Reflections on Cho Oyu

There’s an old cliche in mountaineering, getting to the top is optional, but getting back down again is mandatory. There are climbers who ignore this simple axiom – and, indeed, there were some of them on Cho Oyu this year – but by the law of averages they’re not going to last very long.

In the end our decision to abandon our summit attempt and leave Cho Oyu early wasn’t difficult. Expedition leader Robert Anderson spent last Wednesday circulating around base camp trying to get a crumb of comfort from climbers who had been up the mountain recently, something that might offer a glimmer of hope that the mountain was still climbable, but there was nothing. Above Camp 3 a crust of snow sat upon several feet of powder, beneath which was a bed of ice – ideal conditions for triggering an avalanche. Teams of climbers had already been caught in three avalanches, and it was only by good fortune that everyone had survived. To tempt fate again would surely result in fatalities.

Alenka, Ron, Robert and Richard P enjoy some Lhasa beers at Cho Oyu base camp
Alenka, Ron, Robert and Richard P enjoy some Lhasa beers at Cho Oyu base camp

By Wednesday evening almost everyone had decided to go home. I wandered up the moraine through base camp to one of the strangest parties I’ve ever been to. The money teams had paid the Tibetan Mountaineering Association to fix ropes on the mountain had been spent on food and drink. Tables full of Lhasa beer had been laid out, and hundreds of people mingled on the glacier while the late evening sun touched the summit slopes of Cho Oyu, forbidden territory this year. A funny looking bunch we were. Some people tried dancing, but it wasn’t really a time for celebration. Most of us stood around in subdued fashion, scratching our heads at the freak conditions that had denied us a chance to climb. Cho Oyu is generally considered to be the safest and easiest 8000m peak, but after spending a month above 5700m, we were going home after only 3 days of actual climbing.

Two days later we were on our way out, having cleared Camps 1 and 2 of tents and equipment. Most of the other commercial teams left with us, and those remaining in base camp were mostly single ‘independent’ climbers, mavericks without much experience, who still fancied their chances. To date only two of them have reached the summit, in reportedly dangerous conditions, and one has died, a heavy price for not much purpose.

I remember the words of Serap Jangbu Sherpa on Gasherbrum last year:

“There are three things which are important in mountaineering. Number 1 is safety. You must always come back safely and with all your fingers and toes. The mountain will always be here next year. Number 2 is to enjoy the climbing and your time at base camp. If you can’t be happy in the mountains, where can you be happy? Number 3 is reaching the summit, and this comes only after the other two. I came here to climb G1 and Broad Peak and didn’t succeed, but I am happy, because I am alive and safe and will come back next year.”

I’m not sure if I’ll be back next year – life is hard to predict – but may be I will return some day. But there are other mountains, and I’m lucky, for I have an opportunity to climb my next one almost immediately. I have a short time to reflect in Kathmandu, Nepal, then my climbing partner Mark Dickson arrives and we begin the trek in to Baruntse.

The road goes on.

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