Note: On this trip I used a new digital camera. It worked brilliantly for photos without snow, and disastrously otherwise. Thus, there are few photos with snow.
All altitudes were measured on a GPS. Times are Nepalese, since Tibet is on Beijing time, which differs from local time by about 2 1/2 hours.
After I returned from Aconcagua in January, I decided to try to climb Cho Oyu (8201m/26900ft), the sixth highest peak. I was not too optimistic about reaching the top, because the success rate for even large well-supported expeditions is not high, and I would be climbing alone and unsupported above base camp --- even Ed Hillary turned back at 6800m in 1951 when he got to some ice that was too steep for his porters.
Cho Oyu is on the border of Nepal and Tibet, just west of Everest. It is much closer to Kathmandu than Lhasa, and the fastest approach is from Nepal. The classic (i.e., easiest) route is on the north (Tibetan) side, and the quickest way to the route from Kathmandu would be over the Nangpa La, a 5700m/18700ft pass that has been used by the Sherpas and Tibetans for centuries, but the Chinese don't allow it. Instead, one must go by road.
Discussed the Maoist terrorists with some Nepalese. How much support do they have? 90% of the Nepalese hate the Maoists. The army is vastly better than the police --- it is honest and has the respect of the people.
In the afternoon, I bought some food, and arranged the rest of my trip with Thamserku Trekking.
The Chinese border man was puzzled that my New Zealand passport was issued in Washington DC. "Could a New Zealander living China get a New Zealand passport from the NZ embassy there?" "Yes, and what's more a Chinese living in New Zealand can get a Chinese passport at the Chinese Embassy" The customs man examined my books carefully, but fortunately none contained a picture of the Dalai Lama --- whole tour groups have been expelled from Tibet because one member handed out postcards of the Dalai Lama.
One certainly gets the impression that one is entering an occupied country, with only the Chinese walking around in uniforms and with the many impoverished Tibetans. However, the Dalai Lama says it is O.K. for us to visit Tibet, so I guess it is.
Stayed in a hotel at Zhang Mu.
The drive from Zhang Mu to Nyalam was in a deep gorge.
When I arrived in Nyalam, I went for 2 hour walk.
Went for a 6 hour walk to above the lake Dara Tsho (4500m/14700ft ). Views of Shisha Pangma.
About 10km from Nyalam, we stopped at this gompa marking a cave where Milarepa had meditated.
The drive to Dingri crossed a 5000m/16405ft pass, with views of the big peaks of the Himalayas to the south.
After arriving at Dingri I went for a walk --- climbed 300m in 36 minutes (500m/hour).
At Dingri, I had an unpleasant argument with the TMA (Tibetan Mountaineering Association) man. Since foreigners are not allowed to travel at will in Tibet, everything must be arranged through the TMA. To reduce costs, Thamserku Trekking had arranged for three of us to be listed as a single expedition, and had paid the TMA for separate transport for me and for the other two. The TMA man refused to admit this, and wanted me to pay him $100 for the jeep from Dingri toward Cho Oyu. Since I had already paid for the jeep, I refused, and instead went in the cab of a truck transporting the gear for a Russian party.
Curious Tibetans at my tent door
Early morning at CBC (Tibetans and yaks)
Every climber is allotted three yaks by the TMA. Fortunately, that was enough for Dala and me, but the Russians had to hire 6 extra yaks for $500, and a large Spanish party had a total of 52 yaks. The yaks are in poor condition after the winter, and can carry only 40kg each.
We set off at 10am (Nepalese time). On the way, one of our yaks sat down and refused to move even after the Tibetan fed it tsampa. His load had to be split among the other yaks and the Tibetans.
Thirsty yaks. The one at left was also a lazy yak.
Shortly before the intermediate camp, I passed a Tibetan sitting down nursing a headache.
Tibetan with altitude (?) headache
Base camp was a small village. Among the other groups there were: a 16 man German/Austrian party; a 3 man Austrian party (both with Thamserku Trekking); one Swiss climber with 2 sherpas; 3 Irish (Richard, Adam, Humphrey) who were hoping to become the first Irish party to climb an 8000m peak; the three Russians; a large Korean party; the 12 man Spanish/French party,.... Later large Italian and Japanese parties arrived, and I lost track of who was there. Probably about 150 climbers attempted Cho Oyu this year. At base camp, there were also climbing Sherpas and Nepalese helpers (cooks etc.) plus many Tibetans looking for odd jobs. The Tibetans will carry 20kg to Camp 1 for $10. They were selling half-litre bottles of Lhasa beer for 10 yuan ($1.25).
I am one of the few climbers planning to carry everything up the mountain --- most others are using the Tibetans to carry to Camp 1 and have Sherpas to carry to the higher camps. I am also one of the few planning to use oxygen. I chose to use it because it makes the climb safer and easier, but mainly because I want to enjoy the summit day --- I don't want to arrive on top in a state of hypoxia after some heroic struggle.
Camp 1 is 6425m, camp 2 is 7100m, and camp 3 is 7500m. My plan is to spend a few days carrying loads to camp 1, move to camp 1 for two nights, and carry a load (including the oxygen) to camp 2. Then, after a rest at base camp, I'll go to camp 1, then camp 2, and attempt the summit from camp 2 (using oxygen).
View of Cho Oyu from near base camp. Camp 1 is above the ice cliffs below and to the right of the summit. The route climbs diagonally left above Camp 1.
A yak train heading across the glacier to the Nangpa La and Nepal. View from base camp.
Climbers struggling in high winds above Camp 1
Later that day, a climber got frostbitten hands while descending from camp 2 to camp 1.
At base camp I met Mark and Vicente, who were sharing a peak permit and a cook with me. (Technically, we formed the International Cho Oyu expedition with me as leader.) Vicente had brought a high altitude Sherpa, Nima, with him.
