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Cho Oyu 2004: 50 year anniversary of a humble 8000er
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Agu 25, 2004 10: 36 EST
K2 is not the only 8000+ peak climbed 50 years ago. Cho Oyu is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first summit as well. Austrians have the honor, though the commemoration is scarcely mentioned. Cho Oyu lacks the ‘aura’ of a Savage Mountain that surrounds K2. Nevertheless, it is one of the most visited eighthousanders.

Cho Oyu's greatest risk

Cho Oyu, “The Turquoise Goddess” in Tibetan language, is by far the mountain chosen by a remarkable amount of climbers as their first experience with 8000+ peaks. The reason is Cho Oyu's relatively non technical climb on the normal route. Its fame as an ‘easy mountain’ has often left Cho Oyu very underestimated, and there lay precisely its most serious risk. The percentage of failures is very high, perhaps because some tend to forget that, with its 8201m, Cho Oyu is the sixth highest peak on Earth.

A bit of History

It was the earliest expedition to Mount Everest in 1921 that brought back news and photographs of Cho Oyu. Later, Eric Shipton’s 1951 Mount Everest Reconnaissance expedition noted two possible ways of climbing the peak, by either the north ridge or the northwest face. In 1952, Shipton led a British expedition to Cho Oyu as training for the following year’s Everest Expedition. The team included Edmund Hillary; both Hillary and another climber reached an altitude of 6850m before turning back. But it wasn’t until October 19, 1954 that Cho Oyu was summited for the first time by an Austrian team including Herbert Tichy, Josef ‘Sepp’ Jöchler, and Sherpa Pasang Dawa Lama from India. The team made the ascent without supplementary oxygen through the West Ridge.

The highlights

Since then, some highlights in Cho Oyu's history are:

1978: Austrians A. Furtner and E.Koblmüller climb the SE without permit.

1983: Michael Dacher, Hans Kammerlander and Reinhold Messner open a variation on the SW face in alpine style.

1985: Kukuczka completes a route started by a Yugoslavian team one year earlier through the Southern Spur. Kukuczka reaches the top in winter, bagging the first winter climb as well.

1996: Catalonian (Spanish) Oscar Cadiach and Austrian Sebastian Ruckensteiner open ‘Free Tibet’, through the North Ridge.

Nawang Thile Sherpa holds the record of Cho Oyu summits: he's been on top of that mountain eight times. Russell Brice (NZ) summited seven times.

Newbies in the death zone

Statistically, Cho Oyu has been summited many times more than several other 8000m mountains. To date (end 2003), about 1,400 climbers have summited Cho Oyu and 35 have died. The overall fatality rate is thus 2.5%, less than a third that of Everest’s overall fatality rate of 9%. A comparison of recent statistics shows that while the majority of the summits and fatalities occurred in the last decade on Cho Oyu, the rate has diminished considerably. Up until 1990, the Cho Oyu fatality rate was nearly 7%. But from 1990 until today, there have been 24 climbers who died, and about 1,236 summiteers. Thus the rate has lessened to about 2% – less than half of the modern Everest fatality rate of 4.4%.

If the number of summits have increased amazingly in the last decade, even more impressive has been the number of climbers attempting the mountain. Stats are supporting the humble looks of Cho Oyu: From any angle you look at it, it seems the perfect 8000+ peak to begin a promising high altitude climbing career.

Cho Oyu's location in Tibet (when attempting the normal route as 99% of the climbers do) has been the reason for both its former isolation and current crowding. Tibet, currently belonging to China, used to be a loser when compared to Nepal, or even Pakistan, as a destination. Visa troubles and sudden ‘increases of fares’ were common topics among angered climbers. But that was before the fear of radical Islam in Pakistan and the increase of Maoist violence in Nepal. These days, Tibet seems a serene, easy travel destination.

Why it's ‘safe’

The decrease in the death toll on Cho Oyu is part due to improvements in climber’s gear and fixed ropes on the serac barriers between C1 and C2.

