Cho Oyu

Clouds over the summit of Cho Oyu

These notes have been prepared for Needle Sports by Tim Mosedale, a qualified mountaineering instructor who leads commercial trips to the Himalayas and elsewhere. They are intended to assist the climber who has already gained some knowledge of mountaineering and is fully aware of its risks but still wishes to climb mountains. They are brief and not designed to be comprehensive in any way.

Ultimately climbing is a dangerous sport and claims many casualties each year. One of the guiding principals of British climbing and mountaineering is that it is the individual climber is responsible for his or her own safety. If you cannot accept this then this site and probably climbing in general is unlikely to suit you. May we refer you to this very interesting site instead.

Cho Oyu - it's the sixth highest that there is and it is becoming increasingly popular as a first 8,000er. Tim Mosedale recently led an expedition there and successfully summited in September 2006. He has put together some notes, top tips and handy hints as well as some information on gear, clothing and equipment.

Q: Where is Cho Oyu ?

A: It is located on the border between Nepal and Tibet (now part of China ). It is North-East of Kathmandu and South-West of Lhasa. Cho Oyu was first climbed on 19th October 1954 via the North-West Ridge by Herbert Tichy, Joseph Jöchler and Sherpa Pasang Dawa Lama of an Austrian expedition. It had been tried previously but the ice cliffs at around 6,600m proved too technical.

Q: How high is it?

A: It's 8,201m (26,906ft) It is the sixth highest mountain in the world, and one of only fourteen that are over 8000m.

Camp 1 on Cho Oyu

Q: I only want to look at it, how do I get there?

A: You can see it from the south side by trekking in The Khumbu region of Nepal . You'd need to fly to Lukla and then trek north through the Khumbu valley. This can be done either independently as a tea house trek or as part of an organised group where you may be tea housing it or camping. From Namche Bazaar you need to follow the Gokyo valley up to the village of Gokyo . Cho Oyu is the mountain at the head of this valley. It is a very steep and intimidating mountain from the south side and has only been climbed a handful of times from this side.

From the north side Cho Oyu is a beautiful looking peak to the west of Everest. You will either need to go overland from Kathmandu or fly in to Lhasa and then go overland from there. Either way you are looking at around 5 to 8 days to allow you to safely cope with the altitude. The Chinese Base Camp is a short drive from the village of Tingri . From there you'd need another couple of days to get to intermediate camp and on to Advance Base Camp.

Base Camp Panorama

Q: The mountain itself, how hard is it?

A: Hmmm - difficult one. It is described as the easiest of the 8,000ers – but the mere fact that you are on an 8,000er makes it a difficult undertaking. I guess what they mean is that of the 8,000ers it is the one that you are most likely to be able to summit if this is your first one. The terrain is objectively very safe and reasonably non technical.

After leaving Chinese Base Camp you are stuck at around 5200m and above for the whole of your trip which is quite debilitating.

You will need to spend quite a bit of time at ABC to get well and truly acclimatised for what lies ahead. It is quite a desolate spot but at least yaks can get there - which means that you can afford to get a few luxury items carried up, not to mention books and games (more later).

You will need to spend quite a bit of time at ABC to get well and truly acclimatised for what lies ahead. It is quite a desolate spot but at least yaks can get there - which means that you can afford to get a few luxury items carried up, not to mention books and games (more later).

Up to Camp 1 there is straight forward rubble and an easy snow slope. From Camp 1 it is fairly straightforward crampon terrain to get to Camp 2. There are a couple of steeper sections where the going gets quite slow. From Camp 2 to Camp 3 is yet more snow slopes and is again straightforward cramponing. After Camp 3 there is the rockband to negotiate which is reasonably steep and committing and then more snow (lots of it) to get to the summit plateau. From the plateau it's another few hundred metres to get to the summit proper - except you are at 8,200m and the going is real s_l_o_w.

But you are only half way there and it's time to get down, ideally to Camp 2. People do return to Camp 3 and sleep there (on oxygen preferably) but it is far better and much safer to drop down as far as you can. It only makes the day a bit longer but if you have enough oxygen (ideally you should plan to have some left over at the end anyway) then you can crank up the flow rate to remain compus mentus and drop down to Camp 2, safe in the knowledge that you are probably out of harm's way.

Traversing a Serac

Q: When is it usually climbed?

A: August / September is when most expeditions take place although May is becoming increasingly popular too.

Alternatively, if you are Russian, you may want to do it in winter.

Q: How should I prepare myself for this mountain?

A: It's huge.

