Tibet 2002: Cho Oyu, J.S. Milne

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.

7.4.02 Arrived in Kathmandu

Was met by my agency, Thamserku Trekking (alias Global Expeditions).

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.

8.4.02 Kathmandu

In the morning, I went for a walk from Sunderjal to Burlang Banjang (+1000m/3280ft in 1:45). Sunderjal is the water supply for Kathmandu. This year, it was protected by a machine gun post. A villager said that there are other machine gun posts in the forest.

In the afternoon, I bought some food, and arranged the rest of my trip with Thamserku Trekking.

9.4.02 By road to Zhang Mu 2200m/7200ft

Drove from Kathmandu to Kodari with my cook, Dala Bahadur, and crossed the Friendship bridge to the Chinese/Tibetan town of Zhang Mu.

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.

10.4.02 By road to Nyalam 3780m/12400ft

The drive from Zhang Mu to Nyalam was in a deep gorge.

When I arrived in Nyalam, I went for 2 hour walk.

11.4.02 Acclimatization walk above Nyalam


Went for a 6 hour walk to above the lake Dara Tsho (4500m/14700ft ). Views of Shisha Pangma.

Nyalam residents

12.4.02 By jeep to Dingri 4340m/14240ft

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.

13.04.02 By truck to CBC 5000m/16405ft

At the end of the road, there is a camp known as CBC (Chinese Base Camp).

Curious Tibetans at my tent door

14.04.02 To the intermediate camp 5380m/17650ft/

The walk to base camp takes two days, and so one stops at an intermediate camp.

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

15.04.02 To base camp 5700m/18700ft

I left at 9am and arrived at BC at noon before everyone else, thereby securing the best available remaining camp site. The site is spectacular, with great views of Cho Oyu and of the Nangpa La.

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).

16.04.02. Acclimatization walk.

Went for a 2-hour walk up the glacier towards Cho Oyu. Felt good. [At no time during the trip did I have any altitude sickness (not so much as a mild headache)].

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.

17.04.02. Carry to 5930m/19450ft

The route to Camp 1 follows the glacier moraine to 5930m, and then climbs a steep 500m/1650ft scree slope to the camp on top of a ridge. Today I carried a load (~20kg) to the end of the glacier moraine, cached it, and returned to base camp.

18.04.02. To camp 1 6425m/21080ft

Carried a load (~20kg) to camp 1, and stayed there. Climbed the 500m scree slope in 2:35 with the load (195m/hr; 5:15 from base camp). The scree slope is very steep, and I found it very hard work.

19.04.02. Camp 1.

Had a good night's sleep at Camp 1. In the morning, I went down and collected the load from end of the glacier. I already have about 40kg at camp 1 (tents, food, climbing gear, high-altitude clothing, oxygen) only 5 days after reaching base camp. This time, although I was carrying a somewhat heavier load on the scree slope, I was 10 min faster. I kept pace with the Spanish group, who were climbing without packs, and passed a group of Tibetans carrying loads. All in all, I'm feeling quite good.

20.04.02 To BC

I set off in the morning to carry my oxygen cylinders to camp 2, but I soon encountered very high winds, and returned to camp 1 and then to BC.

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.

21.04.02 Rested at BC

It was very fine and sunny in the morning. We had a puja ceremony with one of the Tibetans, a Lama who had trained for five years, officiating.

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.

22.04.02 To camp 1 (6425m/21080ft)

About 9am, I left BC for camp 1. After about 30 minutes I met Mark sitting down by the trail showing early signs of cerebral edema (blue lips...). He had set off for a walk about 2 hours earlier, and had continued despite not being able to keep any food or water down. A German climber, who was descending, offered to escort him down to BC. There the doctor with German expedition diagnosed cerebral edema, and put him in a Gamow (high pressure) bag for 1 1/2 hours. The doctor called Thamserku Trekking by satellite phone for a rescue helicopter, but there are no rescue helicopters in Tibet. Instead, Mark was escorted down to CBC by a Tibetan, and Thamserku Trekking arranged his return to Kathmandu.

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.

