symptoms became a lot worse, so the decision was made to descend him back to the Chinese border and out to Kathmandu. It was a shame as he was a good member; he had aims of going to Everest next spring.
Pat was aiming to become the first Irish lady to summit an 8'000 metre peak and then to go on and do Everest also. However when John became ill, she decided to accompany her friend home, so never got any higher than Camp one.
So that left Me, Geir (Norway), Steve (UK) and Paul (UK). We reshuffled and life carried on as normal. We spent the next few weeks basically establishing the camps up the mountain. We placed three camps on the route although we did have the option of using a fourth camp, if need be, which as it happened became the reason of Geir's success as he was the only one to use this camp later on.
We also became involved in the rescue of a Swedish climber who in her bid for the summit became extremely irrational, and lost all sense of reasoning, and had to be short roped down from almost 7,900 metres all the way down to ABC. By the time her leader and guide had managed to drag her into camp one she had become seriously ill, and it became perfectly apparent that she was suffering some kind of cerebral attack. Her leader was too tired to bring her all the way down to ABC, so we all formed a rescue team and climbed through the glacier one evening to help bring her back down to ABC where it was hoped she would make a full recovery.
So in between spells of bad weather we scurried up the Mountain, got our camps into position and scurried back down to BC before the weather took hold. On the way into BC we witnessed something, which pit us all in depressed state. A Korean climber has died as a result of being left in his tent with Cerebral Oedema, he lay there for 10 days getting worse and worse before his fellow team members realised anything was wrong, by which time it was too late. His body was paraded past us while we were at the border town of Kodari. There were Nepali children swarming all around him like he was some sort of toy to be played with.
On top of all this we had to contend with an unusually long monsoon, which had took its toll by wiping out huge sections of the road into Tibet. We had to hire porters to carry our equipment over the sections where the roads used to be but had now been replaced by huge landslides of Mud and rock from the surrounding hillside. It was sad to see Nepalese shanty houses destroyed, with the occupants still nestled inside trying to repair their homes with their bare hands. This made me weep with despair and also made me realise how fortunate and well off we are in Britain in comparison to third world nations such as Nepal and Tibet.
As a team and as individual climbers we were now perfectly poised to make our bids for the summit. Our camps were in place and were stocked and we had emergency oxygen at camp three should we require it. The plan was to climb up to camp three and to try and get some rest before leaving hopefully under a clear windless sky in the early hours of the morning for the 5-8 hour climb up to the summit. However as with most Himalayan expeditions our plan didn’t go according to plan. The weather had other ideas. We had to sit and watch as what seemed like perfect summit conditions, rapidly deteriorated into one of the worse seasons on Cho Oyu in a long time. Most of the large-scale commercial expeditions were also about to make their summit bids when the weather turned and had to also abandon their attempts.
In two days about 6-8 inches of fresh snow fell obliterating the tracks to the summit and leaving much of the mountain in high avalanche danger, although much of the route wasn’t immediately at danger from avalanches
With the three camps now established and our acclimatisation runs finished, it was time to rest at BC for a few days before going for the summit. I went for a summit push along with Steve, and we both left BC after our rest in Positive moods. Geir had already gone up to camp one the previous day, as he wanted to take advantage of a spell of good weather. The weather when myself and Steve went to camp one wasn’t fantastic and I did have my doubts about going up, but I persevered and reached camp one in a dreadful snow storm with strong winds freezing everything and making matters much worse. What normally takes 5-7 hours to reach had taken me over 9, and by the time I dragged my weary body into camp I was a physical wreck.
I crawled into my sleeping bag and lay there motionless for the next 17 hours as the storm ripped into camp. I hoped and prayed that the winds wouldn’t tumble my tent and me down the side of the mountain. It became very airy and there were moments when I actually thought that the winds would win. But I hung on in till the morning, where the storm hadn’t lessened any. After conferring with Steve in the other tent and Paul down at BC a decision was made to call off our attempt and to retreat to BC. Geir however elected to stay in case the situation improved.
