Standing proudly at 8201m (26,906 ft) a few miles west of Everest on the border of Tibet and Nepal, Cho Oyu – whose name translates variously as Bald God or Goddess of Turquoise – is the sixth highest mountain in the world. Of the fourteen mountains surpassing the magic number 8000 metres in height, it is considered the easiest one to climb, and only the highest, Everest, has had more ascents.
But climbing a mountain as high as Cho Oyu is never easy, and no matter how well prepared you are, fate and circumstance have a strong likelihood of preventing it. I have learned this from experience twice already. In 2008 I had intended to climb Cho Oyu and was all ready to quit my contract with a UK government department in order to do so, but uncertainty over climbing permits led to many expedition teams, including my own, switching their focus to Manaslu in Nepal, and I chose to remain working instead. Then last year I attempted to climb two more 8000 metre peaks in Pakistan, Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II, only to get no higher than Camp 2 on either mountain due to the ever present jetstream winds which battered the summits with 50+ km/h winds throughout the climbing season.
Undeterred by these setbacks, I’m determined to give it another go, and tomorrow I leave for Cho Oyu for a second time. Always a keen hill walker, my interest in mountaineering has evolved through high altitude trekking in remote places, and for the majority of the last ten years I’ve been gradually working my way up in altitude, always intending to stop as soon as I found myself no longer enjoying it. So far this hasn’t happened: my highest to date is Muztag Ata in western China (7546m; 24,757 ft) and an 8000 metre peak is the logical next step.
With the Nangpa La pass, a major trading route between Tibet and Nepal, crossing its western shoulder at an altitude 5800m, Tibetans and Sherpas have been striding Cho Oyu’s slopes for generations, but it wasn’t until 1921 that the first westerners observed the mountain at close quarters, when members of Colonel Charles Howard-Bury’s Everest Reconnaissance Expedition took several photographs of it from the Nangpa La. The first serious, if somewhat half-hearted, attempt to climb it was made by the New Zealanders Edmund Hillary and George Lowe in 1952. Led by the great mountain explorer Eric Shipton, the main purpose of the 1952 expedition was to test oxygen equipment for the 1953 (successful) British attempt on Everest from the Nepalese side. Denied an easy line up Cho Oyu from the south, Shipton was concerned that if they trespassed across the border and were arrested, they would jeopardise their permit for Everest the following year. Reluctantly he gave into Hillary’s urging, and allowed him and his compatriot a single attempt from across the Nangpa La, but in the event Hillary and Lowe were stopped by an ice fall at 6800m, and the attempt failed.
The Austrian geologist Herbert Tichy, who had very little mountaineering experience, was an unlikely candidate to succeed where such illustrious names as Shipton and Hillary had not, but along with his friend the Austrian climber Sepp Jochler and the Nepalese Sherpa Pasang Dawa Lama, he did just that on 19 October 1954. After fixing ropes through the ice fall that denied Hillary by using their frozen urine as an anchor, Tichy managed to get frostbite in both hands when he dived onto his tent before it blew away in a gale during their first foray up the mountain. The Austrians then received a further setback on their retreat to base camp when they discovered a pair of Swiss climbers had trespassed into Tibet after a failed attempt on Gauri Sankar in Nepal, and were determined to climb the mountain as well.
Adamant that they weren’t about to share their climbing permit, the two Austrians found they were now in a race for priority, with no opportunity for Tichy’s hands to recover from his frostbite. To compound matters Pasang Dawa Lama had returned to Namche Bazaar in Nepal to procure further supplies. But no matter: in true Sherpa fashion, he caught them up at Camp 4, and together the three made their way to the summit as the gales died and weather conditions contrived to assist them by providing a hard base of snow underfoot which their crampons glided across easily. Pasang Dawa Lama had ascended 4250m in just three days, and his companions later discovered he had ample incentive for this: back in Namche he had negotiated zero dowry for a bride if he reached the summit in exchange for 1000 rupees and no bride if he failed.
There are never any guarantees in mountaineering, but hopefully I’m as well prepared as I can be, and keeping my fingers, toes, and happily frost-free digits crossed that come October I will have managed my first 8000 metre peak, without finding myself with a bride on my return!
And if base camp communications manage to function as intended, you will be able to follow my progress here.