You are going to be spending a lot of time sitting around trying to acclimatise. For a lot of people this is just too much - they feel that because they have been running and climbing in preparation that they should be able to start getting high earlier and are itching to get up there and invest time in sleeping at Camp 1 and above.

It's not quite how it works.

Fitness is undoubtedly very important but it won't get you up very far to start with. Your body needs to acclimatise to the extreme altitude before you can start forays up and down the mountain without being at risk of High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE).

This is the mountain of a lifetime and it's going to cost a L O T of money so make sure that you are adequately prepared.

A good grounding in Scottish winter climbing and mountaineering will go a long way to getting you ready for long arduous days on the hill (a friend of mine even described Everest as 'good training for Scottish winter'!). The weather can turn pretty nasty pretty quickly up there so if you are in the habit of being out in ALL conditions then you will be able to cope with whatever the mountain throws at you. Remember that losing a glove up there is a potentially life threatening situation (for your pals as well as you) and will undoubtedly jeopardise your summit bid. That is an expensive glove.

Previous experience at altitude has got to be a good investment. Not everyone can spend the time and the money establishing a good mountaineering cv abroad but even the likes of Island Peak, Mera Peak, Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua will go along way to helping you know how you cope with altitude.

You won't benefit from being acclimatised unless you are do another trip immediately prior to your foray, but you will benefit from the psychological aspect of knowing what you are like at altitude.

You will need to focus on aerobic capacity (I used a PowerBreathe for a couple of months prior to going away), muscular strength and mental attitude. The altitude will be trying and will stress your lung capacity as you try to provide oxygen to your muscles. You will probably end up carrying quite heavy loads down the mountain after the summit, so make sure you have good stamina too.

I used cellfood (which apparently increases the oxygen levels in your blood) on Everest but decided not to on Cho Oyu . It is difficult to know whether it definitely made a difference as drawing comparisons between Everest and Cho Oyu is quite difficult as everything on Cho Oyu is so much lower, technically easier and less demanding. Apart from this I managed to be totally drug free (apart from antibiotics).

You should also become totally acquainted with your gear and technical equipment so that everything is second nature. Get used to your clothing and where the adjusters are. Practice putting on your harness with big gloves or mitts on. Have a system for where stuff is in your rucksack so that it minimises the time taken to find things. Every time you are standing still you are getting cold. If you have to remove your mitts you are immediately prone to frostbite so it may take three or four attempts for you to complete, say, putting your crampons or harness on. You may have to take your mitts off (liner gloves highly recommended), start threading the buckle, start getting cold fingers, mitts on again, shake arm vigorously, mitt off, continue with buckle etc. Repeat as necessary.

I spent hours at home wearing stuff that I was going to use on the mountain, trying things on, using totally over specked stuff when out on the hills in the UK . I had a few funny glances from folk but then they didn't know what I was gearing up for.

I even went to the length of using my expedition sleeping bags a few times at home and in Kathmandu so that I knew how they adjusted, what the features were, where the toggles were etc.

Q: So what kind of technical gear do I need?

A: For Cho Oyu you need the best clothing and equipment that money can buy.

You don't want to be a liability up there as other people will be risking their lives to sort you out if things go wrong. So you will need …

Karabiners: go for big HMS krabs as they are much easier to use with mitts on.

Ice Axe: non-technical alpine style for the regular routes. Weight is something of an issue but don't go for an ultralight ski touring model. You only need one axe.

Crampons: I'd recommend either full strap on or heel clip and plastic toe cup. Metal toe bail crampons can be quite awkward to fit with mitts on and if you don't quite get the bail in place then they'll come off at some point. Again do not go for the ultra light alloy crampons as they are not up to the task.

Harness: Go for a light weight non padded harness. The best used to be the Troll Alpinist but it has been changed and tweeked and is now a bit of an inferior model. Fortunately DMM have introduced the Super Couloir which is a very good buy. It's light, easy to put on and has one big easy to thread buckle.

Helmet: optional. There will undoubtedly be a lot of people around and whilst the route is reasonably objectively free from hazards even a small lump of ice, or a dropped karabiner, could spoil your day (or put an end to your trip).

Belay/Abseil Device: a belay device with big slots to ease rope threading and a big retaining loop to lessen the drop factor - Petzl Reverso recommended.

Alternatively a Figure of 8 which can be used as follows - have the LARGE hole hooked on to your abseiling karabiner. Thread the rope through the large hole and over the top of the fig 8. You can then remove the fig 8 from your abseil karabiner safe in the knowledge that it is now attached to the rope. Invert the fig 8 and clip the small hole back in to the karabiner, screw it up and abseil as normal. You could even miss out the inverting stage BUT this is not as safe as there is a possibility that the rope could potentially come unlooped if you brushed against some rocks whilst the rope is unweighted. At the end of the abseil make yourself safe, unclip the Fig 8, invert it, clip the big hole to your karabiner and unloop the rope. Again this minimises the dropability factor with big gloves or mitts on.