So began one of the worst spells on the Mountain for me, as I elected to wait in Camp one for a bit to see if the weather improved. Steve had already begun descending, and by the time I managed to coax myself into life and get ready the weather had got worse. I came out of my tent and was hit by all the fury of the storm as snow lashed into my face hurting me like bugger. I began the descent down to BC in a white out with a blizzard raging all around. I became scared at my predicament and the situation, and it was hard to concentrate and keep my focus. To make matters much worse I was finding it difficult to stay on my feet, the wind kept blowing me over and my crampons could get no purchase on the snow as it had been blown away revealing cold black ice underneath.
After maybe an hour of stumbling and tripping down the mountain, I decided that seeming how I was spending most of my time on my backside that the best method of descent would be to stay on my arse. So that is exactly what I did, I spent the next several hours sliding down the mountain on my backside, using my ice axe to slow me down when I went too fast. I managed to make it down the steep section where the winds relented somewhat and I was able to finally stand up without being blown over.
At one stage I can remember telling the winds with all my rage and mite to "F**K OFF". It was so frustrating. The fresh snow had obliterated the tracks and the route back to BC, and route finding back across the glacier became fruitless and very tiring. I had to be very careful as all the crevasses that were visible in good weather were now concealed, and it would of been very easy to step into a crevasse under a carpet of new snow.
After maybe an hour of descending through the glacier I stopped dead in my tracks, what I at first took to be the sound of Thunder soon knocked me to my senses as I realised I was listening to the sound of an avalanche thundering down from a nearby peak. My heart froze. I looked up to my left and saw an almighty amount of snow breaking away from a serac on a mountain ridge. From my angle it was difficult to tell if it would reach me or not. It was certainly heading right for me, but did it have the power and the force to reach me. I braced myself for the impact, but luckily it stopped well short and I quickly hurried away from the vicinity in case of further avalanches, and after maybe another 3 hours I reached BC, where I collapsed in the mess tent and was revived with a hot Sherpa tea.
The Following day the weather broke, and we had blue still skies all day. The plan was for Paul to go up to Camp one and join Geir, while Steve and I would rest and come back up the following day. Geir however had took advantage of the good weather and come out of his tent at Camp one and climbed up to an intermediate camp between One and Two. As a team we were now scattered all over the Mountain.
The following day Steve and I began ascending again to Camp one. This time the weather wasn’t as bad as the previous attempt and I reached my tent at Camp one much quicker. That evening at camp one though, I suffered a bad earache, which kept me awake through the night and continued into the following morning. That morning Steve moved up to camp two to meet Geir and Paul who were both by now in Camp two, while I elected to rest at camp one due to this ear ache.
We were now moving up the mountain and getting ready for a summit bid, the following day dawned and my earache had completely gone. However I was now presented with a new problem, the weather had turned nasty again, and I was going to have to climb up to Camp two in strong winds and freezing temperatures. I had already been up to camp two when establishing the camps earlier in the expedition and I knew what lay ahead of me in terms of the route. There were a few pitches of steep ground to cover and I would be climbing again on the fixed ropes over the icefall and up the serac barriers, the steepest most dangerous part of the whole route. I wrapped up as warm as I could and left the tent and began climbing up to Camp two, a journey of around 7-8 hours.
The next three hours were a living nightmare, and even now the memory of it is so vivid. I struggled and heaved and climbed my way up towards the icefall, I was constantly blown over by blasts of icy wind, and I fell at one point and used my ice axe top break my fall. It took me an hour to climb back up the distance I had just fallen. I was getting nowhere fast and the weather was weakening me by the second. The crunch came when I reached the fixed ropes. The rope was being whipped out into thin air, and I had extreme difficulty in controlling it. I couldn’t tie any knots or get my jumar (ascending device) to attach to the rope. It was at this point that I realised that to my horror my fingers were beginning to freeze, I had no sensation in them whatsoever. I tied myself into the face of the mountain and began to delve into my pack for my warmer gloves; this however meant that I would have to remove the gloves I had on thus exposing my flesh to the freezing temperature. I had no choice I had to do it. I changed gloves over and began ascending for maybe another 30-40 minutes. But the battle was lost I had been fighting a losing game the minute I had left my tent.
I weighed up all my options and decided that to continue would of placed me in extreme jeopardy, as I was becoming extremely exhausted and well past my limit. I decided that I would turn around and retreat to camp one.
