Seven Weeks in Tibet… (Or how I coped with the horror of turning 50…)

Expedition: Cho Oyu

Charlene Gibson

The Preamble

In 2015, with over a year to go before I hit the big five-o, I was trying to decide what to do to celebrate/commiserate the momentous event. Should I go for some pampering at a spa retreat or perhaps treat myself to some time on a sun-kissed beach…or should I book an expedition to attempt to climb Cho Oyu, which at 8,201m is the sixth highest mountain in the world…? So Cho Oyu it was! I booked the trip with Rolfe from 360 Expeditions, who I’d met on Mera Peak some 3 years before.

I’d been to just under 6,500m before, so had reasonable kit, but it wasn’t quite up to an 8,000m peak so new, shiny kit was required. I made full use of birthdays and Christmas where possible to acquire high altitude boots, down salopettes, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and other odds and sods. Some other bits were ‘borrowed’ from a friend who’d been on Aconcagua a few years before and I suspect will be unlikely to use them again anyway…!

Training took up a fair proportion of my time, with a bit of running, climbing and yoga. Early 2016, I headed over to Rolfe’s in the Pyrenees for some winter climbing and to meet some of the Cho team I’d be spending 47 days with. I also acquired the services of a personal trainer for the couple of months leading up to the expedition, who put me through my paces, with thigh-bursting squats and core-strengthening exercises to get my muscles ready for the task ahead.

Time flies when you’re having fun…

Suddenly, it was August 2016 and almost time to go. The Cho team had been confirmed as consisting of Alex, Arthur, Kam (who I’d met with Rolfe during Mera Peak) and me, with Rolfe guiding this merry crew. The last few weeks were pretty hectic – laying out my kit on the spare bed, with my kit list in one hand, adding and subtracting clothes and kit, trying to work out how I was going to fit it all into my bags.

Will it all fit…?

Phew…yes it will…!

Work had been kind enough to allow me to take 2 months of annual and flexi leave in one humungous chunk, so several weeks of reporting writing and setting work in order ensued before I waved a cheerful farewell to the office on 27th August. Over the weekend, I squeezed my kit into the bags and headed off to Heathrow courtesy of my friend, Keith, on the 29th August, wondering what I’d let myself in for.

By the time the departure gate was announced, our little team were all together and raring to go. We were also introduced to an additional team member – Badger, who was Arthur’s furry climbing companion. Badger is an accomplished mountaineer, having already summited Aconcagua, Denali and the 8,000m peak of Manaslu.

With a bit of a layover in Delhi, we were finally on the last leg to Kathmandu. Upon landing, there was the usual kerfuffle with getting visas, panicking that luggage hadn’t arrived (in fact Rolfe’s high altitude kit went on a mini-tour of India but fortunately arrived the following day) and dodging the throngs of chaps desperate to help you with your bags, for a small fee.

Ensconced in the Hotel Vajra, the next day or so was taken up by sorting out expedition kit, which would travel by road, whilst we flew to Lhasa. We’d next meet up with our main bags at Chinese Base Camp. Kam, Arthur and I did some last minute shopping to buy him some walking trousers and found what we subsequently dubbed ‘the best shop in the world’ – there was nothing that the proprietor didn’t have or couldn’t get for us. Pee bottles, sleeping bag liners, camp bootees were all purchased. Arthur looked particularly resplendent in his $6 walking trousers.

Tibetan Travels…

Wednesday 1st September saw us back at Kathmandu Airport to catch our flight to Lhasa. We swelled in numbers as we met up with the other climbers with whom we’d be sharing base camp facilities; Dan, Susanne, Stefan, Thomas, Billi (the Himalayan Database queen!) and the man I was particularly looking forward to meeting, Henry Todd, whose name has graced many of the accounts of Himalayan expeditions that I’ve read. I have to admit to feeling very slightly star-struck at meeting someone I’d read about, although to be fair, I don’t get out much…! We would be joined by Rob and his wife MK (who were climbing with Dan) a few days later.

The flight to Lhasa and subsequent exit from the airport was actually mostly straightforward and less wearisome than I feared it might be, given the level of scrutiny one comes under to enter the country. Even Arthur rather bravely (or foolishly) pointing to the staff photographs on the wall and asking one of the officers if a particular (very severe) picture was of her, was fortunately met with a large smile and nodding of her head.

