Hope fading on Cho Oyu

It was all looking so good. We saw off half of our team after breakfast yesterday morning on their way up to Camp 1 on their summit push. The rest of us, who would be aiming for the summit from Camp 2, were due to leave this morning.

We watched the rope fixing team of Sherpas high above Camp 3 through binoculars. Several figures made their way quickly through the Yellow Band and onto the summit dome. In a few hours they would become the first people to reach the summit this season, and could come back down again, their job done.

But it wasn’t to end like that. Somewhere above the Yellow Band, the 5-man team were caught in an avalanche which swept them 300 to 400 metres back down the mountain, depositing them just metres away from the teetering edge of the rock band. An anxious few minutes followed as those of us at base camp tried to make radio contact and establish the circumstances. There was a collective sigh of relief when we realised that all 5 men had emerged from the avalanche, and only one was injured. This man, Mingma, who was working for a Serbian team, was able to walk down to base camp with help, and this morning left for the roadhead at Chinese Base Camp.

This is the third major avalanche this season to have struck the slopes of Cho Oyu’s main summit route. Remarkably, so far their have been no life threatening injuries, and the mountain is yet to claim any dead. Earlier in the month seven climbers from the Tibetan Mountaineering Association were caught in an avalanche in almost the same part of the mountain, and were lucky to escape more serious injuries after they were swept over the rock band. A huge fracture line above the serac wall between Camps 1 and 2 remains as evidence of a massive ice avalanche which completely changed the profile of one of Cho Oyu’s more prominent features. Thankfully nobody was climbing the serac wall when the rupture occurred, a new fixed ropes were put up its altered profile.

From Base Camp Cho Oyu is looking utterly benign. Weather conditions are perfect for summiting: it’s cold but clear, and there has not been any precipitation for two or three days. Winds are gentle, and by rights none of us should be down here at Base Camp – we should all be high up on the slopes making our summit attempts.

Cho Oyu from base camp this morning
Cho Oyu from base camp this morning

But paradoxically the benign weather conditions are conspiring to make the mountain unsafe. It’s been a severe monsoon in this part of the Himalayas, and far more snow has been deposited on the mountains than would normally be the case. But now the monsoon has passed and conditions have become ideal for climbing, nothing is happening to change the dangerously overloaded slopes. What we need are high winds to blow away the unstable surface snow, and more avalanches to clear the slopes of surface snow, but this is not happening as quickly as we hope.

Many of the big expedition teams, including Adventure Consultants, International Mountain Guides, and Seven Summits Club, have now decided to bail out and leave the mountain for this year. We at Jagged Globe are hanging in here until the last possible moment. As long as some hope remains we will cling to it, but safety is of course our top priority – the mountain will still be here next year – and time is now running out for us. We have perhaps 3 or 4 days to see if conditions change. Then we need to be back in Kathmandu to catch international flights, or in my case join another expedition to Baruntse in Nepal.

It’s frustrating. Everything is in place and most of us are feeling in good shape, but it seems likely now that things are not to be. It’s a very sudden turn around. 24 hours ago we were feeling bouyant, but now we are very pessimistic, and it’s looking like being my third successive attempt at an 8000m peak where weather conditions have prevented me getting above Camp 2.

Or perhaps it’s just bad karma. I tried to persuade my team mates to watch Caravan on our makeshift post-dinner cinema system here at base camp – a beautiful film about Tibet and its people trading salt across the high passes – but for the umpteenth night in a row they opted for yet another violent action movie. Here in the land of the Buddha, it’s just conceivable that the mountain deities don’t approve.

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