Cow's Tails: I use a 4 metre section of 9mm dynamic rope. I put an overhand knot on the bight in the middle to allow me to larksfoot the cow's tail on to my harness at the tie in area thereby dispensing with the need for a karabiner (less weight) and I know that once it is on it can't come undone (this is not an issue as the larksfoot is on the harness - but it is the only time I use a larksfoot. They are generally best avoided in any other application). I then have a knot tied in to each arm of the cow's tail to allow me to have a karabiner permanently attached, one of which I then have the jumar on. That way I have 2 attachment points which allows me to jumar up and pass rebelays along the way.

On one of the 'arms' I have an additional loop (created by another overhand knot on the bight) about 6 to 8 inches from the end. This I then use for my abseil device when coming down. Why not use the belay loop you may well ask? Well there are 2 reasons - firstly is that with all that down clothing on it can get a bit busy and difficult to visually make sure that everything is attached correctly. Secondly it means that if I want to back up the abseil with a prussik then I have a high attachment point to stop inverting and I can put the prussik on the belay loop rather than the leg loop.

Ascenders: I would recommend handled ascenders. You need to make sure that you can get a gloved mitt in to the handle area though so don't go overboard with the mitts. Some of the fixed ropes that you come across on these big mountains are quite thin so it is best to steer clear of the likes of Petzl Tiblocs. The dropability of small devices like the Wild Country Ropeman makes them unsuitable too.

If you are planning your own non-commercial trip then you'll also need a whole selection of …

Ropes: most folk use polyprop for general fixing of snow slopes etc and then have pukkah (but thin and light) ropes for the more vertical sections.

Ice Screws: a selection, but go for longer rather than shorter. These need checking regularly to make sure that they aren't melting out. Where possible back up with …

Snow Stakes: again go for a selection of different lengths.

Rack (of climbing gear): needs to be reasonably comprehensive as you don't know what you'll come across along the way. Take plenty of long Pegs (pitons) too.

Looking down from above the second serac band

Tents: For base camp and ABC you will want spaciousness as well as robustness at the top of the requirements. I would opt for good quality 3-man mountain tents from reputable companies. You need models with excellent UV protection, good hardwearing zippers and plenty of space and storage. For higher on the mountain, where durability and weight were the issues, you'll want smaller 2-man lightweight mountain tents from the same reputable manufacturers.

Snow Pegs/Anchors: you are going to have to make sure that your tents are well and truly attached to the mountain. We saw two tents, full of gear, go vertical from the North Col on Everest never to be seen again! Another team had a tent get blown away from Camp 2 with all their gear in too and that was the end of their trip.

It's a good idea to have snow valances or make sure that the tent is dug in slightly to minimise the chance of the wind getting underneath for take off. Another top tip is to change the guy ropes around so that the adjustability is at the tent end rather than the peg end and that way if the snow pegs get covered in snow and frozen in place you can still tension things up. A selection of your Snow Stakes will also be useful for the extra holding power.

If you are planning to leave gear at campsites on the mountain it's probably worth leaving it in locked kitbags, weighted down, until you decide to erect the tents, and that way you avoid them being blown away or trashed. Once erected you can then use the kitbags for leaving your gear in when you pop down for a rest.

Stoves: gas is readily available in Kathmandu and is a whole lot cleaner than any other fuel you may try to get. We used the MSR Windpro and Pocket Rocket stoves. The Windpro certainly gets my vote as it is so much more stable.

Pots and Pans: If you are going to be spending money then why not go the whole hog? Titanium has got to be the best option as every ounce counts. The MSR Titan 2 Litre pots along with the MSR XPD Heat Exchanger is by far the best option in terms of weight, volume and efficiency. Lower down the mountain you can use the MSR Alpine Stainless Steel Cooksets.

And last but not least it's a good idea to get some plywood cooking boards made up to stop the hot stove sinking into the snow.

Panaorama at Camp 2

Q: What kind of clothing do I need for base camp?