We only spent one night in Lhasa before heading off to Shigatse in the just-large-enough minibus. I’d last been in Tibet in 2009 when I did a cycle trip from Lhasa to Kathmandu, so had been to Lhasa, Shigatse and Tingri before. Whilst we didn’t get an opportunity to see much of Lhasa, Shigatse bore no resemblance to the place I remembered from my last trip – it has grown incredibly and is now the second largest city in the region (Lhasa being the largest). We spent two nights there, during which Kam and I visited Tashilumpa monastery and spun every prayer wheel (both inside and outside the monastery) we could lay our hands on to give ourselves the best chance of summiting the mountain!

On the final night here, Kam and I were introduced to our new climbing buddies, courtesy of Arthur. Arthurina and Georgina would now form a core component of our team alongside Badger.

Arthurina, Badger and Georgina pausing for a snack…

Tingri was not a place I was looking forward to returning – in 2009, it was the place where nearly everyone took ill. However, things had improved markedly since then, with some new accommodation having been built in the intervening time – we even had en-suite bathrooms and wifi, as opposed to a communal hole in a floor where the contents were coming up to meet you…! A pleasant morning was spent with a leisurely acclimatisation walk up a nearby hill with the whole group, then Kam and I had a meander round Tingri in the afternoon, spinning prayer wheels as we walked. We were sure our summits must be in the bag by now!

Team 360 – Rolfe, Arthur, Alex, Kam & me

Commitment to spinning…

The following morning it was back on the minibus for the journey up to Chinese Base Camp (CBC) – from there on we’d be on our own two feet.  After a couple of stops en-route, to gaze upon our target in the distance, we arrived at CBC, to our tents and expedition bags. Excitedly, I scampered up a nearby hillock to take some photos of our temporary home, only to be shouted at by Henry to come back down. Apparently, the Chinese military are not keen on photographs being taken, due to the military base which had escaped my notice only a few hundred metres away. Oops! Fortunately, no harm was done! We were going to acclimatise here for a couple of days, so the next day Team 360 took an acclimatisation walk up ‘Brown Hill’. This would give us an additional couple of hundred metres under our belt to get us ready for the next camp. The rest of the time was spent sorting out kit bags, chatting excitedly about what was in store for us over the next six weeks and (for Kam and I) frequenting the local tea-house.

CBC and Military Camp

Waiting for the boys on Brown Hill summit…

Rehydrating with Lhasa beer…

It was finally time to move onto the next camp – Noodle Camp – which would be our final stop before arriving at Advanced Base Camp (ABC). The expedition kit (including our bags) was loaded onto a truck as we set off for our leisurely stroll up to Noodle Camp, where rather disappointingly, there was no sign of any noodles…!. At this point, the truck could go no further, so yak power was employed for the kit on the remainder of our journey to ABC. After a night at Noodle Camp, we moved on up to ABC – well most of us did. Alex was feeling pretty rough with the increase in altitude, so he headed back down to CBC for a bit of rest and recuperation. By the time I got to ABC, I could sympathise wholeheartedly, with my energy levels feeling drained and a thumping sore head to go with it. I was incredibly relieved to arrive at ABC and looked forward to a good, long rest. Over the next few days, we all ate, rested and got to know one another better. Nobody failed to be incredibly impressed upon hearing from Rolfe that the climbing Sherpas (Padawa, Thundu, Dorjee, Dorjy and Jangbu) who were assisting us had between them no fewer than 56 Everest summits alone – not counting all the other mountains they climb!

You Spin Me Round – Rotation Time…

Before a team goes onto the mountain proper, a Puja takes place to appease the mountain and ensure safe passage. This is performed by a Lama. Fortunately, our kitchen boy, Yishi, was a multi-talented chap, who in conjunction with his day job, also happened to be a Lama and thus was able to perform this crucial task. Boots, harnesses, crampons, ice axes were all placed around the Puja altar to receive the blessing. It’s a fairly relaxed affair, culminating in beer and rum being imbibed. We each had a red cord tied (loosely!) around our necks as a protective talisman. Our Puja was a relatively swift affair, taking around two hours – some tales were told of them lasting for much, much longer. The team had recombined, with the arrival of Alex just in time for the Puja.

Now that the Puja had been completed, the time had come to get down to the serious matter of getting up the mountain – it was time to start the acclimatisation rotations! For these, we broke back into our three little teams and followed our own schedules. As Alex had lost a couple of days, having to descend to CBC, he was going to remain at ABC for a little longer whilst Rolfe, Kam, Arthur and I would push on for our first rotation to Lake Camp and onto Camp 1. Unfortunately, this first rotation didn’t quite go as planned for me. The day before, I’d still been feeling pretty weak and not very well acclimatised, so I started on a maintenance level of Diamox to help with my acclimatisation. Walking over the boulder field which runs between ABC and Lake Camp, I felt listless, out of breath and needing more frequent and longer rests. As a result, about three-quarters of the way to Lake Camp, I left the others and headed back to ABC with Padawa (who’d picked the wrong time to walk past us) whilst they carried on to complete their first rotation. Faint warning bells were starting to ring in my head as to whether I had any chance of a summit. Alex and I spent a couple of days in ABC, kicking our heels and resting, with a spot of sponsorship photo-shooting interspersed, before Rolfe, Kam and Arthur returned from their rotation.

