CHO OYU (8,201 m) 2011

I would like to share these blog entries that Rob (our Adventure Peak guide) made on a daily basis while on the mountain. Rob did an awesome job and I want share this with my group members, friend, family.

I would like to also express my huge thanks to all my group members – Rob for guiding us and for never giving up that 10% summit hope; Jan – for being an awesome tent mate and taking care of me when I most needed (especially, the day when I came down from Camp2 all exhausted!!); Lloyd – for just being there, showing courage (you are my hero!), Dave – for your courage to come even not finished expedition.

Finally, I would to thank all my friends and family for their continued support and believe in me! I could not have done this challenge without knowing you are there with me… THANK YOU!

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Adventure Peaks Cho Oyu 2011

Sunday 04/09/11    Cho Oyu Base Camp 4900m

We left home just over a week ago, and now find ourselves in Tibet, sitting in the Base Camp of Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world.

Dave and myself flew from London together, met Edita in Delhi where we changed flights, and flew onward to Kathmandu where Lloyd and Jan had arrived the day before. Our ‘United Nations’ team from England, Scotland, New Zealand, Denmark and Lithuania was assembled.  We had a busy day of preparations, arranging Chinese / Tibetan Visas, buying food, medical supplies and any last minute equipment people needed in Kathmandu The next day we boarded a bus to drive to Friendship Bridge to cross the border from Nepal into Tibet. The border was hectic with lorries parked on each side of the locked gate and people manually carrying huge loads of produce across to be re-loaded into empty lorries in a different country. Our kit bags disappeared amongst everything else and it was a relief to spot them again while we waited in line to clear passport control and customs. Once in Tibet we were in the hands of the Chinese Tibet Mountaineering Association and they arranged transport to Xangmu, a 20 minute drive from the border, for our first night in Tibet. The following day an impressive drive higher up the gorge past  huge waterfalls, swollen from the heavy rain overnight, took us to Nylam at 3700m. Two days walking in the local hills up to 4500m for acclimatisation, and dodging the packs of feral dogs occupied our days. Moving on  our bus climbed the road onto the Tibetan plateau crossing a high pass of 5050m. Unfortunately the views of Shishapangma were obscured by cloud. We spent one night in Tingri, a one street town with a ‘frontier’ feel to it, where the wild dogs beat their Nylam neighbours and kept us awake most of the night barking in the streets. As compensation we had spectacular morning views of Cho Oyu, before driving to Base Camp. We arrived at our established camp, thanks to Gyanu (Cook), Mingma (Climbing Sherpa)and Tashi (Cookboy)who had arrived a day earlier. Dorje our lead Climbing Sherpa had travelled with us from Kathmandu. Lloyd’s dreams were answered as chips were served with lunch. Small things can make a big difference on an expedition. The rest of the day was spent resting and sorting out stores and personal equipment. Radio briefings and a Portable Altitude Chamber demonstration filled the afternoon. The evening meal surpassed lunch as sizzling hot plates appeared turning the dining tent into a sauna. Most of us confessed to not eating as well at home! Today we had another acclimatisation walk up to 5600m,with everyone feeling well. Base Camp is an evolving community, as groups come and go every day. Our German neighbours left this morning, to be quickly replaced by New Zealanders. It’s a busy place here. Many climbers have returned from last season, when dangerous snow conditions forced all groups off the mountain, before a chance to summit. On top of those folks are the groups who are here for the first time. Tomorrow we prepare more kit and Yak proof it. The day after tomorrow hired Yaks will move our stores and equipment from Base Camp up the mountain, to our next stop at Interim Camp 5100m.

cho oyu team (Dave, Lloyd, Dorje, Edita, Jan)

06/09/11 – Base Camp – Interim Camp 4 hours
Edita, Lloyd, Dave and Jan left with Gyanu while Dorje and myself stayed behind to weigh all our camp equipment and get it loaded onto yaks. In the end everything was loaded onto a truck and driven to Interim Camp, as it would take less time. Yaks would follow and carry the loads the following day from Interim Camp to Advanced Base Camp. Hot weather made the trail seem harder than expected, and the team were happily waiting in the Tea House at Interim Camp when I arrived. Many other climbing teams were already at Interim Camp heading up the mountain.