Nima Sherpa setting up the prayer flags for the puja. The Lama is seated before him, and other Tibetans are at right. (I don't know when coke replaced chung in the ceremony.)
Talked to Mark. His only experience in the mountains was a seven-week package tour to South America, during which he had made guided ascents of three easy peaks (Aconcagua, Hyuani Potosi, ...). I didn't understand why he thought that qualified him to make a solo attempt on Cho Oyu.
He had already managed to get lost on the walk from CBC to base camp, and had spent the night without tent or water. Clearly, he was a disaster waiting to happen. Fortunately, it happened only 30 minutes above base camp.
Amazingly, Mark had brought no money to Tibet --- he was totally dependent on the help of others. The Germans did save his life, and Thamserku Trekking did get him back to Kathmandu, but his gear was still at BC when I left on May 3.
Mark was lucky. If he had wandered off the trail when he was sick, he would have died. If he had got cerebral edema higher on the mountain, it would have taken a huge effort to save him.
I continued up the mountain, and with a light load (~10kg) I made the trip from BC to camp 1 in 3 hours 13 minutes. Except that I was moving more slowly, climbing the steep scree slope felt no harder than doing it at sea level (500m in 1:40 --- 300m/hr). It was amazing what a few days acclimatization and a day's rest had accomplished.
A lone climber setting out from Camp 1 for Camp 2
I set off again to carry a light load (mainly oxygen) to Camp 2. Reached 6715m/22030ft in deteriorating weather and decided to stash my load. Returned to base camp in a snow storm.
Base camp after the snow storm. My tent is at left.
I decided that on my next trip up the mountain, I would attempt the summit:
The Germans and Spanish came up to camp 1. They planned to go to camp 2, camp 3, and then make a summit attempt. I planned to carry to camp 2, move to camp 2, and then attempt the summit. Thus, I will be attempting the summit from camp 2 the day they attempted it from camp 3.
By 1pm it was cloudy, and by 2pm there was a storm. I was astonished to see the Germans and Spanish returning to camp 1. When the first of them had arrived at camp 2, they had found that many of their tents that had been placed there (along with the equipment inside) had been blown off the mountain by the storm of the 26th. Also, their weather forecast had changed, and was now predicting more bad weather. They all descended to BC.
View from my tent during a lull in the storm. The Russian's tent is at right.
View from my tent in the morning.
A little later, the Russian tent has collapsed.
About 11am I saw a lone climber set off from camp 1 for camp 2 --- he had probably spent the night at camp 1. He was climbing very slowly.
Despite the sun, no one came up to camp 1. What was wrong? Was the weather forecast very bad? Eventually, about 3:30, two climbers came up. They said the forecast was O.K. for tomorrow, but that thereafter there would be very high winds.
I contemplated my options. Perhaps I should take advantage of tomorrow's good weather to climb as high on the mountain as possible --- maybe I could get over 7700m/25260ft. That seemed a bit pointless since there was no chance I could reach the summit from camp 1. By now I had spent 3 nights at camp 1, and I couldn't sit out another dose of bad weather at that altitude and expect to be in shape to climb the mountain. On the other hand, if I went down I wouldn't have time to rest and then make a summit attempt. Reluctantly, I decided I was out of time, and would have to abandon my attempt.
In the meantime, I paid a Tibetan to retrieve my duffle bag from camp 1.
There was word that a Sherpa had died at the intermediate camp. One climber told me that he had drunk himself to death: for four days he had neither eaten nor drunk anything except rakshi. Another climber told me that this was not true, and that he had died mysteriously, perhaps from a heart attack.
Rather than sending down for my yaks, I paid two Tibetans to carry my gear down to CBC. (A Tibetan will carry 20kg of gear to CBC for $15; the TMA price for a yak to carry 40kg is $90.)
On the walk down to CBC I met this large yak train heading to the Nangpa La and Namche Bazar to trade goods.
At CBC, I met three Italian speed climbers, including Simone Moro who had been a climbing partner of Anatoli Boukreev --- in fact, he was the sole survivor of the avalanche that killed Boukreev in 1997. He shook my hand and congratulated me when I told him I had read Boukreev's account of the events of 1996 but not Krakauer's.
The Italians were hoping to make a very fast ascent of Cho Oyu --- the record from base camp to the top is an amazing 11 hours, held by the New Zealander Russell Brice. Their training/acclimatization was very different from that of most expeditions. They had spent about 10 days sleeping at base camp, during which time they had trained between 5000m and 7000m (rapid one-day trips to camp 1, camp 2, and CBC). Thus they had avoided the physical deterioration that sleeping above base camp entails. Now they were going down to Dingri 4340m/14240ft to spend two days resting at a moderate altitude before returning to BC and making their summit attempt.
The three Italians are at left (Simone Moro is seated at right with the fancy sunglasses and his sponsors' logos on his clothes). Standing at right is Kumar, Thamserku's cook at CBC.
While we were having breakfast, the Italians' satellite phone went off. It was one of their mothers who had read on their website that they were going down, and was concerned that something was wrong. Not all progress is progress.
I talked to a Japanese woman who had wanted to attempt Everest, but had got altitude sickness at the advanced base camp, and was returning Kathmandu. When I asked her what mountains she had climbed, she said she had been to New Zealand. Mt Cook I asked. No, the Milford track she said. Unfortunately, her English was not good enough for me ask her why she thought Everest would make a good first mountain.
[Except for Mark, all the climbers I talked to on Cho Oyu seemed to be very competent. In fact, many were alpine guides, hoping to add an 8000m peak to their cv's.]
On the return to Kathmandu we had to go through three road blocks set up by the army and police to prevent the Maoists transporting weapons into the Kathmandu valley.