Having deposited Kam and Arthur back at ABC, the following day Rolfe turned around and headed back up the mountain with Alex and me to give us our rotation cycle. This time felt much better – the Diamox had started to do its work and after a few hours, we made it to Lake Camp. We were to spend two nights there before heading up the aptly named Killer Hill to Camp 1. Away from ABC, we were now responsible for our own food (boil in the bag!) and drinks, which helped pass the time.

Lake Camp

Tent Masterchef

Crossword relaxation

Feeling well rested after our couple of days at Lake Camp, we headed up the hill to Camp 1. Rolfe and I had taken a stroll up to Camp 1 the day before as an acclimatisation walk and to drop some kit off, so I knew what to expect from Killer Hill – it did not disappoint! After a slow and steady plod, I finally made it up to Camp 1, where Rolfe and Alex were already engrossed in tent domestics. Camp 1 is where the snowline starts, so there is no running water – it is a constant process of melting snow and boiling water to combat dehydration. A quick visit to a pristine section of snow with the shovel resulted in a nice stash of snow/ice at the side of the tent for melting purposes. Whilst the first batch was on the stove, I set to organising the tent for Kam’s arrival and the next few days of acclimatisation. Kam and Arthur arrived a few hours later.

After a day of boiling up water, we headed off for an acclimatisation walk up towards Camp 2 – this would be the first time we’d encounter the first of the ‘technical’ sections of the climb, the 50m ice wall at around 6,800m. Progress was slow and steady up the steep snow slopes – everything feels like an effort at this altitude. Finally, we could see the ice wall a few hundred metres ahead, together with some slightly worrying blue ice seracs – this was not a place to linger. We all did our best to keep moving steadily, minimising rests, until we arrived directly below the ice wall and out of the path of the seracs. By now, the weather was looking decidedly less appealing, so we took the decision to scale the ice wall, then return to Camp 1. This would give us an opportunity to re-hone our skills of climbing/jumaring up a 60°+ slope and abseiling back down, before our summit push. The following day, we returned to ABC – now we’d have to wait for the weather window.

Intrepid mountaineers at Camp 1

Approaching ice wall

Onwards and Upwards – The Summit Push…

Around five days of eating as much as possible and playing ‘Shithead’ later, we were off back up the hill. First stop was to be Camp 1 for a night, then onto Camp 2 from where the oxygen-suckers would make their summit bid after a day’s rest. The non-users (Billi and Stefan) would be summiting from Camp 3, around four hours higher up the mountain. Camp 1 saw the water routine return, whilst getting our summit kit organised and packed. Picturesque though Camp 1 is, there is a pretty significant drawback with regards to some aspects of toileting – there’s nowhere that’s not overlooked, which is a little awkward when a pee bottle just won’t cut the mustard! Dignity has little place up a mountain!

That night, the wind howled and the tent flapped wildly. By morning, it appeared to have died down significantly, so after breakfast, we donned our kit and headed off towards Camp 2. Arthur (and Badger) set the pace – slow and steady- however, even that felt like a sprint to me and I could feel myself falling further and further behind. The wind too had risen again, making for unpleasant trudging, surrounded by spindrift. Eventually, Rolfe voiced what we’d both been thinking – I’d not sensibly make it to Camp 2 that day and would have to return to Camp 1. I felt enormously dejected. I knew it was the right decision, but I was now very doubtful of my ability to summit. Instead, I’d just try to be happy with whatever height I’d get to – I’d already broken my personal best for altitude when I climbed the ice wall, so it wasn’t a complete loss. Next morning we’d travel early and light, to have another bash. The rest of the team finally made it to Camp 2 around 1800h that evening.

Rolfe and I were back on the trail by 0630h the following morning – sleeping bags (and sleeping mat in my case) were left at Camp 1 as we’d sleep in our down clothing. In an hour and a half, we covered the same ground which the day before had taken us 4 hours. However, over the final section between Camp 1.5 at the top of the ice wall and Camp 2, I could feel myself flagging as I followed the stakes, jumared up the ropes. I knew I wasn’t far away, when I looked up and saw Thundu walking down to meet me, taking my rucksack from me and handing me a Nalgene bottle of hot coffee which Kam had made for me. Heartened by this, I felt some energy return (though not enough to keep up with Thundu!) and finally bowled into Camp 2 mid-afternoon.