07/09/11 – Interim Camp – Advanced Base Camp 5 hours
Overnight snow coated our tents and all the surroundings at Interim Camp, including the many yaks, as we looked out of tent doors first thing in the morning.
Fresh snow was still falling and the visibility was reduced to 50 metres. Not the most enticing start to the day, but it was clear from the behaviour of the yak herders and Tea House owners, this was not unusual or enough to stop their daily routine. After breakfast we waited until our yaks were almost ready to leave as at Interim Camp we had the benefit of shelter in the Tea House, whereas if we reached Advanced Base Camp before the yaks carrying our tents and equipment we would be sitting in the open, at 5700m possibly in bad weather. As it turned out, the yaks passed during our lunch stop, and timing was very good. The route from Interim Camp is now an impressively engineered vehicle track,  leading part way towards Advanced Base Camp. The road cuts a swathe through glacial  ice core moraine, some of the embankments revealing solid ice. The purpose or end point of the road seem a mystery here, will it lead to ABC or even over the nearby pass leading into Nepal? Presumably time will tell.

08/09/11 – ABC
Meanwhile we are settling into ABC for the next part of the programme, some rest followed by training before heading higher up the mountain to Camp 1, firstly to carry loads and then to sleep there. However we’ve had some snow overnight, and heavier snow forecast, up to 20 inches. It’s easy to forget as we sit here in our comfortable dining tent, we are already well above an altitude where permanent settlements exist, and our existence is at the mercy of the weather. In the next few days before we progress higher up the mountain, our Sherpas and a visiting Llama will hold a Puja ceremony, to appease the mountain Gods. We are all looking forward to experiencing an important piece of Himalayan culture.

09/09/11
Better weather followed our snowy Thursday. Fortunately the forecasted 20 inches of snow didn’t arrive, but it was one of those days when it was much better to be indoors. We used the time constructively refreshing rope skills and rigging jumars, before our planned practical skills session as soon as the weather improved.

Dorje, the Lead Climbing Sherpa had found a good training venue 30 minutes walk  from ABC which we visited after breakfast. As it had been some time for all since they used fixed ropes, it was a good opportunity to practice before we start on the mountain proper, and it’s upper snow slopes. Soon the group were jumaring up 1 rope to the top of an icy slope before a quick change of gear and abseiling down a second rope. Several practices later and everyone was feeling the effects of the strenuous activity at 5700m, but it was an essential activity. High on an 8000m mountain is not the place to try and remember how best to get yourself up or down a steep slope. These skills need to be so familiar, that they can be done without thinking, as there is precious little oxygen for figuring things out at high altitude.


10/09/11
Today we climbed higher part of the way to Camp 1, reaching 6050m. From ABC the route weaves it’s way through the glacial moraine for several hours, slipping and sliding up and down loose rock covered ice slopes. After that a steep scree slope is climbed to the old Lake Camp. This hill has already been christened ‘Heartbreak Hill’ due to it’s unrelenting nature, and location after the hard work of advancing up the moraine. Unfortunately the brief rest at Lake Camp is followed by another near identical slope to gain the snowline, but we left that for another day satisfied with our progress up to 6050m. We had a long lunch stop at our high point to maximise our acclimitisation, but as the afternoon weather closed in with low clouds and snow we packed up and returned to ABC.

Tomorrow, weather depending, we’ll be back on the same route, but continuing to Camp 1 at 6400m for a load carry. Many teams are following the same schedule of climbing high, sleeping low, and bit by bit preparing their bodies and minds to climb higher up the mountain. Patience and endurance are key to tackling a Himalayan 8000m peak.


