Tragedy above the clouds in Tibet - Mt Cho Oyu

Tragedy above the clouds in Tibet - Mt Cho Oyu

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Tragedy above the clouds in Tibet on Mt. Cho Oyu

It's been nearly 30 days since I left the comfort of my home in Ottawa. The plan was to trek through the Himalayas, climb a 6000M mountain in Nepal called Mt. Lobuche all in preparation for the ascent of the sixth highest mountain on Earth, Mt Cho Oyu in Tibet.

I embarked on this journey to support my friend's Kheiry's dream and now, sadly he is gone and I am alone, left to attempt the summit. Less than a week ago, I was forced to evacuate Kheiry due to a suspected (and now confirmed) case of pulmonary and cerebral edema. Yesterday, I received confirmation that had Kheiry remained at the altitude in which I am writing this blog (5700M) he would have fallen unconscious and died shortly thereafter.

The following is the behind the scenes scenario of how we evacuated Kheiry. First of all: We are NOWHERE! The closest road is a half-day's walk away. Because we are in China/Tibet, helicopter rescues are forbidden so I knew we needed to walk him out. Without a doctor on our team, all I could do was assess the situation based on my own mountaineering experience. Apnea, headaches, nausea, loss of balance, possible water in the lungs... sounds like edema to me.

As a filmmaker-turned-climber, I ALWAYS ensure we have ample communication possibilities with the outside world. Although it is an expensive set-up at 6000M, it can be (as proven here) life-saving. We ran the generator, which powered my laptop, which powered my satellite BGAN (Internet in a box) and began sending emails to trusted friends, physicians and high altitude specialists in Canada and Europe. The consensus was that my partner did in fact have edema and needed a rescue. We mobilized, Kheiry had the humility to accept defeat (which believe it or not is often not the case) and through a storm and white out, we descended to 5400M to a small Tibetan camp where thankfully a jeep awaited us. Within four hours, he had descended with half the team and was safe at sea level where he now sips Irish Coffee in Kathmandu. Saved. Safe. Thank the universe.

So now what?

I am currently living in a tent at 5700M at Advanced Base Camp where a few hundred other climbers are awaiting the perfect weather window to summit. You see, in order to reach the top of an 8000M peak, there are numerous factors which enable or prohibit you from reaching the top. At this point in time, the weather is the number one obstacle, not to mention the extreme low levels of oxygen, sub-zero temperatures and believe it or not, the other climbers on the mountain. It is a science up here and at 8000M, if anything goes wrong, no one can save you.

Cho Oyu - Above the clouds Sunset

I wasn't always a climber, in fact I prefer not to even label myself one. Professional mountaineers and expert guides are a far cry from what I am at best: A strong climber (who always carries a camera) with 15 years of physical fitness under his belt. I have never pushed myself beyond my physical limit above the clouds, as I am well aware that it is a recipe for disaster. The minute you become a liability, you place everyone else's life in danger. We all know this; it is the code of mountaineering. So if we know all of this, then why do we repeatedly see people putting their lives at risk on the mountain?

As I made my way to camp one yesterday, my first time touching 6400M, I noticed a Japanese woman making her way up the final stretch of the climb. What I saw was a woman exhausted who was unable to ascend safely. A woman who's face resembled a weathered beach ball and who could barely put one foot in front of the other. I asked her, "Shouldn't you be going down?" One of her two Sherpas replied "No, we're going to the summit." Oh boy... Well, at least she had the sense to hire two Sherpas, a luxury for most, as there are costs associated with hiring good Sherpas. These are the men who assist, guide and carry climbers' belongings to the top. They set up tents, boil water and cook the food. They do this, because most from the West simply CANNOT. Without them, it is extremely difficult to succeed.

Camp 1 - Buried Tent

I reached my goal, tuned into my body, realized I felt amazing for 6400M above sea level and decided it was smarter to descend, rest, then return another day, stronger, with more capacity to transport oxygen (acclimatize) and be safe.

As I was making my way down, I stopped to speak with a couple who were climbing together and hoping to reach the summit. I noticed a caved-in tent with crushed poles and torn material. I asked them, "What happened there?" They replied that sadly a European climber died there yesterday. Twenty feet from where I was standing, a man lay dead. He decided to climb without the help of a Sherpa. It was also revealed to me that he was quite inexperienced and had taken a nasty fall days earlier. An avalanche then crushed him. He died alone in his tent.

To make matters worse, a friend of mine from Europe, a young female climber, was in her tent right next to him and was struck by very the same avalanche. She had the instincts to stand up immediately, block the snow and thankfully escaped with her life.

I stood dumbfounded, unsure what to think or what to feel. I couldn't believe that 20 feet away was the body of a dead climber. How will his family react? Does he have a wife? Kids? All this for what?

Sadly, as much beauty as there is high above the clouds, there is equally as much horror and tragedy. Men and women thrive and rise above their own peak potential, they rival the conventions of what is possible and yet others perish and become another permanent addition to the highest mountain range on Earth.

