Initial forays on Cho Oyu

It’s now been a few days since our puja and it feels like our ascent of Cho Oyu has truly begun. On Monday we made an initial foray up to Camp 1 at 6400m. This involves a three hour crossing of rough moraine on a wide glacier that skirts the western flanks of the mountain, before climbing up a steep scree slope to Camp 1 on Cho Oyu’s west ridge. Towards the top the snowline begins and a short section of fixed rope brings us to a small island of rock overlooking Camp 1, on a wide snow slope on the west ridge.

It has to be said this is not a particularly enjoyable section of climbing, and since we’re going to have to complete it 4 or 5 times before the ascent is over, at times carrying quite a bit of kit on our backs, towards the end of the expedition it’s going to get pretty tedious. The first section involves a lot of boulder hopping over the sort of terrain where you’ve got to watch where you’re putting you’re feet at every step, and the second section, up steep scree, speaks for itself. It’s slow plod all the way, but it’s satisfying to be on the mountain at last, and most of us seem to be acclimatising pretty well. I packed a large ‘cappuccino flapjack’ in my packed lunch which was more the shape and size of a brick than a flapjack. At Camp 1 Richard S (‘Little Richard’ due to the fact that he’s marginally smaller than our back row forward Richard, rather than for has flamboyant piano playing) challenges me to eat the whole thing in one go without drinking anything. I manage it, but I feel more tired from eating the flapjack than slogging up the scree slope.

The descent back to Base Camp isn’t much fun either. Weather patterns dictate that ascents seem to be completed in sweltering heat, while descents are completed after the clouds have closed in and soggy sleety snow is falling. Visibility is pretty poor on this occasion as well, and I just manage to keep sight of guide Tomasz’z yellow jacket through the mist in front of me as I stagger back to Base Camp in the damp.

Tuesday was notionally a rest day back at base camp, but after washing my clothes immediately after breakfast, the majority of us our sent 20 minutes across the glacier for a spot of skills training. This involves front pointing up a short section of ice, traversing about 10 metres on fixed ropes, then a short abseil back down again. With 15 climbers in our expedition team, this takes most of the morning and on into the afternoon, all for about 15 minutes on the ice. A late lunch is followed by packing sleeping and climbing kit, and selecting and parcelling up food for 3 nights on the mountain. By the time I’ve finished all that it’s 5.30 and the day has felt busy busy busy, with no real time to rest.

Nevertheless, nine of us were still in good enough shape for our next foray up the mountain on Wednesday, which involved a night at Camp 1. Since we need to take both sleeping and climbing equipment, most of us decide to take the easy option of paying some Tibetan porters lurking at Base Camp a few dollars to carry the heavy stuff up for us. Only our two athletes, Richard Parks and Steve Williams, decide to carry everything themselves. Steve seems to be carrying a pack as big as he is, if that’s possible, and Richard has even decided to wear his big Scarpa Phantom climbing boots rather than carrying them, which slows him up even more. Ron, Geoff, Tomasz and I set off a little ahead of the others and are up to Camp 1 first, at about 12.30, though Steve with his super-pack still manages to amble in only a few minutes behind us. He did say that he used to enjoy training in his days as a rower, so presumably he likes carrying a big pack as well.

It takes us slightly longer to reach Camp 1 due to the additional weight we’re carrying, but we’re better acclimatised now and it feels easier. I have time to choose a tent, find all our kit, and put the stove on to brew by the time tent mate Tim arrives. We spent the afternoon brewing up hot drinks to rehydrate, and forcing down disgusting vacuum packed expedition food, which looks like vomit and tastes like soggy cardboard. Although I selected a pretty good tent, I could do nothing about Miha and Matjaz pitching in next door to us, which rules out snoozing in the afternoon. If talking were an Olympic sport then we’d certainly have a couple more Slovenian gold medallists in our party!

Approaching the serac wall between Camp 1 and Camp 2 on Cho Oyu
Approaching the serac wall between Camp 1 and Camp 2 on Cho Oyu

Yesterday, Thursday, was the most enjoyable of the expedition, as we made a short climb on the west ridge above Camp 1. In total contrast to the crappy boulders and scree which took us up to Camp 1, immediately above the campsite is a very enjoyable snow slope which climbs up the west ridge in a series of folds, some steep enough to require fixed ropes, while others slightly gentler. Unfortunately the weather patterns of previous days, which involved clear skies in the morning, were not repeated this time, so it’s a little cloudy as we ascend, and we only get fleeting glimpses of Cho Oyu’s more interesting features above us, and Camp 1 below. Ron, the old stager of the team, veteran of a dozen 8000m peak expeditions, and several big Himalayan walls in the 1970s, leads the way upwards at a good comfortable pace. We reach the Serac Wall, the major technical obstacle of Cho Oyu’s normal route at about 11am. We were intending to climb this and abseil back down again, but we find ourselves stuck behind a large party of incompetent Chinese climbers, who seem intent on doing the same. They take an age to reach the top, and will presumably take even longer to abseil back down again, getting in our way as we ascend. Ron and I get as far as the foot of the steepest bit before expedition leader Robert Anderson calls us back down again. We’ve seen enough though – there’s been enough snow this year to turn the ‘Serac Wall’ into just a steep snow slope. If this is the most technical obstacle Cho Oyu offers, we just need to stay fit and healthy from now on, and keep fingers crossed the weather remains reasonable.

We ascended to around 6800m, and then descend all the way back to Base Camp, leaving most of our kit up at Camp 1 for our return. Once again, I find myself crossing the bouldery moraine in pissing wet conditions, but this time it feels very easy, and most of us positively race back to Camp 1, where base camp manager Gavin and his kitchen team are ready with hot soup and tea.

We now have two rest days back at Base Camp, while our Sherpa boys establish and stock Camp 2 at 7100m, then we’ll be heading back up again.

So far so good for most of us, but sadly we have had to bid goodbye to two of our members, Dean and Felix, who we’re never able to acclimatise to the conditions at Base Camp and have descended back to Kathmandu. All the best guys – we’ll send you the tee-shirt!

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