Even now I was worried about the consequences of losing a finger or two. It took me a minute to make up my mind and another hour to descend back down the way I had come. I staggered the last few feet into camp one and collapsed falling into a deep sleep for the next 12 hours, when I awoke the weather had be stilled but I knew that I was well out of position for a summit attempt
Upon conferring with the others, Paul was at camp two resting up with a bad cough but Steve and Geir had managed to climb up to Camp three where the winds had not been as strong. They were both now perfectly poised for summit bids. Krishna our climbing Sherpa was with them.
Throughout the rest of the day of the 9th the weather never let up its stranglehold on camp one, I was pinned to my tent, becoming more and more frustrated, yet also sensible enough to know that to ascend up the mountain would of been a perilous and foolhardy thing to do. Whilst in my tent, the sensation started to return to my fingers and for brief spell the winds died down. I made one last attempt to reach camp two, but I had to finally accept defeat, as I had nothing left to give to the mountain. The winds and storms had left me wasted and totally at the end of my endurance. My legs kept buckling beneath me, and I became more and more hypoxic. Climbing to 7'100 metres on an unknown dangerous mountain was not the best idea in the world. In the end my legs gave out completely, and I had to crawl back into my tent. I spent the next few hours weeping uncontrollably, as I knew that my chance at summiting Cho Oyu had gone.
Such is the lottery of climbing 8,000-metre peaks. It is so weather dependant, that most of the time on climbs of this nature you are sat around at Base camp wondering if you are going to get to engage in any actual climbing at all. You can go for days without being able to even step out of your tent, or on the other hand you may have weeks of clear fine weather, such as we had when we first arrived on the mountain.
All that remained was for me to stand by the radio during the night to see how Steve and Geir were doing up at three. One thing was for sure they wouldn’t be going anywhere if the winds didn’t improve. At about 10.00 pm the strangest thing happened, the winds that had battered me into submission over the past several days suddenly vanished and left the mountain in an air of peace and tranquillity. This was Geir's and Steve’s chance, and at 2.30am they left there tent at camp three bound for the summit. After maybe an hour of climbing, Steve decided that he had climbed high enough and retreated back to Camp Three, later he cited the extreme cold on his fingers as the reason for his retreat.
Geir the Norwegian continued on with Krishna, and took advantage of the fantastic spell of calmness that had befallen the mountain. At 9.25am on the morning of the 10th under a clear windless sky, Geir and Krishna reached the summit of Cho Oyu, where they spent maybe 40 minutes on the top before beginning their descent back down the mountain.
Later that afternoon, the winds and cloud returned covering the mountain in a curtain of bad weather and snow. That was to be the last time I would see the summit of Cho Oyu. One month of preparation came down to being in the right place at the right time for one morning of still weather. Such is the fineness of the window of opportunity on big mountains. Geir was in camp three when that window opened, and for that he deservedly reached the summit.
For the remaining three of us, Paul never left the tent at camp two pinned there by a very bad cough, which threatened to crack a rib or two. Steve descended down to camp two and I lingered around at camp one, where I eventually waited for Paul to come down. We rested for a day then both descended to BC. Geir and Steve came down a few days later. All in all I spent around 9 nights on the mountain, close to or around 7'000 metres. When I returned to BC I discovered that spending all that time at altitude had took its toll on my weight. I looked very disfigured suffering muscle loss on my legs and arms. My body was literally feeding off my muscle, as there was no other fuel for it to feed from, as I had been unable to hold down any food or drink whilst on the mountain.
Eventually the four of us were all back at BC where we regaled each other with our tales from the Mountain. Geir informed me that from the summit he could see straight into Mount Everest's Jaws. The fact that I haven’t summited Cho Oyu hasn’t deterred me from Everest; if anything it has strengthened my resolve and taught me a few valuable lessons about climbing at high altitude. I want to reach the summit of Everest more than ever, and I feel more confident than ever now after reaching my altitude high point on Cho Oyu.
It is good to be down off the Mountain, breathing rich air again. I was really starting to degenerate towards the end of the expedition. I was finding it extremely difficult to sleep and breathe at night. I kept waking up in gasps, panting for oxygen. It was a nightmare. There was a night in particular where I actually couldn’t breathe for almost 10 seconds, which was frightening. But eventually my breath came back to me. All part of the challenge of climbing at high altitude though. This and much more are the risks that we take on when deciding to come and attempt 8'000 metre peaks like Cho Oyu.
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