The Road to Cho Oyu
Surprisingly, a representative from our expedition found me in the chaos of the Kathmandu Airport upon my arrival at the end of August, 2010. Although it was dark, the maelstrom of traffic was evident through the minibus windows as we plowed on to the hotel.
The next morning, I was greeted by the sounds of birds crowing, monkey’s screeching, a donkey braying, engines running and people shouting. Add heat, diesel fumes, a whiff of garbage and you have Kathmandu!
The transition to the orderliness of Lhasa was striking. Wide streets, modern buildings and electric vehicles were completely unexpected at 3600m. Signs of the old city were present but it was clear that a transformation had occurred. Nowhere was that more evident than at the legendary Potala Palace, once home to the Dali Lama. After circling the grounds clockwise for good fortune, we entered the gates for a visual feast.
We acclimatized with short hikes into the hillsides surrounding Lhasa. The Potala Palace appeared in the distance like an island in a sea of buildings. Vultures circled above a sky burial site nearby and strings of prayer flags decorated the landscape.
After a few days, our convoy drove onto the Tibetan plateau in a small fleet of Land Cruisers. The trip was punctuated by our driver’s smoke breaks which coincided with road-side vendors who quickly swarmed us with offers to sell trinkets or allow their picture to be taken for a price.
I was fascinated by the remnants of rammed-earth dzongs which dotted the valley floors. These small forts were built within sight of each other so they could communicate by signals. Once their wooden roofs collapsed, the structures quickly washed away, leaving very few still complete.
While large towns dotted the highways, rural villages followed the waterways. Rectangular stone houses featured walled courtyards and flat roofs for storage of wood or dung for heating and cooking. It was harvest season and we witnessed colorfully dressed villagers slowly moving across fields and terraces, slashing away at crops of barley and grasses with their hand scythes.
Police checkpoints required brief stops while the driver presented his permit for the stretch of road just travelled and purchased a new one for the section ahead. Tashi, our local guide, transportation organizer and enthusiastic Buddhist, pulled it off without a hitch while still managing to educate us on our surroundings.
Shigatse was a reasonably modern town which boasted the Tashilunpo Monastery; traditional home of the Panchen Lama who is second only to the Dali Lama as a religious leader. A large white stone wall over six stories high dominated the structure and was explained as a place to hang banners during religious festivals; the first Imax!
The well-maintained Friendship Highway led us onward and upward, crossing two high passes. Our arrival in Xegar was accompanied by a warning to travel in groups as protection from rabid dogs and robbery amongst high-walled streets of the old town. Learning that newcomers had arrived, the local children swarmed us with pleas of “tips, tips” while grabbing at our packs and clothes.
We next visited the Xegar monastery, which many considered the most interesting of the trip. Its abandoned towers and stone walls stretched up the flanks of a small mountain overlooking the town. Punctuated by artillery holes from the 1950 invasion, it recalled scenes from the movie, “Seven Years in Tibet”.
Our arrival at Chinese Base Camp, a week after leaving Kathmandu, signaled the start of tent accommodations. The high ground was dominated by military watchtowers monitoring the famous Nangpa La pass for unauthorized travel. From CBC we hiked to an intermediate camp accompanied by a yak train with our gear. I developed a hoarse cough which was attributed to the ever-present dust. Mingma Tshering, our lead Sherpa, recommended a remedy of dal bhat and yak-butter tea. With an incredible fifteen summits of Everest, I certainly paid attention to his advice.
At 5650m, Advance Base Camp occupied a glacial moraine at the foot of Cho Oyu. Well spread-out, it was hard to appreciate there were at least six other large expeditions in town. We enjoyed spacious tents and great cooking while storing up on sleep and calories. Our Sherpa team organized a puja ceremony to ask for permission from the mountain and blessings on our equipment.
Over the next week our group explored upwards, reaching Camp 1 at 6400m. I had to beg off these forays with increasing lung congestion. The weather was intensely sunny in the mornings, gradually darkening into all-night snow squalls. This abnormal precipitation was attributed to late monsoons which were causing floods at lower elevations.
The unfortunate consequences of frequent snow were avalanches on the upper slopes. We began to hear that other expeditions were planning to leave empty-handed but our group was prepared to wait another week. Barely able to wander between tents, I was not in shape to continue. Our team doctor diagnosed HAPE and I had to accept that my trip was over.
Arrangements for my evacuation were completed with alacrity. I was escorted back to Chinese Base Camp accompanied by two other retreating climbers. A Tibetan porter demonstrated tremendous stamina in managing my two 20kg duffels on his back. A vehicle awaited and we drove to notorious Zhangmu at the border with Nepal. Relief came almost instantly so I was able to enjoy the sights and sounds of this ramshackle city clinging to the sides of a lush mountain gorge.
A “fixer” named George appeared at the hotel the next morning to guide us through the exit process. We were deposited in a vehicle on the other side of the Friendship Bridge, back in the colorful chaos of Nepal.
Monsoon rains had washed the road away a few kilometers from town. While repairs were underway, enthusiastic gangs of women carried our baggage across the gap for a small fee. Vehicles waited on the other side for the remaining drive to Kathmandu.
Upon arriving home in late September I learned that Sherpas working to fix ropes above 7000m were struck by avalanches on two occasions. Although injuries were minor, conditions were too dangerous to attempt the summit and most expeditions withdrew.
I went to the Himalayas anticipating the journey as much as the destination and came home satisfied in spite of the circumstances. While I was mesmerized by the places we visited, I felt my Western orthodoxy irrevocably changed by the people of Tibet and Nepal, and their cheerful superiority in such an extreme environment.
Dean aka Tick Talk
For some photos, please click here to see the post
Who: Jagged Globe Expeditions, UK. Lead guide Robert “Mads” Anderson (author of To Everest Via Antarctica), assistant guides Tomaz Jakofcic and Matt Parkes, lead Sherpa Mingma Tshering, camp manager and cook Gavin Melgaard, volunteer team doctor Alenka Klemencic.
What: Cho Oyu means “Turquoise Goddess” in Tibetan. Known as Qowowuyang in Nepalese.
When: Pre-monsoon May and June, post-monsoon September and October.
Where: 20km west of Everest in the Khumbu region on the border of Tibet and Nepal. Near the ancient trading route of the Nangpa La (5500m).
Why: Sixth highest mountain in the world at 8200m. Considered one of the most accessible of the 8000m peaks next to Shishapangma. Unsuccessfully attempted by Hillary’s expedition in 1952 in preparation for the first summit of Everest the following year. First climbed in 1954 by Austrian expedition led by Herbert Tichy.
How: Inbound; fly from Kathmandu to Lhasa, ground transportation to Chinese Base Camp via Shigatse and Xegar, trek to Advance Base Camp: 6-7 days. Outbound; return trek to CBC, ground transportation to Kathmandu via Zhangmu: 2 days. Normal progression to summit; ABC (5650m), Camp 1 (6400m), Camp 2 (7040m), Camp 3 (7470m), summit (8200m); 2-3 weeks.