Sometimes sherpas are also hired to set a tent at C3, allowing climbers a place to rest and hydrate at 8000 m, both before and after their summit bid.

This is crucial on a strenuous summit day, when new climbers have a hard time to judge their strength. This is significant especially after the long walk to the actual summit, which the climbers must embark on once they enter the exposed and windy summit plateau.

Other ways to increase safety is the use of bottled oxygen. It may come as a surprise that supplementary oxygen on Cho Oyu is on increase. It's a question of priorities: Using O2 may be the difference between summit or not. This is an individual choice to make.

Commercial expeditions have Cho Oyu as a regular destination. No doubt, their infrastructure contributes to the increase of the number of summits. Well fed climbers who find their high camps already set and stashed, have of course a much greater chance of success. Commercial outfits usually include O2 for medical purposes, but provide also some bottles for the summit bid at their customer’s request.

Why it is ‘not so safe’

As mentioned before, the greatest danger on Cho Oyu is its relative lack of exposure, often resulting in an excess of optimism among the climbers. Some may tend to think that it will be a long and tiring... walk uphill. But never let your guard down when facing an 8000+. In this case, by the way, it's not just 8000 meters. It's 8201 and any Cho Oyu climber will tell you what a big difference those extra 201 meters can make.

Altitude related problems are the most common causes of aborted climbs on Cho Oyu. The painful effects come early on this peak, as there is virtually no gradual trekking approach to BC. Climbers usually stop and spend a few hours at certain points during the drive to BC: About one night in Zhangmu (2300m) and a couple of them in Nyalam (3750m) and then at Tingri (4350m). We have never heard one climber describe any of those places as "charming", visitors usually can't wait to leave. (Chinese) Base Camp is only a two day post where teams wait for the yak caravan to take their gear to ABC, at 5600m.

A game of endurance along the route

The climb on the normal route is not technical, but the climb up to C1 (6400m) follows a wide ridge and can be exhausting. The serac barriers between C1 and C2 (7100m) can finish off many a fit climbers.

Rope is usually fixed on every steep section of the route, but nobody can ease the very long summit day for you, even if a Camp 3 is set up somewhere between 7500 and 8000m.

A two hour trek on top of the world

But Cho Oyu saves the best for last! Cho Oyu hasn’t got a ‘real’ summit, as one would imagine it (narrow and steep). Instead, the summit is a huge summit plateau, and it's not enough to just step up on it.

Climbers must reach the highest point if they want their effort to count. Fighting bitter cold and exposed to wind, they have to walk a long haul on almost flat surface for about two hours, until they get to a point from where the neighboring (28 km to the East) Mount Everest can be seen.

Yeah, but where is it?

Only at this spot can you be sure and proud that you have accomplished... exactly half the way. Yes, you need to come down too. But there is another problem: How do you know where the top is in fog, clouds or overcast conditions? Well, that's one of the reasons of the high failure rate on Cho Oyu. But just in case, here are the coordinates: 28°05'37" N 86°39'43" E.

Cho Oyu, 8201m, stands at the head of the Khumbu Himal, 28 km, west of Everest. The normal route snakes up the north side of the mountain, which is reached through Tibet. The sixth highest peak on Earth, the ‘Turquoise Goddess is also celebrating the 50 anniversary of its fist summit, back in 1954, by Austrian climbers Sepp Jöchler and Herbert Tichy, and Sherpa Pasang Dawa Lama. The team climbed Cho Oyu without supplementary oxygen via the West Ridge. Since then, about 1400 climbers have reached the top of Cho Oyu.

Images copyright Guillaume Dargaud, courtesy of www.gdargaud.net. Top to bottom: Summit plateau, Climb up up from C3, Cho Oyu Base Camp. Check out the site for more cool pics of Cho Oyu (some available as wallpaper and CDs) and several panorama shots!

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