Cho Oyu from Camp 1

I have a feeling this may be one of my last 8000M expeditions. I miss my family, my girlfriend and all of my close friends back home. Is it really worth it?

Elia Saikaly
Adventure Filmmaker

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Viewing: 1-12 of 12

ncst - Oct 12, 2011 5:09 am - Voted 10/10

Good question...

asked at the end. Thanks for sharing and respect for bringing your friend down to safety! Regards, Nic


LJGclimber - Oct 16, 2011 2:31 pm - Hasn't voted

it depends

it is up for a person alone to decide if climbing is worth the risk that it brings, nice article


Bruno - Oct 17, 2011 1:22 am - Hasn't voted


I have to confess that I feel a little bit disturbed by the tone of this article.

The description might be factually correct, but is probably overemphasising the epic dimension of the rescue. Cho Oyu ABC is certainly quite high at 5700m, but it is also the most accessible Base Camp of all 8000ers, just within a couple of hours hike (or yak ride) from the road. There are also hundreds of climbers, Sherpa and Tibetan porters / yak keepers around at that time of the year. With certainly more than a few doctors around, most of them used with high altitude related diseases and willing to help in case of trouble. So for sure you are not in the middle of NOWHERE as you write. Indeed, when I was there a couple of years ago I thought that I had never been in such a "Western" environment since a long time.

And writing that at 8000m metres no one can save you is also a bit exaggerated in the context of Cho Oyu. Between the summit plateau and the base of the mountain, a rescue is quite easy to perform with a rather regular slope, no traverse or uphill climb and a virtual absence of big technical challenges. Successful rescues have been carried out quite frequently, and I can't remember of any recent death due to a failed rescue or the absence of a rescue attempt.

I don't quite understand also the title of the article "Tragedy above the clouds". To what tragedy does it refer?

Anyway, I'm glad your friend made it safely back to Kathmandu, and congratulation for your summit.

Vitaliy M.

Vitaliy M. - Oct 17, 2011 2:33 am - Hasn't voted


"Well, at least she had the sense to hire two Sherpas, a luxury for most, as there are costs associated with hiring good Sherpas. These are the men who assist, guide and carry climbers' belongings to the top. They set up tents, boil water and cook the food. They do this, because most from the West simply CANNOT. Without them, it is extremely difficult to succeed."

I do not think westerners that cannot set up their tents and carry own crap belong up there.

"Is it really worth it?"
If you are not enjoying yourself, and not doing it because you really love it, than no it is not worth it. Adventure seeking and climbing are two different things.

Congratulations on your ascent.


LoneRanger - Oct 17, 2011 3:19 am - Voted 10/10

Nice TR

And extremely beautiful pictures. Thanks for sharing and congrats on your ascent. I have read Kheiry'account (Roons on SP) posted a few days earlier. I was curious, how many 7000ers had Kheiry done before this trip?

Brunno: Thanks for putting the story in perspective, and I too was left wondering what exactly the tragedy was that the author was referring to, I thought it was a tragedy averted.

Vitality: Spot on. I am a newfangled alpinist with about a year into climbing. There are times when, I admit, the question "is it really worth it" has crossed my mind. I reason that those were the times I was climbing something perhaps too close to my limits, but since I (think I) do love climbing, I just climb something easier so that I continue to have fun.


findinglife - Oct 18, 2011 6:03 am - Hasn't voted

What was the tragedy?

Bruno... You may not consider a man dead at 6400M a tragedy, but I do. He embarked on his expedition alone and died alone. He had no Sherpa. I felt the title was fair considering this fact.


Bruno - Oct 18, 2011 9:28 am - Hasn't voted

Re: What was the tragedy?

Hi Elia,

Sorry my bad. I thought you were referring to your friend's oedema and evacuation in your article, not to the death of the Czech climber. For sure I do also consider any human life loss on a mountain as a tragic incident.

Actually, speaking about this accident, I think that it might be tactful not to label a dead climber as "quite inexperienced" just by hearsay. You wrote "How will his family react? ". Yes, how would his family have reacted if, while searching for some information on their missing husband or father, they read your blog calling him a "quite inexperienced" climber. Are you sure, by the way, that he died in the avalanche as you have posted?

Imagine just a second that your friend wouldn't have survived his oedema, and that bloggers would have started calling him and you "quite inexperienced" for not going down immediately, despite being sick since two weeks and for needing 72 hours to communicate abroad (info from your blog) before deciding that he should go down... . I think you get my point, a bit of restraint when speaking about people who have just died is never bad.



LoneRanger - Oct 18, 2011 9:37 am - Voted 10/10

Re: What was the tragedy?

For the record,I don't know Bruno, and probably I know much less about this sport than either of you, but this is exactly what bugged me when I read it the first time.

Bruno, thanks again!


findinglife - Oct 21, 2011 4:52 am - Hasn't voted



I was not referring to a Czech climber.

