After having been challenged last year with the devastating earthquake in Nepal, we are ready, once again, excited, curious, but a little bit nervous as we board the plane to Lhasa for our 2016 Wild Yak Expeditions Big Adventure. The aim is to climb Mount Cho-Oyu at 8201 meters, followed by Mount Everest at 8848 meters.
Before heading to the Big Mountains, Sherpa’s and high altitude workers always give high priority to visit some of the monasteries that are important to them to be blessed by the High monk.
This kind of spiritual practice gives a certain confidence to the Sherpa’s to climb the high mountains of the Himalayas. Nowadays, the majority of western climbers also follow in the steps of the Sherpa’s to be blessed before climbing the highest mountains on earth, whether they believe it or not a certain energy pulls them towards the rituals.
In Lhasa, we felt blessed to visit some of the ancient monasteries around Lhasa, especially Jorkhang Temple that is known as the place of origin of Tibetan Buddhism established around the late 600 AD. As for Tibetan Buddhism, they treat the mountains as being very holy and precious and many legendary stories were written in the name of the different mountains. Each mountain has its own name and is distinguished as male or female and each one is interrelated with the other mountains.
Whilst driving on the highest plateau on earth looking at the blue sky, gazing at small villages in the dryness of the Tibetan high plateau and the never ending dry moonlike landscape, the altitude is changing rapidly between 3500 meters and 5400 meters and at the same time lots of questions arise in our minds regarding the landscape and the local people. How they live? What they eat? What crops they plant? How do they earn money? What kind of customs they have? How they cremate the body when someone dies in this harsh environment? Many many question?? But one thing was clear to us, humans have great resilience when it comes to survive in difficult conditions.
Finally, after driving for 3 days we arrived at the last village Tingri (4400 meters), It was an awesome feeling to have a glimpse of the two giants of the Himalaya: Mount Everest and Mount Cho-Oyu, literally and locally known as Goddess Miyolangsangma, Goddess of giving and God Cho-Oyu (eldest brother of 5 mountain-brothers) looking strong and solid with their divine blessing.
Looking at these two giants we noticed that they had far less snow covering compared to the last couple of years and we realised that this is due to the el Niño effect. We could clearly see the effect it had on the Himalayas. It is always a question among westerners how much snow does the Himalayas receives each winter? The reply is: normally not a lot. When it does snow, the snow stays for a long time because of the freezing temperatures and high-speed winds. But this year during winter, no snow at all and many inhabitants of this dry land are worried about not having enough water during spring, as this could affect their only one harvest per year.
As we moved closer to Cho-Oyu advance base camp at 5700 meters (2 hours from the Nepal border) it reminded us that we actually had travelled very far to climb Cho-Oyu situated close to the Nepalese border. As we arrived at Base Camp we enjoyed meeting some of our local Tibetan friends, we had known from previous expeditions. Some work as kitchen boys, carry loads up to Camp 1 to earn some Dollars, others are selling Coke, Beer and fake turquoise and Coral gems. Around the Tibetan side of Cho-Oyu and Everest, the locals still follow the polyandry system, which consist of 3 or 4 brothers having 1 wife and only one of the brother’s stays at home to look after the family and agriculture. The rest of the brothers have to go away from home for a long time to earn money for the family. The rotation between the brothers regarding who stays home is done with mutual understanding. Because 3 or 4 males are marrying a single female this custom has created a large group of unmarried females most of them join a local monastery to become nuns. When we spoke to young males they told us that the younger generation is slowly moving away from the system of polyandry. Most of the local Tibetans work as kitchen boys or are hired by expedition teams to wash dishes, carry water and cleaning the dining and kitchen areas. If they do not get hired to work for Expedition teams, they feel they are a disgrace to their families and feel ashamed to go back village without having found work. This story reminds us of the similarity with the young Sherpa’s from Nepal who used to go Darjeeling (India) during 50s and 60s to get hired to work for big Expeditions.
Cho-Oyu The Mountain (Eldest brother of 5 mountain brothers)
A commercially very popular mountain, Cho-Oyu is the 6th highest mountain on Earth, is shared by Nepal and Tibet and is also considered as one of the safest 8000 meters peak to climb from the Tibetan side as access to the base camp is fast and quite easy if the climbers have acclimatized themselves properly somewhere else. The Nepali side base camp is very close to Gokyo lake in the Everest Region but a bit tricky and almost no commercial expedition are conducted due to the extremely high risk of avalanches and the high skills of mountaineering required.
Cho-Oyu is known as the safe mountain from the Tibetan side but also has its own hazards, and is considered as the coldest and most frost bite prone mountain amongst the fourteen 8000m peaks, due to the normal summit route being on the west side of the mountain and being very exposed to the winds which blows in a southwest to north easterly direction.
