by Tony Hamza (updated 6/22/99)
Despite being the sixth highest mountain in the world, nobody has ever heard of Cho Oyu. The first time I learned of its existence was when I gazed northward from the top of Mera Peak (6640m), back in 1989. It was just the highest point on a long snow-ridge to the left of Everest. Little did I realise that nine years later I'd be starting on a journey towards its lofty heights. (Photo of Cho Oyu from Advanced Base Camp is below)
I was with a team of seven other climbers on an expedition organised by OTT, an English company specialising in high altitude climbs. On the second morning we boarded a bus and headed north out of the city. We already knew that our route into the Forbidden Kingdom of Tibet was blocked in three places by massive landslides. However the weather patterns of the Himalaya meant that we needed to arrive at the foot of Cho Oyu during the first days of September.
I'd been to Kathmandu many times before but never during the monsoon. Late August is hot and steamy and every afternoon the clouds gather, above the ancient buildings of Durbar Square, for the daily torrent. As this is not the trekking season Kathmandu is relatively empty, its hotels are cheaper and you don't have to wait in line at your favourite restaurant.
We reached the first landslide shortly after lunch and abandoned our comfortable bus to start hauling our luggage across the rubble-strew trail that had once been the road. Fortunately the bulk of our equipment had already left a few days earlier and our loads weren't too heavy. Once across the area of devastation, our Sherpas hired an empty truck and we jumped on board for the next stage of our journey. This was quite short and ended at the next landslide. We repeated this routine twice more until we finished the day at Kodari, on the Tibetan border.
Whilst waiting for our visas (still being issued in Kathmandu) to catch up with us, I ventured up the hillside to a Tibetan Monastery "in exile". Here the monks were very friendly and soon forgot about their sutra-studies with the influx of Western visitors. They couldn't speak much English but managed a few four-letter words whilst pointing northwards towards the first Chinese town in Tibet! I enjoyed their company but met some unexpected friends as I returned to Kodari. I spotted the first leech shortly after leaving the monks. It was slowly crawling across my left sock. I stopped and rapidly removed my shoes. I discovered a bunch of the little bastards already happily sucking my blood. I pulled them out and headed down the trail aware that there were thousands more waiting for me. Once back at the hotel a final inspection revealed a visitor nestled between my toes. I was lucky, someone else didn't find the location of a happily drinking leech until he went to the bathroom!
Fortunately our visas arrived the next day and we headed into Tibet. From Kodari, the first Chinese town looks like a smart ski resort nestling amongst precipitous hillsides. When you arrive in Xangmu you soon realise that it's one of the filthiest places on earth. Piles of uncollected garbage decorate the parts of a town's only road that are not filled with abandoned trucks. It's probably a luxury resort for the thousands of rats that boldly scamper about at all hours. We just wanted to get out but had to hang around whilst the Chinese examined all our papers in great detail. Four hours later our Land Cruisers arrived to take us away from the stinking mess.
Simply being in Tibet was quite an experience. The route beyond the border is called, with some justification, The Road to Hell. It zig-zags precariously up the side of the deep valley, through swollen rivers and across narrow boulder-fields, until you reach the town of Nylam. As you travel over the endless potholes you're aware of the piles of ruined buildings on every hillside. These are the remains of the thousands of Buddhist Monasteries that the Chinese have destroyed in their fifty years of occupation.
After a night at Nylam we continued our journey, across a 5000-metre pass, until the Land Cruisers dropped us at Tingri. This is the last village before turning towards the north side of either Everest or Cho Oyu. We stayed at the Everest View Lodge and used the free day to climb a few 4,800-metre hills for a little acclimatisation. During the night there was an earth tremor strong enough to shake the beds in our rooms.
The next day we took an open-top truck for the two-hour ride to Chinese Base Camp (CBC) at 4900 metres. Although the trail was bumpy and dusty, we got ever-more spectacular views as we headed across the plateau towards the north side of the great Himalayan barrier. CBC was comfortable and, whilst the loads were sorted out for transportation to Advanced Base Camp (ABC), we did some more acclimatisation hills. After two days we started out on the 20 kilometres trek to Advanced Base Camp at 5700 metres. The path follows the old trade route alongside the glacier coming down from the Nangpa La and took 2 days to complete. Finally we arrived at ABC. This was our home for the next four weeks.
