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[Note from author.
This was written in my sleeping bag at camp 1 after the summit day, and written in a style for my local newspaper (which didn't print it). That explains the pedantic style.
October 2, 2006: Tibetan Himalaya
I sit up, still wrapped in my down mummy bag, just after midnight. Note that I didn't say "I wake up", for at 24,500 feet in the Himalaya, well below freezing and with an an oxygen density just 40 percent that of sea level, sleep is nearly impossible.
I don my headlamp and finish last-minute details. Most everything I need for today has already been packed in my backpack, and I am already wearing my one-piece down suit, so now I remove my water bottles from my sleeping bag (kept there to prevent their freezing during the night) and put them in the large chest pockets of the down suit. Next I put on my triple insulated mountaineering boots which also had been sharing space in my sleeping bag to keep warm. I work quickly as I am not yet wearing gloves - for reasons of dexterity - and my fingers are starting to go numb.
Suddenly my tent door starts shaking. "Time to go" I hear a voice call to me. It is Tashi Tenzing, a 25-year-old Tibetan who as been assigned to accompany me to the summit and make sure I don't make any mistakes from cold, mind-numbing hypoxia, or just plain inexperience. Tashi has just arrived here at camp 3 after starting from camp 2 just over an hour ago. He is not using bottled oxygen - none of the Sherpas or Tibetans on our team do - so I know I must hurry as he will get cold waiting for me.
I slip on my gloves and leave the tent. Working by headlamp on this moonless night I strap crampons - metal spikes that grip the snow - onto my boots and put on my backpack. Today my backpack holds a 17-pound tank of oxygen, enough for 15 hours at a conservative flow rate of 2 liters-per-minute. I secure my oxygen mask and hand Tashi my video camera to carry so it won't get crushed against my air tank. Tashi and I then set out for our goal. 2400 feet above us lies the summit of Cho Oyu, which at 26906 feet above sea level is the sixth highest peak in the world.
Cho Oyu is not well-known outside of mountaineering circles; in fact most of my friends think it is something you eat at a Chinese restaurant. But it has become a very popular peak in recent years, primarily as a training peak and proving ground for climbers aspiring to climb Mount Everest, which is 20 miles to the east and "only" 2100 feet higher. There are 14 peaks above 8000 meters and of all these Cho Oyu is considered the safest with a "low" death-to-summit rate of less than 2%. It has few technical sections and a fairly low avalanche risk, so when I decided to tackle an 8000 meter peak, after 20 years of mountaineering, Cho Oyu was the logical choice.
In my previous climbs over the past 20 years I have organized my own trips with a couple close friends - selecting our equipment, food, medical gear, climbing schedule and route. But an 8000 meter Himalaya giant is so daunting logistically - given the difficulties in organizing food, equipment, oxygen, and Sherpa support - that I signed on as a member of a supported expedition via a commercial climbing organization. I chose to climb with International Mountain Guides (www.mountainguides.com) because of their track record, strong Sherpa team, and a reputation for great base camp food.
Our expedition of 12 climbers and a Western climbing leader gathered together in Beijing, China in late August. Cho Oyu straddles the Nepal-Tibet border and the standard climbing route in in Tibet, so our team reached Cho Oyu by flying from Beijing to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and then by driving a series of ever-deteriorating roads until we reached Cho Oyu base camp.
At Cho Oyu base camp (15,700 feet) we loaded our equipment onto yaks for the two day trip to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) at 18,500 feet. This would be our main home for four weeks as my teammates and I adapted our bodies to the altitude through a series of "pushes" to ever higher camps, dropping back to ABC between pushes in order to recover and strengthen. The camp locations are selected based on distance from the previous camp as well as safety from avalanches. Our three camps were at 20,500 feet (camp 1), 23,000 feet (camp 2), and 24,500 feet (camp 3).
Cho Oyu is typically climbed in the fall, with acclimitization climbs up the ladder of camps occurring in early-to-mid September and a final summit push in late September or early October. This schedule is determined by weather. During the summer months, which would normally be considered best for climbing, the Himalaya are hit by monsoon storms, so the two best climbing seasons are the spring and the fall. Due to local topography, spring is considered to be best for Mount Everest while fall is best for Cho Oyu. Most commercial organizers thus climb Everest in the spring and Cho Oyu in the fall.
