CHO OYU

WORDS AND IMAGES: Mike Hey­don LO­CA­TION: Ti­bet

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - Mike Hey­don

Earth has 14 peaks above 8,000 me­tres, all of which can be found in the Hi­malayas. They are mag­nif­i­cent, beau­ti­ful, and some days, deadly. To re­spond to the thick­en­ing of the blood at alti­tude, red blood cells de­velop to trans­port oxy­gen around the body. The prob­lem is that red blood cells also el­e­vate clot­ting risk. Warn­ing signs are dis­played ev­ery­where in the moun­tains, and both lo­cals and vis­i­tors reg­u­larly talk about alti­tude sick­ness and its symp­toms. We were told that if a hu­man trav­elled by he­li­copter from sea level straight to a height of 8,000 me­tres, they would be dead within min­utes. Your body starts to shut down. Hu­mans aren’t meant to be here.

LO­CATED ON THE bor­der of Nepal and Ti­bet, Cho Oyu is usu­ally climbed from Ti­bet to the north, de­spite the many dif­fi­cul­ties it can take to ob­tain per­mis­sion from the Chi­nese Gov­ern­ment, which has held con­trol of the ter­ri­tory since 1959.

We flew into Llasa, the re­gion's cap­i­tal, where ev­ery­one is screened for yel­low fever by hav­ing their body tem­per­a­ture read by a cam­era. Mine was found to be higher than nor­mal, prob­a­bly be­cause I was feel­ing self-con­scious about the small pil­low I had taken from the Air China flight to pro­vide some ad­di­tional lux­ury at base camp. I was sternly ad­vised that I couldn't en­ter Ti­bet if I failed an­other scan in a few min­utes. This, of course, made me a ner­vous wreck while the rest of the ex­pe­di­tion found it hi­lar­i­ous. After that, I be­came ‘Hot Mike'. I sup­pose there are worse nick­names.

The cul­ture shock in Lhasa was in­tense. Cul­tural ten­sions and the vis­i­ble gap be­tween liv­ing stan­dards in the tra­di­tional ar­eas and the newer, Chi­nese ar­eas were just so pro­found. We were ad­vised to not carry any lit­er­a­ture re­fer­ring to the Dalai Lama, or we would likely be de­ported. We didn't stay there for long and headed off in 4x4s to the moun­tains and base camp. The rapid alti­tude gain of the first leg af­fected each of us dif­fer­ently. I had hideous headaches that lasted for days. We were still only at 4,000 me­tres, which made me doubt­ful that I would make it any higher, re­sult­ing in a bad mood to boot.

At 5,750 me­tres above sea level, the Cho Oyu Base Camp is one of the high­est in the world, sit­ting 400 me­tres higher than Ever­est's. This was home for four weeks while we ac­cli­ma­tised and climbed. It was still like a tropical re­sort com­pared to our higher camps that were to fol­low. At Base Camp, the nine climbers had their own tents, two guides and eight

Sher­pas sup­port­ing us and plenty of good food.

At last, we started out on the four ac­cli­ma­ti­sa­tion cy­cles to Camp One, at 6,400 me­tres, and back again. This meant four climbs over a hideous rocky moraine, the an­gry rem­nant of a de­pleted glacier. The re­lent­lessly steep ter­rain was a tough men­tal chal­lenge, es­pe­cially the first cy­cle, which we com­pleted in a sin­gle day. I strug­gled to imag­ine I could climb it an­other three times and counted down with des­per­ate op­ti­mism. “After this one, we'll be on the sec­ond to last cy­cle… after that time, there's only one more train­ing cy­cle, just one more and then we're on our sum­mit push!” Lis­ten­ing to mu­sic was bet­ter than hear­ing that voice in my head ac­com­pa­nied by my laboured breath­ing.

If the days were bad, the nights were mis­ery. It was cold – down to -20°C – and the com­bi­na­tion of wak­ing dis­ori­en­tated, feel­ing nau­seous, and un­con­trol­lably gasp­ing for air took some get­ting used to. Ici­cles would cover ev­ery­thing and those on the ceiling would fall oc­ca­sion­ally. The first night I spent at Camp One, the nau­sea didn't leave, and I woke to the sound of an­other climber vom­it­ing. Ah, the seren­ity.