From ABC we advanced slowly up the mountain. Our first trip was to the base of the scree slopes leading to Camp 1. We paused for a snack at 6000 metres before returning to ABC for a day's rest. Next we climbed to Camp 1 at 6400 metres with a light load. It was possible to reach 6400 metres with leather trekking boots. The views were spectacular. Looking back to wards ABC we could see the huge scale of the mountains surrounding us. We also saw, for the first time close-up, the route ahead. The mountain is a huge white slope cut into sections by a serac band and a higher rock band. (Camp 1 is pictured below with about twenty tents.)
The weather was warm and we made good progress slowly to 6800 mteres. The ice cliff of the serac band looked challenging but would have to wait for another day. We headed back down for a second night at Camp 1. With two people in each tent, we were all self-contained units cooking our own meals and melting ice for drinks. It was good to return to the pampered life-style of ABC the next day.
We retreated once more to ABC for a rest and then returned to Camp 1 with fully loaded backpacks. This time we slept in Camp 1 and made our way up to the serac band the next day. The slopes above Camp 1 are covered in snow and reasonably steep (up to 30 degrees). We made our own way using the fixed rope at exposed sections where a slip might be difficult to arrest.
Our next trip up the mountain was more ambitious. We retraced our steps along the glacial debris to Camp 1 where we spent one night. Early the next morning we set out for Camp 2 and reached the serac band just as the sun began to warm it up. I attached my jumar to the fixed rope and started climbing. I suppose it's about 20 metres high (60 feet) and starts off at about 50 degrees. I slowly made my way up using the foot holes already made by previous climbers. At about the half way point there's an awkward change between two fixed ropes followed by an almost vertical section. The challenge comes as you gasp for oxygen to keep moving. You have to use your front-points and ice axe but it's not too dangerous as you've always got a fixed rope. Above this section we rested before crossing a wide and flat plateau that seemed to be the hottest place on earth. After that came a gruelling pull up a 30-degree slope that seemed to go on forever. At the top we rested before the final hour to Camp 2 at 7100 metres.
We stayed in Camp 2 for two nights but abandoned our intention of going a little way towards Camp 3 because of the unsettled weather. The time at Camp 2 was quite comfortable and we spent most of the day downing hot drinks and soups. Next morning we headed down and arrived at ABC in time for an early dinner.
By this time our group of eight climbers had divided into two summit teams. After a draw from a hat, I found that my team was going to make the first summit attempt. We rested, ate and drank for the next two days. Now, after nearly three weeks at ABC, it was time to go up Cho Oyu for one last time. We went back to Camps 1 & 2 and heard news of the first death on the mountain. A Swiss climber had gone to the summit the day before and safely returned to Camp Two. During the night, he'd suddenly died. Nobody knew why. All we knew was that one of the tents contained his body. With this awful news on our minds we set out, on the third day, for Camp 3. The trail above Camp 2 was technically very easy but there was a lot of snow making progress both slow and arduous. Mentally I focused on the top of the slope where the gradient changed. I shut off and kept going, one foot in front of another, endlessly hour after hour until I reached my goal. I paused and looked above to a small group of tents that had to be Camp 3. As I contemplated continuing the journey our Western Guide informed me that my tent partner had turned back and returned to Camp 2. I was devastated as Paul and I had planned our summit days together in great detail.
A high-altitude Sherpa came down from Camp 3 and offered to carry my backpack. I hesitated before handing it over. I'd never done this before on a mountain but felt that it might hasten my journey up the final hundred metres. I was wrong. Even without the backpack, my pace remained snail-like as I hauled my tired body up those endless few metres.
Once in the tent I realised that I was now sharing it with Tom our Western Guide. He was going to the summit with the three remaining climbers the next day. We were at 7400 metres on the fringe of the Death Zone and I still had a good appetite. After a few litres of warm liquids and some real potatoes (carried all the way from ABC) I settled down for a sleep.
I dozed that evening living my way through several vivid dreams. The roar of the cooker woke me at 12.30 and I slowly built up courage to get out of the sleeping bag. After an attempt at breakfast we filled our water bottles and headed outside the tent. The sky was clear and filled with thousands of stars. The slopes above melted into the darkness as we set out for the top at two AM. (The photo below was taken at dawn on summit day from 7,400 metres.)