11/09/11
A long hard day saw the group climb up to Camp 1 at 6400m and back again to ABC. We made good time back to our previous day’s high point and had a good break before tackling the final slopes approaching Camp 1. That slope makes the lower  ‘Heartbreak Hill’ suitable for a picnic stroll! Scree slopes are never much fun, but at 6000m it turned into seemingly never ending punishment. Still we made good time  to the snow line though few thought so at the time. By then despite our early start, the afternoon weather was closing in as we climbed the snow slope below Camp 1. Cresting the top of the slope it was good to see Dorje and Mingma who pointed us in the direction of our tents. Due to the change in the weather there was no lounging around to maximise acclimitisation, despite it being a new high point for both Dave and Edita. After quickly dumping our loads in the tents, it was time to turn and make haste to lower ground. Thankfully the slope which took so long to clamber up was quickly descended, albeit in tired fashion, sliding down snow and then scree. A brief stop at the base of the slope for water and food, and we were back on familiar ground stomping back to ABC in ever deteriorating conditions. An hour later Tashi appeared through mist and falling snow, having walked 30 minutes up from camp with a flask of hot coffee. Fantastic. Thankfully we don’t have to make the return trip to Camp 1 again in the same day. The next time we will be sleeping at Camp 1 as we progress higher up   the mountain.

12/09/11
A welcome rest day after the hard work of the day before, combined with our Puja ceremony has been enjoyed by all. Our camp here at ABC is now decorated with colourful prayer flags stretching out in all directions from our central stupa, or stone altar. After breakfast a visiting Lama recited Tibetan scriptures, as incense burned in the clear morning air, and choughs wheeled over our heads. We were blessed along with our equipment we will take on the mountain. A collection of boots, crampons, ice axes and climbing harnesses crowded around one side of the stupa and were anointed with butter.  Everyone present ate and drank a little, though whisky straight after breakfast went down easier for some than others.  To round things off there was a liberal dousing of flour on the face and over the head for good luck. The morning sun broke through the clouds making the coloured prayer flags stretched around our snow covered  campsite picture perfect. The Puja ceremony will be a  memorable day for the whole group, changing the appearance of our camp, and putting a noticeably celebratory mood in the air, that not even the afternoon snows could dampen. Tomorrow we will be back up the mountain, spending our first night at Camp 1 at 6400m.

13/09/11 ABC – Camp 1
The group remains divided whether or not the tortuous ascent to Camp 1 gets any easier. It should feel easier after the first ascent, to a new altitude, though on our second ascent we carried heavier loads needed to progress higher still. Big boots, crampons, ice axes, harnesses, warm clothing all amounted to considerable loads
between 16 – 18 kgs. Next time you nip into Morrisons, buy a sack of tatties and carry it up your nearest scree slope for several hours, and just to make it feel like you’re at altitude cover your mouth and nose with a scarf, making it difficult to breathe. However the group did all arrive at Camp 1, where we spent the night. Even the afternoon’s bad weather cleared just before sunset and gave wonderful views, though most were firmly settled into sleeping bags by then.

14/09/11 Camp 1 – 6600m (return to ABC)
I had set an early alarm in case the heavy snow forecast didn’t arrive and we could use the day to our advantage. Sure enough the sky was clear at 6am and I proceeded to wake everyone up. Easier said than done when some pretend not to hear, no names mentioned. However all admitted our early start was pretty tame when Mingma, one of our climbing Sherpas arrived at Camp 1 at 7am, having left ABC at 4am. From there he continued on to Camp 2 another 700 metres higher. Very impressive. Camp 1 provides impressive views for the hard work of reaching it. You definitely feel like you’re progressing up the mountain and have a chance to look down in several directions to glaciers below, and across to impressive mountain faces. Above the route to the summit of Cho Oyu stretches on and on.
Our goal for the day was to progress above Camp 1, as fixed lines  were now in place. The clear sky meant when the sun got higher, so did the temperatures. It became incredibly hot, to the point where a stop to take off thermal layers was needed. Many climbers were on the same route, keen to progress up the mountain, now the route was open. We stopped at a high point of 6600 metres and rested (or flaked out) to aid acclimitisation. Up ahead the serac barrier was visible which will be our next milestone to pass, en route to Camp 2.  a strenuous jumar up the steep face at 6800 metres awaits us. Meanwhile there is a lot of snow on the slopes above, and so a few days rest lower down will coincide well with allowing the snow pack to settle.