Noth­ing at this alti­tude is fast or easy. Toi­let­ing, eat­ing, drink­ing, get­ting dressed. Add dark­ness to the mix, and it's an­other whole level of dif­fi­culty. Get­ting into my heavy down jacket and pants in­side a small tent was com­i­cally slow. One morn­ing I made the mis­take of tak­ing my glove lin­ers off briefly to make break­fast in the tent. I couldn't get warm again so, to the amuse­ment of the de­part­ing group, I re­sorted to drop­ping my pants to my an­kles to get my hands closer to the warm­est part of my body – my groin. ‘Hot Mike' is what they call me.

The day be­fore our sum­mit push, we ar­rived at Camp Two around midafter­noon. Un­like most other teams, we didn't sleep at Camp Three be­fore the sum­mit push, opt­ing in­stead to climb from Camp Two (7,200 me­tres). We would con­serve strength by sleep­ing at lower alti­tude, traded off by a longer climb on sum­mit day.

We awoke at mid­night. I'll never for­get the mem­ory of open­ing my eyes and re­al­is­ing what I was about to go through – ner­vous­ness, ter­ror, ex­cite­ment, and the re­lief that the weeks of suf­fer­ing would be over, sum­mit suc­cess or not.

1am: We de­part Camp Two. The creep­ing trail of head­lamps would have looked pretty in the pitch dark­ness, but I saw only my plod­ding feet in the head­lamp beam.

4am: We ar­rive at Camp Three to a mur­der scene in the snow, or so it looked. Blood spray had flown from one of the tents, with large chunks of some­thing amongst it. It turned out to be the vi­o­lent vom­it­ing of a climber from an­other ex­pe­di­tion, who had de­vel­oped high alti­tude pul­monary

oedema after sum­mit­ing the day be­fore. We switched our oxy­gen can­is­ters for fresh ones de­liv­ered ear­lier by our sher­pas. My com­pet­i­tive­ness kicked in, and I charged off into the dark­ness, de­ter­mined to reach the sum­mit of this moun­tain so I could get back to life with green trees and the sun­shine, but I came to an abrupt stop after 20 me­tres. It was thou­sands of miles from the ocean, but I felt that I was drown­ing, suf­fo­cat­ing. Just. Couldn't. Get. Any. Air. Some­one yelled to turn up my oxy­gen flow.

I slowed my rhythm. One foot moved for­ward. Then the other, and the other, re­peat­ing this process for the next few hours. Of­ten it was a case of tak­ing three steps, paus­ing to rest, and then tak­ing an­other three steps.

Moun­tain climb­ing is mostly about suf­fer­ing. You stag­ger along and won­der why you're there and why on earth you're do­ing this. And then, amaz­ingly, we were there – the sum­mit of Cho Oyu, the sixth high­est peak on Earth. My tent mate Danny – an­other Kiwi – our Sherpa guides Pasang Bhotje and Da Jangbu and I had done it.

The sum­mit was a vast ex­panse ex­tend­ing hun­dreds of me­tres in each di­rec­tion, not the typ­i­cal spiky chunk of rock where a few peo­ple can perch at once. Prayer flags of dif­fer­ent ages flapped around in the wind that slapped across my face and made breath­ing with­out oxy­gen ex­tremely un­com­fort­able.

The first light was stun­ning. I looked across the Hi­malayas and the ex­panse of the Ti­betan Plateau to Shisha­pangma, an­other 8,000-me­tre peak, and the Khumbu Val­ley and

Ama Dablam, said to be the most beau­ti­ful moun­tain of them all. I wouldn't dis­agree.

There were no high fives or back slaps. I felt over­whelmed by re­lief, grate­ful for ev­ery­thing I have in life, and emo­tional at the thought that the job was still only half done.

After 20 min­utes, which in­cluded the pre­dictable sum­mit selfie, we turned to de­scend. Ever­est had fi­nally emerged from the clouds, but we couldn't stop any longer.

There were no other ex­pe­di­tions on the five taller peaks that day. We had been the high­est hu­mans on the planet.

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