I examined the 3-metre slab of featureless rock that stood in front of me. It formed a corner and neither the left or right wall seemed to offer any holds. However there were two fixed ropes draped over the whole structure. The climber in front of me started to struggle up the wall. I knew that he was a much better technical rock-climber than me and I watched with horror as he thrashed around making little progress. Several times he collapsed at the bottom completely out of breath. On the third attempt he managed to get a hand onto the top of the step and somehow pull himself up. Slowly he disappeared into the darkness above. Now it was my turn.
At first the slope was 20-degrees but with each breathless step upwards it seemed to get steeper. At 30-degrees we encountered a fixed rope and tied on as we travelled slowly forward. After an hour we were halted abruptly by an obstacle I could see looming over my head. My heart missed a beat as I realised we had reached the Rock Step. My heart missed another beat as
I put my jumar onto the right hand rope and started to climb the wall. My crampons scuffed the surface and I could get up the first metre but couldn't find a way to go higher. Probably at sea level the problem would have been easy but at 7600 metres it was a major obstacle. I slumped in the snow below, between several attempts, gasping for air. Perhaps I should have taken oxygen. Then Tom suggested tying a loop in the left-hand rope and using it as a step. I tied a loop and put my left boot in. I pulled myself upright but couldn't reach the top of the step. Once again I slumped to the snow below. After regaining my breath I tied a higher loop in the rope and tried again. It worked. I managed to get my hands onto the top of the step and started to pull myself up.
Suddenly I came to an abrupt stop. My jumar hit the top of the rope. I would have to transfer it to the next rope if I wanted to go higher. I had both my elbows on the top of the step but my safety line was making me a prisoner. As I gasped for air I realised that the increasing fog, which now obliterated every detail, was caused my own breath freezing on my glasses. I somehow managed to rub the ice off the lenses whilst I considered the next move. I had to get my safety carabiner onto the higher fixed rope before transferring my jumar. Whilst resting my weight on my elbows I tried to undo the screw-gate on the carabiner. It wouldn't turn despite my frantic efforts. I lowered the beam of my head-torch to examine the problem. With horror I realised that the screw-gate was frozen solid. How could I force it open? I reasoned that my only hope was to melt the ice so I raised the carabiner towards my mouth where I could blow on it. This, of course, only produced a new layer of ice around the screw-gate. In a desperate final attempt I put the screw lock in my mouth. It felt its coldness as it stuck to my lips. Slowly my mouth warmed up. I tried one final time to twist the screw-gate. It opened. I quickly changed the carabiner to the higher fixed rope and, once I'd locked the screw-gate, also transferred the jumar. With one final burst of energy I pulled myself onto the top of the Rock Step. I lay above it victoriously regaining my breath.
The slopes above were laden with more snow and progress was slow. The slight glimmer of light in the eastern sky grew stronger and, before long, I could see details of the slopes around me. Looking down every mountain was now lower than my lofty position. Above, the soft snowy slopes of Cho Oyu seemed to stretch on forever. I continued on the fixed rope inching my way upwards. Someone was ahead of me but I knew I'd never catch him up. A group was coming up behind me occasionally making the fixed rope tight. On I went until the first rays of the sun hit the peaks below me. The world was coloured yellows, blues and pinks of such intensity that no Hollywood producer could ever dream up the excesses. I stopped and took some photos. It was six-thirty.
On and on the slopes went as I continued up the fixed rope. I knew that I was slow but nobody had overtaken me. The snow was soft and every second step gave way as I slid downwards to cancel out my efforts. The work was hard enough without having to repeat every other step. The sun came above the slope in front and the arctic world was quickly transformed into tropical heat.
Suddenly the fixed rope came to an end and I was stood on the final slopes to the summit plateau. One of the high-altitude Sherpas caught up. He told me that Tom had turned back with extremely cold feet. We were on our own. Above me was Mike and next to me was Brian. I looked at my watch, it was ten o'clock. We were just two hours from the turn-around time. I asked Sherpa Babu how much longer to the top. I figured that Babu should know as he'd been to the top three times before. He told me that it was another four hours. I sat down in the snow to ponder my situation. I knew I was tired but I still felt strong and had no symptoms of altitude. Slowly other climbers were passing me. I couldn't recognise them as their faces were buried in oxygen masks. Suddenly I realised it was all over. I knew that I had enough left in me to go higher but not enough to also safely return to Camp 2. I knew I had to get there, out of the Death Zone, to avoid the risk of an oedema, a stroke or a thrombosis. I thought about the Swiss body still at Camp Two. I told Babu that I was going down. Suddenly I was committed to giving up. No strong feeling of failure came over me. I realised that I was at 8000 metres and about to begin my journey back home. It was a good feeling. Babu handed me the radio and I talked to unseen voices at unknown camps. I told them I was on my way down. They asked me to persuade Mike and Brian to give up. Brian was listening and shook his head. I didn't know if he understood and handed him the radio. In a slurred voice he said he wanted to go on. Mike was ahead and continued to climb. Was I making the right decision? I looked at the slopes above and they just seemed so huge and unending that I knew I really had no choice.
