Cho Oyu

14 May 2001 - by Jamie Mcguinness

Hello and Tashi Delek,

I am back in Kathmandu and we were successful on Cho Oyu, more so than any other expedition on the mountain.

Cho Oyu is a popular 8000m expedition peak, usually considered to be the sixth highest on the planet and perhaps the least difficult and least dangerous of the fourteen 8000m peaks. It has a neighbour, Gyachung Kang that is #15 that few people have heard about, being a fraction under the magic 8000, and considerably more technical to climb. Despite being considered straightforward, all Himalayan mountains are potentially dangerous and most years on Cho Oyu out of several hundred climbers several people get frostbite and often there is a death or two. Our aim is to make sure we have no incidents.

The expedition members

The Trek

Kathmandu 14-18 April Everything worked out smoothly in Kathmandu, even Peter's late booking of the trip, thanks especially to Bijay at the office. We sorted gear and bought the last items like cheap down mittens and down booties.

To ABC 19-28 April We travelled in without problems but the 5000m/16,400ft Chinese Base Camp was constantly windy. We established Advanced Base Camp at the normal place at 5700m/18,700ft. Here we learnt that the of the 9 Swiss that had summitted before we had even arrived, had ALL suffered some frostbite. They summitted 11 April, very early.

A little later two Austrians reached the summit plateau, although it is debatable whether they reached the true summit in the difficult conditions.

ABC 29 April - 1 May Altitude sickness can follow strange patterns. Betsy reckoned she has thrown up on almost half of the '14 thousanders' in Colorado, something that if I had known, I would have probably rejected her for the trip. Anyway, she was fine until after the Puja at ABC, our fourth night there when she began developing rales, the first real sign of pulmonary odema. Bill, her fianci, immediately gave fast-acting Nifedapine 10mg and shortly after another 10mg while she walked on the spot for half an hour. She soon felt perfect, but sensibly decided to go down the following day, a day earlier than planned. I escorted her down.

A couple of hundred metres out of camp I could see she was weak and took the heaviest items out of her pack and half a kilometre took her pack - she was definitely beginning to develop real altitude sickness (HACE + HAPE), the first case of anyone in a group I have been managing. Betsy knew it too and willingly took puffs of Ventorlin when she began coughing and that helped, without having to go to Nifedapine. It also seemed she was developing Cerebral Oedema, having progressed beyond a headache to nausea. The potent Ibuprofen-Paracetemol mix brought the nausea back to a headache and another almost fixed that. And we plodded on, no need for Nifedipine or Dexamethazone. Eventually the rollercoaster trail began to lose real altitude and slowly she began to feel better. We didn't make Chinese BC, instead camped by some friendly yak herders. After a reasonable sleep we enjoyed tea in their very traditional tent, quite a cultural experience. Although not as strong as normal, Betsy carried her own pack to Chinese BC where Mr Goh, the Chinese liaison officer greeted us. Although Betsy was a day early he ordered a Landcruiser and mentioned that he had to go Zhangmu for a day or two as well. It was not to be. An Asian Trekking Cho Oyu group of two Austrians, two South Africans and their Nepali sirdar Durga arrived in the afternoon desperate to get out. Durga was especially desperate to get them out because although the South Africans hadn't summitted, one of them had promised him the summit bonus if he could get them to Kathmandu in four days from Camp 1. It was now day 3. Chivalrously Mr Goh offered to stay behind and squeeze everyone into the only Landcruiser and they did indeed reach Kathmandu the next day.

First acclimatisation trip 2-4 May I left once Betsy was safely away in the Landcruiser and stayed part of the way up. The next day I made it to ABC. Meanwhile everyone else had been on the first acclimatisation trip, first a night at Depot Camp at approx 6100m, then two nights at Camp 1. Bill Miller had had a history of insomnia at altitude and while he had slept well enough at Chinese BC, higher than he had previously been able to sleep, ABC was too high and this trip was taking it out of him. Bengt too was thinking he needed more time to acclimatise and stayed two nights at Depot.

I took a light load to Depot camp over the rough rock covered ice and stayed there a night to catch up on acclimatisation.

