Double summit on Cho Oyu.
(Photo Credit: Alex Staniforth)
Getting 6th is something I got used to at a very young age. Never the gold or silver for me in Football, Basketball or any damn ball…Nope, usually my sporting endeavours resulted in a periodic table equivalent of carbon. The most common thing around and not that thrilling. That is unless you compress it really hard. And I mean really, really hard…You know when you put a whole mountain on the stuff. Then you get a diamond; in the rough, some might say but a diamond none-the–less.
So for once I’d like to compare my athletic performance in the mountains this year to something that resembles this glittering lump of carbon. I even out-did my own expectations of what this 160 pound weakling thought himself capable off. Nope, I didn’t don a winged suit nor save that many lives but I did guide teams to five of the seven summits (some multiple), four 6,000 meter peaks plus summited three out of the four 8,000 meter peaks I attempted (some multiple) and had a helluva lot of fun rock-climbing many hard Alpine rock routes with my son and wife. Not too shabby for someone who once missed so many goals that even his own brother, who captained the high school soccer team, banned me from ever coming near the field again.
The Road trip: Not that high school football was on my mind when I hit the road with my team to climb the Turquoise Goddess; the sixth highest mountain on this amazing planet of ours. You know when you are put in charge of four climbers attempting an 8,000 meter mountain (which you yourself have never been near) then your mind is very much a mental mix of ideas, things to remember and far-out thoughts. Ideas mingle and mix as you try to come up with this weird notion called “a plan”. But, I shouldn’t have wasted my brain space because this Goddess lives in Tibet and my plans and Tibet didn’t really hit it off; so it was a case off throwing up hands and going with the flow, something which if it were a school sport I’d excel at. Someone wisely quipped that China is not a different country but a different planet. So on the road trip it was a bit like being in star trek; “It’s life Jim but not as we know it“
The rental bus taking us on the four day road trip to base camp never moved at more than forty kilometres per hour through the lovely Tibetan landscape thus giving me the added luxury of being a tourist, to be able to just stare out the window, reflect on this ancient land and to be able to sneak a few cans of carbonated Chang on board; who for example had ever heard of these extravagances on the approach to an 8,000 meter mountain!
The Mountain: Anyway these thoughts didn’t last too long either before being replaced by the more pressing, “Wow, the hell am I going to get this team up that!” which blasted into my head the moment I saw the mountain in all its glory for the first time. Arriving at Advanced Base Camp you get confronted by what landscape painters would deem to be so over-whelming that putting it on canvas is a near impossibility. Cho Oyu met and exceeded all my expectations several fold over; the scenery surrounding this amazing mountain had me entranced and set my heart beating into the red-zone. This was going to be an expedition unlike any that I had ever experienced; how could we not find what we were looking for in this magical landscape. Even the yaks that dragged tonnes of our equipment to basecamp seemed to agree; their usual temperamental nature had been moderated to almost angelic bliss! What was with this mountain! Just how far did the Turquoise Goddess cast her spell?
8,000 Meters: There is no such thing as “easy” at 8,000 meters. This term is as oxymoronic as “fun-run”, “civil-war” or “good tasting-health-food”. And the route up this mountain did not prove to be the exception. But boy when compared to other mountains I have climbed Cho Oyu certainly did not hold back in treating us (and all those lucky to climb on her) like rock-stars; the camps are situated in places which literally make your jaw hit the floor when you arrive, the climbing between them is never knee-snakingly difficult but provides enough spice to create a little tremor. The panorama you are privileged to rise above as you climb higher and higher is so mind boggling that you can’t fail but to be stopped in your track, stare and feel privileged to experience what you are seeing. Looking out at over the enormous amount of unclimbed summits on its Nepal side you truly appreciate what a miniscule part you play in the scheme of things and then turning your head to see the vastness of Tibet you get a true appreciation for the many shades of brown there are in this world; a visual feast like no other mountain can dish up.