A: Just regular trekking clothing will do the trick here. Most days I was wearing a wicking t shirt, a fleece or artificial fibre top for when it was a bit breezey. Legs-wise I usually had on some tough quick-drying climbing pants which were great for knocking around in as well as acclimatisation walks. I spent most of my time in approach shoes although a pair of some lightweight boots comes in handy for walks and when going up to Lake Camp . You'll need a warm but lightweight hat, something comfortable for sleeping in as well as for more normal use. Occasionally a storm may pass over and the temperature may plummet. In which case it's time to get the thermals out. Go for the best that you can buy and invest in wool. There are plenty of other wicky thermals out there (and some have silver ions in there to stop the pong) but you won't go wrong with soft natural fibres. Icebreaker and Smartwool do thin and thick tops and bottoms in wool and I'd recommend a selection of all of them.

The consequences of not taking sufficiently good quality warm clothing can be serious!

It's down jacket time for when the sun goes down and you'll be needing hats and gloves for warmth and comfort. You are going to be at ABC for quite a while and it is a desolate spot so make sure that it doesn't become too much of an arduous environment for you.

Q: What sort of sleeping bag?

A: I would advise you to take two (or three) sleeping bags. I'd use a 3/4 season bag at Chinese Base Camp and ABC - that way I was carrying minimal gear up and down the route.

I'd then recommend a 4/5 season bag which you can leave at Camp 1 and later take up the mountain. If you are a cold person then I would opt for a 5 season bag.

You are there for a long time and so a silk liner is pretty much a necessity. A bivi bag is an optional extra (go for the Rab Survival Zone).

Q: What kind of clothing do I need for further up the mountain?

A: It's even colder up there so it's time to get the warm gear on. Again, go for the best that you can buy. For forays up and down to Camp 1 and Camp 2 you need to be ready for changeable conditions and you need a waterproof jacket and over trousers as well as gloves, hat, wicking layers and maybe a synthetic insulating top.Q: What kind of clothing do I need for summit day?

A: Partly it depends on what time of year, what the weather is like, how windy it is and what your circulation is like. If in doubt err on the side of caution.

For summit day I wore thin wicking top and bottoms plus heavier weight wicking top and bottoms (all woollen) and I had down salopettes and a down jacket (I also had a ½ litre wide mouth Nalgene water bottle inside my jacket). I wore 8000m boots with 2 pairs of fresh wool socks (liner and mountain socks) and had some down mitts on my hands.

I also had a Powerstretch balaclava and Powerstretch gloves for when I needed to take my mitts off. I wore Julbo Cat4 goggles and had a remote battery headtorch (it has a separate battery compartment which you can wear inside your jacket). I carried a 50 litre rucksack with 2 oxygen cylinders, a litre of boiled water in a wide mouth Nalgene water bottle in thermal liner, spare goggles, spare down mitts, spare gloves and a spare synthetic jacket as well as lipsalve, suncream, spare film etc.

Q: What about food and water?

A: One key issue is to drink P L E N T Y. If you become dehydrated you will not only suffer a marked decrease in your performance but you will also be more susceptible to the affects of altitude and be more prone to frostbite. It's high enough that people often suffer with being put off their food - but you must get into the habit of forcing yourself to eat and drink even if you can't be bothered. When at ABC you should chill out, rest, eat, drink, eat, drink and rest some more.

Q: How long will it take?

A: You are looking at around a 5 or 6 week trip. You shouldn't really try it in less time unless you are fresh off another 8000er. And even then you have to be careful you don't get re-emergence High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (from going back to altitude after a rest of a week to 10 days).

Q: What kind of weather conditions will I experience?

A: Generally in Spring the season starts quite bitterly cold and gets progressively warmer (at Base Camp and ABC). On the mountain you'll experience high winds and desperately cold temperatures if you go up too early. And even as the trip progresses there will be a mixture of weather conditions that will pass over. Standing alone, it can be really windy some days - to the extent that you shouldn't be up there.

Temperatures can drop to as low as -10C to -15C at night at Base Camp, but by day it usually quite pleasant. At Camp 1 it can get to -20C to -25C at night and daytime temperatures can be anything from bitterly cold to baking hot in the sun. As you go further up the mountain it gets colder with summit daytime temperatures of -10C to -20C.

Q: What about altitude sickness?

A: Acute Mountain Sickness can be a problem when going over 3,500m (although some folk start to suffer at 2,500m!). When you consider that the Advance Base Camp is at 5,200m then you have to be very careful that you don't get there too quickly (particularly on the North where you drive there).

Camp 2 (above) and the summit from Camp 2 (below)

One of the key things at altitude is to move s_l_o_w_l_y and to drink PLENTY. If you have a headache - take Paracetamol. If it doesn't go away - don't go any higher, maybe have some more Paracetamol (no more than 8 in 24 hours), chill out and drink fluids. If it still doesn't go away then descend. Have a good old rest and then go back again - s_l_o_w_l_y.