Perhaps you need to do more research before commenting on people's first hand reports that were actually on the mountain rather than sitting at home at sea level?

You speak of a rescue being so easy on Cho Oyu yet perhaps you should ask the Spaniard who almost lost his life because no one could rescue him? Thankfully a 2nd attempt was made and he received the help he needed. Very complex matter which you can do some research on. But what would I know, right?

Also, perhaps you should Google the date we evacuated my friend and see what the weather was like and pinpoint how many yaks and porters were on the trail that day. My guess, other than our team, would be zero.

We are entitled to our opinions and I respect yours. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


Bruno - Oct 21, 2011 10:58 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Clarification

It happens that I was in Tingri around that time. It also happens that I met in Zhangmu three old friends (with whom I climbed Cho Oyu in 2009) on their way back from the mountain. Indeed, they were part of the team climbing without oxygen who fixed the route above C3 and reached the summit on 1st October, I guess the day before your own summit push. So far for my "comments while sitting at home at sea level".

My bad, I didn't know that another person had died in an avalanche around the same period, hence my confusion with the deceased Czech climber. Anyway, my point was not about the nationality of the deceased, that doesn't change anything to the fact that I wouldn't start calling someone who has just died on the mountain "quite inexperienced" (and this just by hearsay), at a time where the families of two missing climbers were probably looking for information about their loved one.

But maybe it's just me being a bit "old school"...


findinglife - Oct 22, 2011 11:04 am - Hasn't voted

Final thoughts

I am the first to admit that I am not a true mountaineer. I have the most profound respect for these men and women, I am simply a man who happens to be quite strong on his 2 feet above the clouds.That being said, I feel I have a responsibility to share my experiences with others in the hopes that those who aspire to live these kinds of adventures can avoid making the mistakes that come at the highest price.

What I fear the most, being the novice that I am, is the weather and other climbers. Both in my opinion can be highly unpredictable. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we are all responsible for ourselves above the clouds, but we are
also responsible for one another. By putting ourselves in danger, we put others equally at risk. But should we be taking such risks in the first place? Should it all be regulated? Should there be pre-requisites? I mean, Cho Oyu is 'the easiest 8000m' climb? Isn't it?

I felt a responsibility to my fellow aspiring climbers to rethink and not
underestimate a challenge such as Cho Oyu. Sadly, men lost their lives this year. I chose to share this information in hopes of challenging the aspirations of those that one day hope to tempt the summit.

A Spaniard attempted the summit without oxygen without success and ended up alone at Camp 2 after the failed attempt fighting for his life. Where was his partner? Where was his expedition company? I feel these are reasonable questions to ask. He is facing severe amputations and according to doctors is lucky to be alive. Thankfully, after a failed attempt, he was rescued. Who is responsible here? Questions I would love to see debated.

Another man fell over 100m below camp 1 on what (even a novice like me)
would consider to be simple terrain. He was alone and supported by a Nepalese logistic company. He was planning on moving to camp 2 in less than ideal weather immediately prior to an avalanche striking his tent. A friend of mine was hit by the very same avalanche. Thankfully she survived, he was not so lucky. Is
there something to be learned here? Why did he fall? Should he have been there? Did he underestimate the mountain? Questions that we all have an
opinion on, but that we will never have answered. My heart goes out to him and his family. I only ever wrote of this to hopefully invoke thought in those that are as ambitious as the the rest of us.

Our expedition spared no expense in order to protect not only ourselves, but others as well. Granted, we do not all have this luxury, but should we be taking such risks in the first place? Should more thought go into the safety of others and ourselves? Each of us can only decide.

I apparently know nothing of the true nature, code or ethics of this sport, yet I have seen the light and the dark, the triumphs and the tragedies in my 6 years of high altitude pursuits and I write with a perspective of someone with loved
ones, who prays that we all remain safe, makes ego-less based decisions and have the humility to quit before tragedy sets in and before we endanger the lives of our companions, fellow climbers and ourselves. I know I've made these decisions before and I believe I write today because I believe I decided wisely.

Should climbing be regulated? Should there be pre-requisites for 8000m peaks? I'd love to hear what the professionals think. I asked "Is it worth it?" Only we can decide as individuals.

I apologize if I have offended anyone in this post. My heart goes out to men who did not return and who faced hardship and repercussions throughout the pursuit of their dream.

Personally, I will continue to put into place every measure and precaution feasible in order to make my aspirations safe for those on my team and those on the mountains I choose to climb. The greatest gift I was ever given was the privilege to fail repeatedly at 8000m.

Humbly and respectfully.


LoneRanger - Oct 22, 2011 3:27 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Final thoughts

Thanks for the thoughtful response.

I don't know what made you say you are not a true mountaineer. I think different criteria apply to professional climbers and recreational climbers, about how much risk is too much etc., and I am not in the camp that says if you can't climb without a sherpa you shouldn't go there, but that's just my personal opinion from sea level :)

In any case, thanks for the food for thought. I'll leave it at that.

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