15/09/11 ABC
Rest, rest, rest. The order of the day. Unsettled weather all afternoon has kept most indoors, with the early risers snatching a local walk this morning. Oddly we have bright sunshine with strong snow showers, one after the other. Camp life continues unabated, the local porters  come around the various base camps, enticing climbers to buy local jewellery when they’re not load carrying. We see the same faces as we ourselves make the journey to Camp 1 and back. Friendly greetings are passed and our few Tibetan phrases. The local decoration of choice is the Zee stone, which is worn as a lucky stone. All of the group are now wearing them, believing any good fortune to be had on Cho Oyu is a good thing. So professional are the salesmen that out comes a calculator, when the buyer isn’t sure about currency exchange!

16/09/11 ABC
Another rest day, with everyone eating well and taking it easy. We are now used to  our strange weather, where we can have bright sunshine one moment, and driving snow the next. Or even stranger both together, which makes drying out kit interesting.
People are sorting out kit for tomorrow’s next trip up the mountain. We already have a good stock of food and equipment at Camp 1, so there’s not so much to carry up, but surprisingly small items all add up. Airline and hotel toothpaste tubes are in demand, being the smallest and lightest available. Fortunately we haven’t reached the stage of sharing toothbrushes!
The next report will be in several days after our rotation through Camp 1, Camp 2 and beyond, breaking the 7000m barrier.

17/09/11 ABC – Camp 1
Regrettably Dave has decided to leave the mountain and head home. We wish him all the best for the future and safe climbs.

Meanwhile for the rest of us we set out on the trek from Advanced Base Camp to Camp 1 again. The trip up the glacier, Heartbreak Hill and the never ending scree slope which shall not be named. There had been keen competition to see who had the lightest rucksack in the group, but now the weighing scales are broken, so it’s all a bit more subjective. We settled into camp early and waited for the next day.

18/09/11 Camp 1 – Camp 2 – Camp 1
The climb to Camp 2 is a big day from Camp 1, taking 6-8 hours if conditions are good and rucksacks not too heavy. On a bright day the temperatures can become stifling combined with the glare off the snow pack, as early as 10am. So alarms were set for 5am and a planned 7am departure. Other teams were above and below us as we clipped into the fixed ropes and raised weary legs up the steep steps. After some time it was clear Jan was not feeling himself, and both he and I turned around to return to Camp 1. Dorje and Minga were as usual forging ahead with heavy loads. Edita and Lloyd continued towards Camp 2 as they were feeling strong. A few hours later the weather deteriorated with heavy snow and poor visibility. It was important to get the team together, in case Camps were cut off from each other in deep snow and avalanche conditions. Edita and Lloyd dropped their loads in Camp 2 and returned with Dorje and Mingma to Camp 1. The wet snow continued and weighed heavily on the tents.
A few hours later I was fetching a new gas canister from the tent, and the tent began to shake. I thought someone was helpfully shaking the snow off. Then the ground began to shake and I realised all was not well. It felt like the whole slope was moving under me, until I leapt out of the tent and could see familiar tent shapes through the darkness, still in position. Next the unmistakable roar of an avalanche broke through the darkness. Impossible to tell where it was coming from or it’s path of destruction, a tense moment passed between those of us who were standing outside. In less than a minute which seemed much much longer, the noise subsided and radio chatter erupted. Checks between ABC, Camp 1 and Camp 2 assured no one was injured. An earthquake, we later learned originating in Northern India, had triggered major avalanches on Cho Oyu. We were prepared for many scenarios on Cho Oyu, though earthquakes hadn’t been included, until now.

19/09/11 Camp 1 – ABC
So consider our predicament, deep fresh snow on the mountain, very tired team members from the day before, and the possibility of earthquake aftershocks. We decided to return to ABC, giving the snow and continental plates some time to settle. So I write this again  in the welcome comfort of our Advanced Base Camp where Ganyu will shortly be serving another fine meal. But soon we will be returning to the slopes of Cho Oyu, to climb the slopes of the Turquoise Goddess, if conditions allow.

20/09/11 ABC
Snow, snow, snow.
Good if you’re waiting for a White Christmas. Bad if you’re trying to climb a big mountain. It has snowed all last night and all day today at ABC, without even our intermittent sunny spells that we have become used to. Tomorrow we go back up to Camp 1 so we’ll find out if it’s been snowing as much up there. Communications were bad with other groups on the mountain tonight, so it’s not clear how latest conditions are.
Rope fixing has ground to a halt with the fresh snow. The ‘local’ mountain forecast from Lhasa gives snow for the next 5 days. However some teams are hoping to push for the summit before that. Everyone else waits intently as their success or failure will have consequences for the rest of the season.
Tomorrow we return to Camp 1 and the following day hopefully advance to Camp 2 to spend the night at 7100m.