Diamox is often used by people to kick start the acclimatisation and for some it works really well. But if you find yourself reaching for Dexamethasone or Nifedipine then I would say that you have overexerted yourself, overextended your stay and potentially have a BIG problem. It is definitely time to go down. In fact why didn't you go down earlier?

Q: What about High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPE)?

A: These will both kill you. You have got to avoid them both at all costs. And that means listening to your body and being sensible on the mountain. You should carry Dexamethasone or Nifedipine with you just in case but they are to get you down, not to get you up the mountain. If you have injectable dex then you need to protect it from freezing.

Q: What is the biggest problem most people face?

A: There are a few factors really. Staying healthy is difficult. Maintaining your enthusiasm is another difficulty, and then making progress on the mountain when you feel like you are walking in treacle is just downright demoralising.

Q: Can I do it?

A: Ermm, maybe. This is so different from any other mountain experience that you literally won't know unless you try it. But that could be a very expensive gamble to make. Lots of experience at altitude has got to be of benefit, plus total competence as a mountaineer.

Q: Anything else I should know?

A: Yes - consider the following top tips:

Elongate all your zippers and zip pulls so that you can use them with big mitts/gloves even when it's windy.

Take lots of AA lithium batteries as they are so much lighter and last so much longer than regular alkalis in cold temperatures.

Down Booties are a really nice luxury (if you have poor circulation then they are a necessity when higher up the mountain).

Practise putting your gear on and tweeking zips and Velcro tabs with big mitts on at home. If things become second nature then you'll spend less time standing around and getting cold.

The summit as seen from Advanced Base Camp

Computers and iPods don't always work so well at ABC because of the drop in atmospheric pressure. Consider minidisk or cd players if you're taking music. Leave your laptop at Base Camp.

Take a lot of books and a few games because you'll need to be able to occupy yourself for extended periods. If you are taking Scrabble then it's worth taking a dictionary or the Scrabble word list book to prevent fisticuffs.

Multi vitamins are worth taking along so that even if you aren't eating for a while at least you won't be lowering your resistance to infections.

Take a Pillow.

And a Thermarest inflatable cushion to sit on in the mess tent.

Name EVERYTHING with marker pen to prevent temptation, as you'll be leaving heaps of stuff on the mountain.

Generally speaking a lot of the stuff sacs that come with down jackets, sleeping bags etc are all black which makes for confusing times when looking for specific items in your kitbag. Take LOADS of the Exped stuffsacs (a variety of different sizes and colours) and mark them with marker pen so you now what the contents are.

Get a Heat Exchanger Balaclava - it will protect your throat from the cold air when you are going up and down the mountain.

Take a goodie bag with a few luxury items that you know you'll still want to eat even when you are at your lowest ebb.

Take a sponge to wash your bits.

And wetwipes to maintain some semblance of personal hygiene.

And anti bacterial hand gel to use after EVERY visit to the toilet so that you don't pick up an infection and prevent spreading anything amongst the group.

And a small brush to make you feel human every so often.

And some cotton wool buds.

If you are male, take a pee bottle (eg a Nalgene wide mouth 1 litre poly bottle) for higher up the mountain (you may want to use it lower down too) and make sure that you have practised using one before using it for the first time in anger. If you are female a Shewee is worth practicing with and may even enable you to use a pee bottle!

If you are taking a digital camera take plenty of memory and make sure you have a fresh card (and fresh battery) for summit day.

Take loads of non freezing(!) Sunblock.

And lots of moisturizer and Lipsalve (again with SPF)

And two pairs of Goggles (Cat 4 lenses and a good field of view recommended).

The summit from afar – a beautiful mountain

Also - don't get too focused on the top because that's when people start compromising their safety, and therefore the safety of those around them. One key factor is to have FUN. If you are with a group of people who don't get on then, even if you get to the top, you won't necessarily have fond memories of the trip. If you are with a great bunch of folk, and having a cool time, then the summit will just be the cherry on the icing on the cake.

It could be you! Ready for the off!

Q: How much will it cost me?

A: If you are going on a commercial trip DO NOT go for the cheapest. Your life is worth far more than skimping on the cost. If you are paying what you consider to be a bargain then you have got to ask yourself what you aren't getting. So you are looking from US$15,000 to US$20,000.

© Tim Mosedale 2007

All photos © James Kerr 2006

Tim Mosedale on the summit

Tim and Ali also run their own highly rated Bed and Breakfast in Keswick, Elm Tree Lodge.

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