Divisions: Slow-mo is better than no-mo a wise man once said. Acclimatisation to different altitudes takes time and everyone falls on a different part of the spectrum; some folk adjust to the rarefied air quicker than others. Arthur and Kam were quicker than Alex and Charlene to acclimatise and so I split the team in half and went up on the rotations at different times with the different teams. A rotation simply means camping at ever increasing altitudes for a night or two before coming down to rest and wait for the summit push to become possible. I went up to camp one at 6,400 meters for a spell with one team then returned to ABC at 5,700 metres to go back up the next day with the other team for the same; repeat times two. These rotations are essential to allow your body to become naturally adjusted to the rarefied air before venturing into the death zone. Right now no matter how well you think you will do or how fit you are has no relation to the reality of how you will feel when you get to altitude. Remember that Advanced Base Camp is at the same height as the Summit of Kilimanjaro. It’s important to relax and remember that you are here for the long haul. There’s no fighting mother nature.
The crux: Ask any rock climber about the crux and he’ll tell you that that’s where things get really tough. On Cho there are two cruxes; the ice-cliff between camp I and 2 and the rock-band en-route to the summit. The first, at just under 7,000 meters was exciting as we climbed this without oxygen (by this I mean we didn’t use supplementary O2 when climbing this) and since we climbed it (twice) in broad daylight this was the most imposing. The ice-cliff forms part of a very wide serac band that stretches across the route like a bully. It just sits there and taunts. We approached it rather tentatively but found with a huge sigh of relief that our very own Sherpa team has already found a way to tame it; winding through the middle of it hung a rope into which we could clamp our jumars and slide on up. Looking left and right you can still see the bully like ice walls overhanging in silent menace but you know that as long as you keep sliding that jumar up the rope things will be ok. Just like an ostrich on the African savannah sticks its head long enough into the sand for the cheetah to wonder on by.
Once on top you are greeted with a view like no other. Shishapangma dominates the horizon and literally a hundred peaks have sprouted up to make the budding first ascensionists within you drool with desire. The second crux pops up at 7,700 meters on summit night when you are using oxygen and in complete darkness and at this stage just seems like another obstacle to overcome; the terrain goes from moderately steep to very steep until you find yourself climbing like the ice-warriors in vertical limit. Your pace at this stage will be especially enhanced if climbing with a climbing Sherpa who sings sweet notes of encouragement into your ears. Charlene for example merited an “f****** move!!” from Pa –Dawa who normally is Zen Buddha himself. The best thing about this crux is that when you get to the top sunrise will have happened and not only will you be able to fully appreciate the amazingly steep wall you have just conquered but the Tibetan 7,000 meter summits glistening like multi-coloured jewels in the new dawn light now well below you. Life does not get better than this.
Double summit: Tick tick tick the clock is ticking and I am getting a little jittery as the minutes then hours go past. It took 8 hrs to bring Charlene up from camp one to camp two at 7100 meters on her final rotation. I have had a drink of melted snow and have just given the thumbs up to Kam and Arthur who have already been here for 24 hrs that their summit bid is on. We will be going up in 4 hours. I fire up the stoves and melt more ice. Both Charlene and Alex are either too sick or exhausted to continue and want to try tomorrow if the weather is still holding. It looks like I will have to make two summit bids. The reality of what this means has not hit me yet. I am focussing on summiting with Kam and Arthur now. The usual confusion reigns; boiling water, getting dressed for the worst in a crowded tent, a howling wind, fitting oxygen masks and regulators, gulping down that last snack; you’re heading into the death zone. 8,000 meter awaits and how long we will be out is anyone’s guess. I shouldn’t have worried; The first summit attempt was beautiful and at no point during this 17 hour day (from camp 2 at 7,100 meters to the summit at 8,201 metres and back) was I in the least concerned about Kam and Arthur not reaching the summit and coming back down safely. The conditions were great; styrofoam snow, a decreasing wind and a sunrise that was breath-taking. We hit the top and looked over the vastness of Nepal and its iconic peaks. Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, Ama Dablam , Chantse, Pumori. What great memories those mountains held for us and how cool it was to be so far above them. We bear hugged, took lots of photos of stuffed toys and descended feeling very proud. A summit could not have been achieved in more perfect style nor with a better team.