The summit push 7-14 May After a couple of days back at ABC we began a slow summit push. What has always interested me is techniques to acclimatise and here was my chance to put theory into practice. It has always amazed me that expeditions (especially the main commercial operators) take huge leaps in altitude, say 5700m (ABC) to 6450m (Camp 1) without intermediate camps. I used to think that the '300m a day rule' was somehow irrelevant about 5500m. it isn't. So after a night for some, two nights for others, at Camp 1 we established Camp 1.5 at around 6850m. The second concept that fascinates me and strikes me as wrong, is the speed at which people rush ever higher up the mountain, simply heading to the next camp a day later. At least for the first time I know you need time, not just time to avoid altitude sickness, but time to get stronger or partially acclimatise to the altitude. It is true that in some ways your body does begin deteriorating, but in most others it is getting stronger. So we moved up slowly. Hugo and Steve spend one night at C1, two at C1.5 then three nights at C2 at 7100m. Bengt, Bill Lhotta and myself spent three nights at C1 then after a night at C1.5 Bill moved to C2 while I stayed with Bengt a second night. The following morning Bengt knew he wasn't strong enough to safely go up to C2, and more importantly, get himself down, so he turned back clear that he had made the right decision to abandon his bid.

Meanwhile Bill Miller was also having a struggle. While we were at C1 he had stayed at Depot Camp to see if he could sleep, but the insomnia proved almost incurable, even strong sleeping tablets gave him only three hours relief, so shattered and with a knee-ankle problem he returned to ABC intent on heading down to Chinese BC for a couple of days to recover. He never did make it back up but showed great fortitude, somewhat enforced, by staying down there until the end of the expedition.

So at last myself, Pasang and Dendi plus Bill L, Steve and Hugo were at Camp 2. Hugo and Steve swore to themselves that once they descended that was it; they hated the two stretches of blue ice climbing on far too thin fixed ropes, so from being a possible summit bid, this was most definitely their only summit bid. We had better get it right.

Although our Camp 2 was comfortable, it is hard to imagine just how uncomfortable waiting and living that high is. It is cold, although the sun can me mercilessly hot sometimes too, the sheer effort of breathing let alone doing anything else, and the endless melting snow for water. To most people it is a miserable, never to be repeated experience, add uncertain weather and it is demoralising. Basically the weather had been shite, consistent only in its uncertainty. It snowed and it fined up, the wind howled - an ordinary gust was measured at 127kmh/79mph, and it was still, but never for long. Jagged Globe (UK company) with a team of five and good Sherpa support were at Camp 3 but turned back after two nights, the Spanish forecast said the third night would be bad. In fact it was fine and a good summit day, but nobody was in position. However many expeditions were hopeful that this was the beginning of a fine spell, and moved up behind us. We moved up to Camp 3, prepared for a summit bid and hoped. Amazingly enough Namgyal, our cook turned up also keen to summit. At midnight it was fine with mainly light winds and we further brewed up. Pasang had dictated the start time as 3am but IMG (International Mountain Guides), who were on their 2nd summit attempt and down from 8 clients to 2, moved past at 3am. Soon after I set off and at the top of the first set of fixed ropes realised that I was moving fast, I had to wait half an hour for everyone else. Steve had lost a glove, luckily Dendi had a spare, and Hugo had cold feet. Partly this was my fault, in Kathmandu I had mentioned that I didn't think his system of Asolo Expedition boots and neoprene overgaiters was warm enough and was told bluntly he wasn't going to buy more boots just for Cho Oyu. It hadn't occurred to me to give him the set of electric foot warmers that I didn't have time to set up for myself. Steve had some and they were working well, and Bill L had some in brand new Millets (One Sports; the warmest boots in the world). From waiting my feet were cold in old One Sports but not seriously so. At the top of the fixed rope across the 'yellow' band Pasang yelled that we should go straight up the snow rather than following the other teams. Above the small snow field the rock was tricky, at least at this altitude and with crampons on. It could be considered part of the challenge but considering the risks and the numbers of climbers, fixing several hundred metres of hand line might be more sensible. I thought I was thinking sharply enough. The first test was Hugo turning back, he could feel his feet freezing. Amazingly enough, once he returned to Camp 3 the circulation returned and he began to climb again. But what showed me up to myself was at around 8000m Steve began asking for snacks saying that he had lost his Powergel. I assumed he had lost one, but the next day I found out he had lost the lot, some 6 or so packets and that was his only food. I assumed he must have more and was not worried or particularly helpful, giving him only a couple of things. Pasang and Namgyal were going really strong so I waved them on ahead thinking that at least they would get a chance to summit and then if anyone else turned back, pick them up on the return. But although I was worried at our pace, we plodded on. Finally at the summit plateau, where the going becomes easy, I could surge ahead, passing the IMG group who were all on oxygen. Foolishly I called Namgyal back to the true summit for pictures then he headed down quickly. His aim was to return to ABC to cook for Bengt.

His summit was perhaps the most remarkable of the season for he had carried a load to Camp 1 but had not slept higher than ABC before coming up to C1.5 for a night then C3 then the summit!