21/09/11 ABC – Camp 1
Everyone made their now familiar way to Camp 1 without incident. The usual faces were either making their way up or down the slope. Climbing teams from all over the world are represented here, from large scale national affairs to small independent groups. We all suffer in common the changeability of the weather and mountain conditions.

22/09/11 Camp 1 – Camp 2 (turnaround)
0430 wake up in ice encrusted tents, with 2 hours for melting snow and getting ready for another day on Cho Oyo. The warming of the tent is a mixed blessing as the ice formed overnight melts slowly and drips on everything.

Today’s objective was Camp 2 which had already eluded us once. Fine conditions to begin with soon became high winds and stinging temperatures. With hands becoming dangerously cold, only a short way into the day, the difficult decision to turn around was taken. A few seconds of video footage would represent the conditions better than any description, but taking out a camera and removing gloves to use it are far from the mind at the time. So we found ourselves back at Camp 1 early in the morning, digging in for another attempt the following day.

23/09/11  Camp 1 – Camp 2
0430 wake up again. Winds looked calm on the ground above us and off we set. Camp 1 to Camp 2 is a long day with 700 metres of ascent, and considerable distance. We had all sorts of weather, but not the high winds of the day before. At one point, it was intolerably hot and snowing at the same time. 9 hours later a happy team saw Camp 2 appear out of the cloud at 7100 metres.  We wasted no time getting settled into tents and began the routine of melting snow, resting and hydrating. Some slept better than others, given the new altitude to adapt to. Long periods of inactivity are frequent in high mountain climbing, often before or after periods of hard work and it can take some getting used to.

24/09/11 Camp 2 – ABC
A later start was made at 0600 to maximise acclimitisation before dropping down again. Winds had been gusting all night, and continued to do so making it a cold morning. A loud rumble accompanied by ‘Avalanche’ had us jumping out of tents to witness the slope directly above camp tumbling towards us. A pair of Italian skiers  planning to ski from the summit, wasted no time, clipped their skis on and disappeared down the mountain side. The rest of us were a bit more pragmatic, without the benefit of a quick getaway, and waited until the debris settled some 100 metres from camp before making our next plan. Dorje and Mingma who had planned a load carry to Camp 3, wisely decided against it and we all returned to ABC via Camp 1. Slopes which had taken hours to ascend the day before were quickly behind us, though the deep fresh snow made it slow going in places.
On the way down we were passed by a Korean team, who had summitted the day before and had come down from Camp 3 this morning, crossing the fan of avalanche debris on the way. They are the first team to summit this season. Well done to them.
Now we are in the rest phase of the expedition before our summit bid. Timings will as ever depend on weather and snow conditions. Some teams were on their way up the mountain today on their summit bids, but might descend again to give snow conditions time  to settle. Weather forecasts are avidly shared between teams as we try and find the most ideal conditions for reaching the summit of Cho Oyu.

25-26/09/11 ABC
Yesterday a collective of Guides made a sensible plan for the coming period, based on current weather and snow conditions, forecasted conditions and available resources in terms of manpower and time left in the season. Checking safety of slopes, fixing remaining ropes, stocking camps with equipment, food, fuel and oxygen, moving into the right position for the right weather window. All with the aim of reaching the summit of Cho Oyu.

Then it began to snow last night and it is still snowing. It’s hard work moving around ABC in the deep snow. Avalanches rumble off the mountain sides at regular intervals, unseen beyond our little world of whiteout, visibility restricted to 50 metres.

All summit plans are now on hold. Groups which left 2 days ago and had reached Camp 2 are now struggling to get lower down the mountain, trying to find fixed ropes which are buried deep in the snow. Sadly, reports of a climber dying between Camp 1 and Camp 2 yesterday have been confirmed, plans to lay his body to rest have also been put on hold.

We are in limbo, with precious time passing before the end of the season. Still this is the world of high altitude mountaineering we have chosen to enter. As said some time ago, patience and endurance are key. However no one can argue they would not rather be in ABC just now, rather than somewhere higher on the mountain.