Then we got back to camp two, now 30 hours of no sleep for me, the second team of Charlene and Alex were rested and keen to go. The weather was holding. My body clock was ticking. Could I do another summit attempt? Half of me wanted to experiment the other wanted to sleep. I’d been to this mental zone before on previous high altitude ventures and knew I had it in me to put in another big day out. I owed it to the second part of my team to try my utmost to get them to the summit too. Once again I give the thumbs up. Things didn’t look well for Alex from the start. He crawled out of his tent looking a mess and his climbing Sherpa Dorje gave me that “it ain’t going to happen today” look. The poor chap had been sick everywhere and even needed help putting on his crampons. We started off from camp two but it was no surprise to see Dorje climb up after me only 10 minutes later to tell me he was taking Alex down; “He’s all over the place”. I looked down and sadly watched the 2 lights disappear below me.
Looking up I could still see Charlene going strong. The girl had gone from naught to a hundred in two days. A new determination greeted me when I caught up with her and her climbing Sherpa Pa-Dawa “going down? No way!!” so up we climbed back through camp 3 and the very steep 200 meter rock band above. And all those never ending snow slopes. One after the next, and then that summit plateau which is the only plateau I know that grinds up to steepness of a blue run on the ski-slopes. But finally the ultimate reward; the summit! And apart from two extreme skiers it’s just the three of us up here. Literally the highest people on the planet on this day! And the conditions were even better than 24 hours before! The Turquoise Goddess had weaved its magic again. To say we felt privileged would be making the understatement of the year.
Descending: The descent if anything was adventurous; Charlene ran out of O’s so I gave her mine and a friend had his client collapse just short of camp 3. Could we drag her down in a stretcher made from a tent fly? Before things got complicated she managed to stand up and get dragged down by Sherpa power. By now the weather began to turn and the predicted 24 cm of snow was beginning to fall. But 18 hours since we left we crawled back into a tent at camp two. I had now been 48 hours without sleep.
I fired up the stoves to make that essential liquid but then was interrupted by a Sherpa friend wanting pain killers for a shoulder injury. The poor guy looked totally done in as he too had made a second summit bid, the last with a client climbing without using O2. He’d had a long day out, but where was his client? Looking out the tent I could see her slowly coming down through the building maelstrom. Then she stopped around 200 meters from the tent and didn’t move for a while. Concerned I climbed up and found her totally exhausted from her amazing achievements. I took her ruck-sack and dug a trench through the knee deep snow back to our tent where she squeezed in between us. A sleepless night followed as the cold came out to bite me again and again.
As the sun rose I once again fired up the stoves. Its feeble warmth did nothing to chase away the cold now deeply set in my bones. Conditions were bad to say the least. The snowfall during the night had been soft and fluffy, about a foot of the stuff was sitting on a rock-hard base; perfect avalanche conditions. But we were caught between a rock and a hard place; there was no more food or gas and even more snow was forecast. We had to attempt to descend to ABC. We started off within an hour of having a water breakfast. And within the first hour on the move triggered a fat boy avalanche. I was pulling up the fixed line buried in the snow when a crack shot out from where we stood. It snaked through the snow for about 50 meters then send a slab roaring down the ice-cliffs below. With hearts in mouth we clipped to the line and descended onto the much more stable ridge and from there to camp one and the safety of the glacier below.
It’s funny that when I returned to ABC I couldn’t sleep for days. A strange strung –out energy had taken hold and I spend hour after hour going rewinding the amazing adventure we just had. The Turquoise Goddess sure has left its mark and gave us the present of memories that will not easily be forgotten.