Arthurina at Camp 2

Camp 2

Everyone was squeezed in three to a tent – I was sharing with Billi and Susanne. The majority of the team would be making their summit bids that night; Alex, Billi, Stefan and I were aiming for the following night. The rest of my afternoon was spent resting and chatting with my tent mates. My folly in not bringing a sleeping mat to Camp 2 became evident as the evening grew dark and the temperature dropped. Susanne would be leaving the tent around 2230h, upon which I’d be able to roll over into her vacated space, but in the meantime I was stuck with spreading my rucksack and its contents along the tent floor as a makeshift mat to keep me off the cold tent floor a little. It was of limited success.

With nearly all the team gone, it was a very quiet and peaceful camp. There was no rush to emerge from our sleeping bags so could languish until the sun warmed everything up sufficiently. Billi and Stefan were heading up to Camp 3 – they would commence their summit bid from there (Stefan subsequently returned to Camp 2 that day, taking the decision to end his summit bid). After saying goodbye to Billi, the rest of the day was spent trying to eat, boiling up water, sorting out my kit for that night and resting in between. Susanne arrived back around mid-afternoon – the whole team had been successful in their summit bids and were ecstatic although exhausted.

Around 2200h, having not slept, I stepped outside the tent into the darkness with my rucksack, leaving Susanne to her dreams of mountain summits. Now it was my turn! After a few minutes, Rolfe and Padawa emerged from their tents – they would be accompanying me on my summit bid, despite having both summited the day before with the rest of the team. Padawa hooked me up to my supplemental oxygen and told me to sit for 10 minutes to allow it to saturate my body before moving off. I have no idea what else was going on around me during that time – my world had shrunk to the small spot of light from my head torch. After a period of time which could have been a minute or could have been an hour, Padawa came over. “Let’s go!”, and suddenly we were off.

The distance between Camps 2 and 3 is not particularly far, but it is incredibly steep and they are both above 7,000m. Even with supplemental oxygen, it was a struggle. I retreated within my own thoughts, vaguely aware of Rolfe and Padawa behind me. On occasion, Padawa would move me back onto less churned snow. At this point, I wasn’t aware that Alex (who was climbing with Dorjee) had turned around, abandoning his summit bid. After some four hours or so, we reached Camp 3 – just above this was the Yellow Band, a mixture of snow, rock and ice, which was the second ‘technical’ section of the mountain. On the Yellow Band, I got to a point where I paused and couldn’t seem to get going again. That was until Padawa shouted at me to move, whereupon I scampered up the rest of it with a bit of a start. A little further along, we passed Billi and Thundu on their ascent – was nice to see some other friendly faces.

It was not long before the oxygen bottle change that I suddenly realised that I could see beyond the confines of the head torch. Rolfe called to me “Don’t forget to look around”, so I did – and what a sight I saw! Scores of snowy, pointy peaks stood before me – Shishapangma was off in the distance. It was glorious and gave me an extra little boost! Oxygen supply replenished, we finally arrived at the start of the ‘plateau’ – plateau, my arse!! It’s just not as steep as what I’d come up, but it was still uphill. By now it was getting warm, so down jacket was removed and squeezed into my near-empty rucksack. The true summit is a considerable distance beyond the false summit that first greets the weary climber and it was with a huge sense of relief that I finally saw prayer flags in the snow and the trinity of Everest/Lhotse/Nuptse in the distance. There were six of us on the summit, including three skiers (rather them than me!). It was hard to believe I’d finally made it, especially given my setbacks in getting to the higher camps. I suspect that Rolfe and Padawa were both somewhat amazed too!

View just before hitting the plateau

Summit pic – mask best left on!

However, getting to the summit is only part of the journey – have to get back down safely too. I always find descents challenging and this was no exception. Although there was nothing very difficult about it technically, I’d not really left quite enough in the tank for the energy I needed for abseiling/arm wrapping down the steep, fixed ropes. I ran out of oxygen at Camp 3. Fortunately a Kiwi guide, Mike, with whom we’d been combining efforts on the weather forecasts was at Camp 3 and gave me a new oxygen bottle, which made my return to Camp 2 a little easier (as did Padawa carrying my rucksack for the home stretch!).