28/09/10 ABC – Camp 1
As plans changed rapidly over the course of the morning, several major groups started heading up the mountain. This was quickly on the back of the storm finally ceasing, as battered and dispirited teams returned to ABC. Some teams packed up and headed down the valley, giving up hope or using up their resources high on the mountain. So it was after a change of plan the Adventure Peaks team headed up to Camp 1 after lunch. Chasing the sun up the mountain we reached Camp 1 in the shade, a little later than desired but importantly placed on the mountain.

29/09/10 Camp 1- Camp 2
A straightforward day to Camp 2 following the crowds, placed many teams in the same position. The weather looked good but there was still the issue of a lack of fixed ropes above the Yellow Rock Band. In light of the situation and the fact we would need to start for the summit less than 12 hours after reaching  Camp 2 we opted for an extra rest day. We had enough food and fuel, and the weather was settled.

30/09/11 Camp 2 Rest Day
Sleep, eat, drink, pee. Life at altitude is very simple if you can follow the simple routine. During the day news had filtered down that the 2 teams who had went for the summit the night before had not made it. There were still no ropes in place and the teams hadn’t managed to get their own placed in the darkness. These teams would go home with no summit, a day before ourselves. We had made the right decision.  During the day we could see a Sherpa team working high on the mountain placing ropes, finally convinced weather was stable enough and snow conditions safe,
By 11 pm it was time to start getting ready. Most of us were already dressed in down suits and had sorted radios, chocolate bars, spare gloves, sunglasses, suncream, hand warmers  and water in pockets. It gets quite busy in a tent with 2 people dressed as teletubbies  in head to toe in down trying not to overheat. Searching for a missing glove can take an infinitely long time!

01/10/11 SUMMIT DAY!
1 am start, after a fitful sleep for some. We opted to climb from Camp 2 at 7100m on oxygen, thus saving energy moving up and carrying loads to Camp 3, and making the most of the brief good forecasted weather period. Therefore we had just over 1100 metres of ascent to make on summit day. It was clear many parties adopted the same strategy as the line of head torches bobbed up the slope. The route from Camp 2 to Camp 3 is steep and unrelenting. Even with the benefit of oxygen, it was hard work. People breathed hard into their oxygen masks, lost in their thoughts, whatever they were.  Step after step, waiting for dawn when perhaps the prospect of climbing this huge mountain would seem more possible.
We had a great ratio of 1 to 1, with Dorje, Minga and myself climbing with Edita, Jan and Lloyd.  Jan decided to turn around at 7300m, having not felt well since Camp 1. Possibly the worst timing of stomach trouble you can have. He made the sensible decision to turn around while he still felt well enough.
The rest of us continued higher and higher. We reached Camp 3 as dawn broke across the Himalayan sky, with Cho Oyu casting it’s huge shadow. The vertical Yellow Rock Band lay above us,  the steep rope hanging down from the steep face. Above the Rock Band the slope continued forever. Through the section of broken ground, onto the shoulder, onto the summit plateau (where some climbers turn back short from the summit),  higher and higher onto the plateau, until it must seem the mountain will finish. Finally a flutter of prayer flags greet you at the top with views to Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse in Nepal, and there is nowhere higher to go. The summit.

Of course the summit is only halfway, and the descent needs as much concentration and focus as the ascent. But safe to say we all made it down safely,  with much less effort than we spent on the way up.  Having accomplished a life time achievement.

Edita’s thoughts – excruciating, exhilarating, immemorable.
Lloyd thoughts – lifetime achievement, a moment to never forget.

03/10/11 ABC
Yak time. It’s busy here at ABC. Many expeditions have already left or are about to leave. Yaks are in high demand. It’s our last night here so the whisky and glow sticks are out. It’s as wild as it gets here at Cho Oyu Advanced Base Camp. Tomorrow we’re hitting the trial back to Interim Camp,  Base Camp and then the road to the Tibetan / Nepalese Border. 1 night in the  Border town of Xangmu and then it’s back to the clamour of Kathmandu. In a couple of days we’ll be back in shorts and t-shirts, a world away from the high mountains.

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