I waived goodbye as I retraced my steps down the fixed rope. Going down, the snow was even softer and I slid onto my seat lots of times. When I reached the Rock Step I used my figure-of-eight to abseil the slope. I made it to the base without any style and sat in the snow trying to recover from the effort. I could see Camp 3 below me and slid and stepped my way slowly towards it.
Tom was in the tent nursing his feet. They'd warmed up and there was no frost damage. He'd heated up a drink and I enjoyed some hot chocolate. Tom said that he'd heard on the radio that Mike and Brian were on their way down, having given up half an hour after me. He said that they were not in good shape and that I should head down to Camp 2 to make room for them and the other summit team coming up. I filled my backpack and was about to leave when Brian and Mike arrived. Mike was totally wasted and couldn't put two words together whilst Brian was on emergency oxygen. It was time to head down.
As I started out I wondered what had happened to the wonderful views. The sun was still shining on our lofty position but the mountain sat alone in a sea of rapidly rising clouds. As I reached the slope leading down to Camp 2, the first flurries of snow started. I tied onto the fixed rope and began to descend. I met everyone in the second summit team on their way up. I paused and chatted to them before carrying on. Paul was moving a lot quicker than the previous day and I told him about my adventures. The spindrift was swirling around us as I wished him luck and headed down to the small group of tents at Camp 2. My progress became slower and slower as I realised that I was running out of energy. The snow was balling up my boots and progress became agonisingly slow as I rested for five minutes after every dozen steps. By the time I reached the tents I was just about finished. The weather wasn't too bad down there but, higher up it looked pretty unpleasant.
I found a tent and climbed inside. There was a stove and gas, so I started melting snow. I didn't return to my original tent as I was sure it was occupied. I cleared the floor and set up my Karrimat and sleeping bag. I found some food and made myself a meal. I was tired but knew that I couldn't just climb into my sleeping bag. I had to drink and eat. I finished the meal with a piece of ginger cake that belonged to someone else. I knew they'd thank me as they wouldn't have to carry it down. Then I climbed inside my sleeping bag and fell instantly asleep.
I'd set my alarm to wake me every two hours to ensure that I'd have plenty of liquids inside me. Each time, I had no trouble getting back to sleep. The next morning was windy and I gathered all my equipment together and peered out of the tent. Two other climbers from another group were heading down and I joined them on the long journey. We looked up at the clouds swirling around the higher slopes and wondered how the second summit team was getting on.
At Camp One I managed to push the balance of my equipment into the backpack and headed down the scree slopes towards ABC. The journey was slow and painful but at every step I reminded myself that I could rest for weeks or years once I got back.
I arrived at ABC in time for a late lunch at 3PM. The food was wonderful but was tempered by the news that the second summit team was coming way down to Camp 1 after escaping the storm. Paul arrived at 7 PM and told us about his anxious night at Camp Three. The storm had built up during the night dumping dangerous amounts of snow on the surrounding slopes.Everyone soon realised that the summit bid was over and a bid for survival was replacing it. The tents and all equipment were packed in a whiteout to an accompaniment of the roaring wind and the rumble of avalanches. As they headed towards the lower camp, Brian collapsed and was put again on emergency oxygen. Below the Serac Band Tom, the guide, collapsed and also had to be put on emergency oxygen. Everybody made it to the safety of Camp 1 and Paul had come on down to ABC. It was good to see him. We began our conversation about the previous forty-eight hours. It was very therapeutic and lasted all the way back to Kathmandu.
We enjoyed a few days rest and ate lots of food. We hadn't made it to the summit of Cho Oyu, but everyone in our party had returned safely from a great adventure on the World's Sixth Highest Mountain.
For more information, you can reach Tony at email@example.com.
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