It was such a relief to be back in Camp 2 – by now the weather had come in. The rest of the team had left for ABC that morning and now only a couple of tents remained. I climbed into the tent where Rolfe was already melting snow, lay down and quickly dozed off – I was exhausted. There would be time for food later. Sometime later, I was woken by Rolfe moving around – a fair bit of snow had fallen (and was continuing to fall) between our arrival a couple of hours ago and now. Billi was still on the mountain, however, she was now within sight of the camp, but was moving very slowly and it was getting dark. Rolfe and Padawa headed out to lend a hand to speed things up. Before long, Billi was snugly ensconced in the tent with Rolfe and me, where we settled down for a pretty uncomfortable night. Meanwhile, the snow continued to fall…

Next morning, we were up and packed the moment it got light. Several inches of snow had fallen since yesterday and there was a real danger of avalanches. Padawa and Thundu stayed behind to break down the camp as Rolfe, Billi and I headed off. Apart from a slightly disconcerting moment where we couldn’t find the fixed ropes below Camp 2 for a time, the journey down to Camp 1.5 was thankfully fairly uneventful, although we did manage to trigger a couple of small avalanches. A short hiatus occurred at the top of the ice wall, whilst Chinese climbers ascended both the yellow (for ascent) and blue (for descent) ropes. As soon as we saw a break in the queue, we leapt onto both ropes. I had ended up on the yellow rope and about half way down rather embarrassingly met a couple of Dutch climbers ascending. Fortunately, they were both very forgiving and between us, I moved across to the blue rope.

Eventually, we got back to Camp 1 where boots were changed and a breather taken. Rolfe set off whilst I waited for Billi. It was a long slog back to ABC – bit by bit, I fell further and further behind Billi who every so often would give me a shout and a wave. The daylight was getting duller and as I don’t wear my glasses on trips like this, I was starting to have some difficulty in picking out the cairns and red-flagged canes. As I stood, squinting around myself, trying to remember which way the route went, a very nice French chap arrived like a knight in shiny goretex, who subsequently walked with me back to ABC. It was just coming up on 1800h when I finally arrived back at ABC, with just enough time for a wet-wipe scrub up and a change of clothing before dinner.

Over the next couple of days, we said farewell to the other two teams, who were heading off to spend some time in Lhasa, and played an enormous amount of Shithead with Thundu, Dorjy and Bhim. Kam and I hatched our plans for looking at Ama Dablam in 2018. It was a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere, amongst good friends. My appetite was still pretty poor and I hadn’t slept properly since summiting, but I felt incredibly happy – it felt like a dream and I couldn’t believe that I’d actually managed to summit. Not only that, but it transpired that I was now the current record holder for the oldest British woman to summit Cho Oyu, although I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that! Finally, it was time to leave ABC and return to civilisation (and the first shower in 6 weeks!). I can confirm that hair does not self-cleanse! The first shower, at Tingri, was absolute bliss. It was then that I realised how much weight I’d lost over the past six weeks – can definitely recommend the 8,000m peak weight-loss programme! From Tingri, it was a whistle-stop trip back to Lhasa, then flight back to the bustle of Kathmandu on the Saturday. To celebrate our successes on the mountain, we headed out for dinner in the Hotel Dwarika – a 7-star boutique hotel, with a twelve or sixteen-course menu. We decided (sensibly) to go for the twelve courses.

Rolfe, Arthur and Alex had all pulled their flights forward to leave on the Monday – Kam was remaining in Nepal for a bit before heading to India, so I decided to leave my flight for the end of the week and spend some celebratory and relaxation time in Kathmandu. We may have overdone the celebratory aspects as that week is now referred to as ‘the week my liver died’! On the upside, I’m probably never going to drink tequila ever again (although I may have said that before on more than one occasion!).

Smelly mountaineers in posh restaurant

Pre-tequila bottle of Malbec

It was with great sadness that I left for the airport on the Friday morning, with Kam coming to wave me off. I’d had an amazing trip and met many wonderful people – a bit of a rollercoaster in my journey to the summit but worth every second and the final week of excess in Kathmandu was the perfect way to round it off. Somehow my luggage on the way back was overweight for both hold and hand luggage – very odd as I didn’t buy anything whilst out there. Fortunately, the very nice baggage handler turned a blind eye and let it through. I can only conclude it was several kilograms of grime that increased the weight! The trip back was the reverse of the trip out, except this time I was traveling alone and an 8,000m summiteer. At Heathrow, Keith was waiting to give me a lift home and barely yawned at all, during my tales of derring-do! Never mind, there were still the photos to show him…!

Postscript: Sadly, our friend Thundu lost his life in an avalanche around six weeks later, on 28th November 2016 whilst climbing Ama Dablam. He is sorely missed by everyone who knew him.

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