23.04.02 Carry to 6715m/22030ft and return to BC; afternoon storm

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.

24.04.02 Rested at BC

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:

  1. BC to camp 1;
  2. carry oxygen to camp 2 and return to camp 1;
  3. move to camp 2;
  4. summit attempt.
  5. return to BC.

25.04.02 Rested at BC

26.04.02 Storm; stayed at BC

It was very windy in the night and morning. I considered setting off for camp 1, but as I packed it began to cloud over. (The Irish, Richard and Adam, did go to camp 1. When I met Richard the next day, he said that the storm had been very bad on the climb, and by the time they had reached camp 1, Adam had been hypothermic and required warming.)

27.04.02 To camp 1

To camp 1. Many tents at camp 1 had been damaged in the storm, including mine --- its rear pole had been broken, probably by the weight of snow on it. I had brought a second tent up, which I had planned to use at camp 2.

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.

28.04.02 To 6720m/22030ft; storm

I set off from camp 1, planning to pick up my oxygen at my cache (6720m), carry it to camp 2, and return to camp 1. However, just after my cache there is an ice cliff with fixed ropes, and by the time I got there 15 climbers were ahead of me. I decided not to wait in line, and returned to camp 1. Tomorrow, I will simply pick up the oxygen on my way to camp 2, and then attempt the summit.

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.

29.04.02 Storm at camp 1.

Snowed and blew throughout the night. My neighbours, the Russians, set off down at 9am. Storm continued all day. I went outside for about half and hour to stabilize my tent. About half the tents at camp 1 have been damaged. There is no sign that there is anyone else here. I will wait here and hope for fine weather so I can make a summit attempt.

View from my tent during a lull in the storm. The Russian's tent is at right.

30.04.02 Storm at camp 1 (6425m/21080ft).

Very windy during the night. The Russians' tent has almost totally collapsed. In the morning, it was windy but sunny.

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.

1.05.02. Collected gear from 6720m; returned to BC

The weather was beautiful in the morning, and the climb up to my cache provided the best two hours of the trip --- I was alone on the mountain, and the views were spectacular. I collected my gear from the cache, and returned to camp 1. Packed my gear, and carried what I could down to BC. The rest I left in a duffle bag. I had felt wonderful on the climb above camp 1, but I was tired and depressed on the descent back to BC. Perhaps this would be my last attempt on a big mountain.

2.05.02. Rest BC

In the morning I felt more cheerful. In the last three years, I have made six attempts on big mountains, Denali, Mustagh Ata, Aconcagua, Makalu, Aconcagua, Cho Oyu, and have been successful three times. That's not too bad, since on none of the peaks is the success rate for climbers over 50%. Began planning my next trip...

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.

3.05.02. To CBC

When I left BC, only one climber (the Swiss) and his two Sherpas had reached the summit of Cho Oyu (on about April 23, before the first storm). Many climbers had already left base camp. Nima Sherpa said that this was the worst weather he had ever seen at this time of the year. Normally, the weather in April and early May is very fine, but we had had nothing but storms, high winds, and generally mediocre weather for the last 10 days. No one had climbed any of the nearby 8000m peaks, Makalu, Shisha Pangma, or Manasulu, and no one had even reached to South Col on Everest.

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.

4.05.02. To Zhang Mu.

By jeep to Zhang Mu (descended from 5000m to 2200m in one day!)

5.05.02 To Kathmandu

While I was waiting to leave Tibet, I asked some Nepalese what they thought would happen with the Maoists. One said, Nepal will become like Sri Lanka. Another said that if the army doesn't defeat the Maoists quickly, they also will become corrupt. Then, everything in Nepal will be corrupt, and it will be like an African country.

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.

6.05.02 Kathmandu

Spent the day in Kathmandu. The Peanuts cartoon in the Herald Tribune made a joke of the fact that the pay for jury duty is $5/day. In Nepal, where the per capita GNP is $250, $5/day is good money.

7.05.02 To Bangkok

Flew to Bangkok.

8.05.02 Bangkok

Spent day sightseeing while waiting for a flight home.

9.05.02 Home

Left Bangkok at 6am, and was home the same day.