With sheer willpower Bill L and Steve summitted and spent at least half an hour on top taking pictures. There was high cloud and soon a hazy high cloud ate Everest and Lhotse, but still the panorama was amazing. I made sure that I was on absolutely the highest point, last time being criticised for stopping early (50? horizontal metres and 1-2 vertical metres) in cloud the first time in 1999.

As we headed down I was surprised to meet Hugo at 8030m following 3 Germans up. I implored him to turn back as soon as any wind gusts began and reminded him of tiredness.

I had previously warned everyone that getting down was just as important and that tiredness or even altitude sickness can catch up with you while descending. Approximately one in ten people who have summitted Everest die on the way down. In fact although Steve was shattered, it was Dendi that slowed so I watched him and ensured he had drink and food, which picked him up somewhat. There was also a Spanish guy (Fernandes) moving slowly and almost drunkenly but since he was almost keeping pace with Dendi I wasn't too worried. In the middle of a rock section he lagged further. Tired but successful we made Camp 3 without incident and packed for heading down to Camp 2. Thank goodness there is nothing too tricky on the way down, for everyone was stumbling with tiredness. While Pasang and I packed a tent another Spanish (Carlos) arrived and flopped down at C3. he didn't move for perhaps an hour, but again I didn't think anything of it, but higher on the mountain a story was unfolding. The Germans had began late from C2 and now on the summit plateau conditions were deteriorating. It was obvious they were getting themselves into trouble so Hugo wisely turned back. Almost back at C3 the fixed ropes were blocked by a fallen climber. Strangely Hugo thought it was a Sherpa playing a joke - altitude does that too you! It was Fernandes utterly exhausted, he had fallen and been held by the rope and was lying in the snow waiting to die. Carlos had finally summoned the energy to walk the 150m out of Camp 3 to pick him up. Hugo was forced to help since he was also on the rope. They ended up sharing a tent with only Hugo's sleeping bag and mat and food we had left him. Apparently Fernandes and Carlos repeatedly threw up. Not the most pleasant of nights.

The Germans finally returned around 8pm, although their leader didn't find this out until a morning radio call. At least one was snow blind and one with frostbite.

Meanwhile we flopped into Camp 2. Namgyal was there feeling the effects of the altitude but wasn't actually sick. The next day myself, Pasang and Dendi cleared Camp 2 in bad weather, but by the time we packed up Camp 1.5 the weather had improved (and yes, the loads were big!) at Camp 1 we lightened our loads and everyone made ABC, except Hugo who collapsed at our Depot Camp.

A quick exit 16-20 May And now for the tricks. Everyone was keen to escape so I tried to arrange with Bill Miller at Chinese BC that they leave the day after, a Landcruiser full, and the plan worked. So myself and the crew cleared the mountain and packed and finally, after quite a mission, arrived back in Kathmandu three days after them.


So out of five team members, Bill L and Steve summitted, Hugo came very close (call that 50%?) and all four crew including myself summitted. No injuries, accidents or frostbite. The Swiss group suffered nine out of nine, a ridiculous number of frostbite cases, clearly something was wrong, we are unsure whether the Austrians actually summitted, one of the Spanish, Fernandes nearly died, the Germans suffered snowblindness and probably frostbite, and one of their paragliding team took off into a crevasse necessitating a six hour rescue. Peter Banai made it to Camp 3, despite his tent being destroyed earlier but was struggling and suffered a burnt tongue and lips. IMG, to their credit did get two of their eight clients up, a guide (all on oxygen) and a Sherpa without problems. Jagged Globe, while well organised failed on Cho Oyu (and on Baruntse the same season, and on Shishapangma in 2000 when I was there). The group of ten Australians had fun but without Sherpa support found the going to be tough and gave up at Camp 2. Another couple of Germans succeeded, but it must have been a close thing since they were so tired that after the summit day they could only make it to Camp 1, being utterly exhausted, even though they needed to be at Chinese BC the next day. As we left two Koreans, a father and son were making a summit bid with oxygen, otherwise they had no chance, taking perhaps more than six hours between Camp 2 and 3. Three Spanish also set off. To be fair the weather was not particularly kind or consistent. For example Everest was not summitted until 19 May on the south side and later on the north. Famously Rob Hall used to summit 10 May. The fixed ropes were barely adequate, although to be fair we did not add to them. However next time we will.

I think the harsh conditions took their toll, but mostly climbing 8000m mountains is ridiculously tough, far tougher than most people expect with they book/plan an expedition. Myself and Pasang will be at it again in May 2002.

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