During the acclimatization pushes and our rests after, I got to know my teammates very well. We nearly all had the same level of experience and had similar prior climbs on Denali and in the Andes. Our ages ranged from 28 to 64 with me, at 47, being in the middle of the group. Probably due to our shared interest in mountaineering and respect for each other's abilities and experience, we all got along well together.
Cho Oyu has a success rate of about 50% which is quite high for a Himalayan giant and is due to good route preparation. Over the weeks of climbing our team began to match this success ratio though attrition. One climber dropped out after the first push to camp 1. On our next push, two more climbers turned back before reaching camp 2, mainly due to difficulties in adjusting to altitude. Another climber developed a debilitating cough and did not join the summit push. Finally during the summit push one climber returned to ABC with stomach cramps and another abandoned the push after a full day of not being able to feel her increasingly freezing toes. So on the early morning of October 2nd, only 6 of the original 12 climbers left camp 3 for the summit.
Upon leaving camp 3, Tashi turns up the flow rate on my tank (I can't reach the controls without removing the pack) to a generous 3 liters-per-minute as the beginning of today's climb is the hardest part. A yellow band of limestone, deposited 50 million years ago when the Himalaya were part of the ocean floor, cuts across our route. There is a narrow gap, about 30 feet high, of mixed snow and rock, that our route goes through. When we reach the yellow band we must stop due to another hazard, this one of our own making.
In typical years the climbing teams tend to get spread out because of different arrival dates and acclimatization schedules. But this year, after our push to camp 2, a heavy snowfall came which essentially shut down the mountain for a week. Once the storm ended and the snow consolidated to a firm avalanche-free foundation, nearly every team was ready to summit - all on the same day.
The phrase "safety-in-numbers" doesn't always apply to moutaineering; "Speed is safety" is a truer maxim. The high number of people ahead of me, judging by my count of headlamps as three dozen, would cause a lot of bottlenecks at tricky sections such as the yellow band or certain steep steps. Waiting for my turn at the bottom of the yellow band my feet turn cold and I consciously wiggle my toes to bring back some warmth. Above me I hear the frantic scraping of metal against rock as climbers try to get purchase on the rock with their crampons - an incompatible combination.
When I get my turn on the yellow band, I clip an ascender - a mechanical ratcheting device designed to slide only one direction (up) on a rope - to a rope that had been anchored at the top of the band by Sherpas from our team. I also force my mind to be calm, relax my breathing, and call together my rock climbing experience to efficiently place my cramponed boots and avoid flailing on the yellow band. Soon I am at the top, and I notice something peculiar : I am not breathing hard, while yesterday I was out of breath many times. I then understand the benefits of using bottled oxygen.
The use of bottled oxygen on 8000 meter peaks is getting more controversial. Ever since Reinhold Messner and Peter Habler climbed Everest without supplemental oxygen - proving it could be done - there has been a steady push toward summitting 8000 meter peaks "by fair means". Improvements in climbing techniques and equipment, as well as familiarity with the standard routes, has reduced the time a climber needs to spend in the "Death Zone" above 26,000 feet. Meanwhile, advances in exercise physiology has improved many climbers' ability to handle the lack of oxygen. On Cho Oyu there in an increasing expectation to forgo bottled oxygen (although nealy all commercial trips insist on bottled oxygen) in spite of the safety it gives. In the end, it was the risk of hypoxic brain damage - primarily short-term memory loss - that convinced me to carry the oxygen tank.
Above the yellow band the route continues steeply and there are fixed ropes for our protection here too. I am grateful to the Sherpas who went ahead a couple days ago and fixed the lines. Without Sherpa support Cho Oyu would be much harder, and setting our own lines would take so many extra days that the weather window would be gone. I hold no illusion that I could climb this mountain so easily without their excellent skills and experience.
Although the route is steep, the snow quality is good and my crampon points sink in securely through the snow. I place each step carefully for maximum traction and feel no risk of falling. I set an even rhythm of stepping and breathing, known by climbers as the "rest-step", which is much more efficient than the "dash-and-gasp" method of novice climbers. I don't bother checking my watch, for I know that I will come to the top soon enough.