As we stayed at the advance base camp, we knew there were only 3 expeditions that meant the manpower to summit such a huge mountain was less than usual. After spending 2 nights in advance base camp we moved to camp-1 for our first rotation of acclimatisation. As one says to achieve something big you need to start small and to climb 8000 meters we needed to be good in lower altitude. The trail to camp-1 was just a 3-hour glacier walk, which consist of a 350 meters steep ascent. Camp-1 is situated at 6400 meters in a narrow ridge. At camp-1 we also noticed a dead human body only 20 meters away from our tent. Confronting the human body once again reminded us that competing with nature could have fatal consequences.
After spending one night at camp-1 we moved towards camp2 to check the route. As we started climbing the route got icier and lots of crevasses started to appear. It was also amazing for Norbu Sherpa who had climbed Cho-Oyu four times already, but had never seen such an icy route. As we started climbing suddenly the party rope tightened and we saw one of our friends fall in to a crevasse but luckily the rope, which tied our climbing party together, stopped his fall. As he got out of crevasse we asked him how he was feeling: he said I am very happy to get out of the Devil`s mouth. After spending three nights in camp-I and reaching 6750 meters, we decided to descend back to base camp and wait for a good weather window for the final summit push.
There are many different theories about getting acclimatization on high mountains, but each one is not necessarily appropriate for every person. Acclimatization principle should be applied according to ones strength, stamina, body structure, and distance to cover and time period on the mountain. For us it was clear that we will set up camp-II and then push for the summit from Camp-II instead of setting up camp-III at 7400 meters and then push for the summit.
Weather is always a big discussion point amongst the climbers when they are planning to go for the summit. Up to date weather forecasts are available from different countries and each weather chart has different predictions, which causes a bit of confusion. As always we cross match the various reports and choose the one that is most appropriate and convenient for the time and date for the ascent to the summit. In our case we decided to push for the summit on 7 May 2016, at 1 am in the morning starting from camp-II. In most of the weather updates they have forecast high winds after 12 pm of around 40 kilometers on 7 May and heavy snow fall on 8 and 9 May. We have no option but to push for the summit of Cho-Oyu on 7 May otherwise we will be losing the timing for Mount Everest. Our big concern was, do we have enough time to recover for Mount Everest after summiting Cho-Oyu. If we could make it on 7 May that would be fine, but if we try after 9 May then things could get a bit tight for Everest. Therefore we took the decision to try on 7 May 2016.
As being the most climbed mountain after Everest, we meet two different kinds of climbers at Cho-Oyu base camp; on one side, the climbers who will not be using oxygen to summit and on the other side the climbers who want to summit using oxygen. They all have the same goal, to reach the summit but look at it from a different perspective. It has been an ongoing debate between high mountain climbers, climbing with or without oxygen and it seems the debate will remain as long as the high mountains remain.
We were also a bit nervous about the coldness of the mountain air, as we are trying to climb without using supplementary oxygen.
5 May 2016: after having rested 4 days in advance base camp, we headed up to camp -1 and on 6 May 2016 to camp-II. We climbed quite slowly taking enough time to rest in the between to save energy for the Cho-Oyu summit and later for Everest as well. We planned to start our ascent at midnight so we began brewing some water at around 10 pm. We got ready as we heard the people from the other groups that were accompanying us getting ready. At midnight, when we came out of the tent it was about -20 degrees and we saw the majority of the other climbers with oxygen. Usually it takes 3 hours from camp II to reach camp III at 7500 meters but with the fresh snow we had to make the track, which at these altitudes is a bigger challenge and at the end it was already 5 am. At that time, it was freezing cold, Cho Oyu being known as one of the coldest 8000-meter summit, in addition the wind started to increase. At the bottom of the couloir of the “Yellow band”, the fixing team had just begun to install the ropes. It was therefore getting late for us, calculating the time we would need in these conditions to reach the summit, which would not be before noon and then come down till camp II, we came to the conclusion that it will get to late, knowing also that the weather was announced to get worse later in the day.
In the Himalaya, there are also some principles while mountaineering: one of these principles is “if you think that you cannot reach the summit before a certain time, then don’t climb!”
Indeed, in case it was getting quite late and with the weather forecasts getting worse after midday till 9 May 2016, we took the decision to turn back. The mountain will always have the last word, and our next aim being Mount Everest 8848 meters; we decided not to take extreme risks. The other people with oxygen decided to continue for the summit.
As we started descending lots of questions raised in our mind: did we make the right choice by retreating back? What if we would have continued?, How would really be the weather later in the day? But one think was really clear for us: we were ready for Everest!
That moment also tough us that if you cannot change the things than forget it and look forward, give the best to what is about to come. Some times in life we need to sacrifice one to have another. This is why we say “life is not a chocolate”!