WORDS AND IMAGES: Mike Heydon LOCATION: Tibet
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.