Slowly I begin to see a bit of texture in the snow in the pre-dawn light. I look to the west and see that the sun is striking Shishapangma, at 8017 meters the 14th highest peak in the world, and the final resting place of Alex Lowe. Before his death in 1999, Alex was considered by many to be the finest and most versatile climber in the world. I spent a month with Alex in 1986 when I joined the support team for the American K2 expedition attempting the North Ridge in China. We were the same age but already Alex was internationally recognized while I couldn't lace my crampons without looking at a book. The support team's job was to carry loads from Base Camp to Advanced Base Camp, and after the job was complete we celebrated by climbing an un-named 20,000 peak. This was my first real climb, which hooked me onto a hobby, safe in my mediocrity, of modest climbs. After the expedition Alex completed ever-more impressive climbs until an avalanche swept him to immortality.
As the light gets brighter I notice mountains below me - below me!! - that a few days ago towered above. The steepness slackens and I am on the summit plateau, where it always looks like the summit is just 50 feet away. Feeling excited I step up the pace and leave my teammates behind.
Up ahead I see a half-dozen climbers, stopped. I realize that they must be at the summit. I head toward them. Just before I reach them the sun strikes my left cheek, I instinctively turn and I am struck by a sight that tells me I am at the summit of Cho Oyu. Twenty miles to the east - looking more like a sister than "the Goddess Mother of the Earth" as she is also known by - is Mount Everest. I silently name Everest's features as I notice them - the North Ridge, the Great Couloir, the North and South Cols, the Western Cwm and the Lhotse Face.
A few steps later and I am standing on Cho Oyu's highest point. The other climbers descend and I realize that for the next few minutes I am the highest person standing on Earth.
Our team's Western leader, Mike, joins me on the summit. We hug each other in joy and give each other high fives. We scream congratulations though our oxygen masks. The other teammates join us, and Tashi arrives with the video camera. It is a wonderful scene as everybody hugs - Westerners, Tibetans, and Sherpas - and a dozen cameras capture the joy of reaching Cho Oyu's summit.
My biggest emotion is one of relief. After months of solid training, weeks of acclimatization, days of pushing to camp 3 with my equipment, and hours of relentlessly climbing upward in darkness - these moments on the summit make all that time and effort worth it. I have not conquered Cho Oyu, but rather myself. I have conquered the moments of doubt as I stared at Cho Oyu's steepness while at ABC, I have conquered all those impulses to ease off on the training,and most of all I have conquered the self-concept that high-altitude mountaineering was something that "other people" did. The wind picks up, causing me to play hide-and-seek with frostbite as I remove my gloves to better manipulate the tiny buttons on my cameras. Soon we all agree that it is time to return. This is no place for humans except for brief moments. As a team we retrace our steps, this time in daylight. As the route steepens and I stare down the slope's gradient for thousands of feet, I am glad we ascended in darkness with no concept of the exposure we faced.
I place each downward footstep carefully and deliberately; I am in no hurry. Soon enough I am at the top of the yellow band. I rappel down to the snow slope and walk down to camp 3. Although back at camp and relieved to have descended safely it is no time to rest; we dismantle camp 3 and head down to camp 2, which is quickly dismantled too. At camp 2 I retrieve my MP3 player; I am familiar enough with this part of the route to afford a little musical distraction.
Our team heads for camp 1 where we will spend the night before dropping down to ABC. We are already discussing what food we will first have when we reach the United States. Suddenly the MP3 player switches tracks to a recording of a KVMR radio show hosted by my wife, a folk music DJ. On the show, Allison Brown and the Indigo Girls are singing Simon and Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound". Maybe because I have finally let go of the need to be strong to reach the summit, tears well in my eyes and my body heaves in rhythmic, convulsive sobs. For I have never felt as alone as I do now at 21,000 feet in the heart of the Himalaya, and like the singers I too wish I was homeward bound. I have been away from home for over 6 weeks now, and as the Tibetan sun sets on this accomplished goal it will arise with a new goal - to return home to my wife, my sons, and the life I have in Nevada County.