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Friday, October 8, 1999
"Here I sit, reunited in the warmth of my home and my friends and loved ones, having made a very difficult decision only a week ago to pull my team out of the Himalaya early..."
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Join as we travel to Tibet for the 1999 Cho Oyu Expedition.
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Cho Oyu
Cho Oyu
The Mountain
Cho Oyu sits astride the border of Nepal and Tibet, about 20 miles west of Mount Everest. It is the sixth highest mountain in the world (8201 meters or about 26,900 feet). Cho Oyu is translated in Tibetan as "the goddess of the turquoise." A famous trade route crossed Nangpa La pass, just west of Cho Oyu, and very close to the Advanced Base Camp. From Tibet, salt was brought over this pass to Namche Bazaar (Khumbu's commerce center) in exchange for grain from the south.

The Route
The south face of Cho Oyu, facing Nepal, is quite steep and difficult, and is rarely climbed. The north side of the mountain, accessed from Tibet, is more moderate, and there is a relatively safe route to the summit. In the autumn of 1954, an Austrian team made the first ascent via this route – now sometimes called the Tichy route, for the expedition leader.

Before I went to Cho Oyu in 1995, only nine Americans had reached the summit. That year, our team put 13 more Americans and two Sherpas on the top. We at International Mountain Guides have conducted six expeditions (three spring and three autumn trips) since '95, putting over 40 people on the summit of this increasingly popular peak.

The spring season starts during cold, windy March and April, but the weather becomes warmer and calmer by mid-May. Autumn is the opposite. Starting in September, the weather is warmer than March (with more snow, leftover from the monsoon) but becomes colder and windier by mid-October. Spring is icier; autumn has more avalanche hazard.

Ice Cliff
Ice Cliff
How hard is the summit climb? One needs solid crampon skills and be able to rappel wearing a full pack. Part of the route involves jumaring on fixed ropes. There is a short, steep section of nearly vertical ice on the spectacular ridge between Camp 1 and Camp 2 that requires front-pointing skills. Most importantly, climbers need good common sense and the ability to learn and adapt to quickly-changing conditions.

The Climbing Scene
Since the mid 1990s, Cho Oyu has become the most popular 8000-meter peak. This is well deserved, since the route is reasonably safe and not overly technical, and with good access. Nonetheless, many people encounter a number of problems on the climb: Some climbers get altitude sickness up high and are unable to get down, others fall on the steep parts of the climb (it is not common practice to rope up on 8000 meter peaks). Still, others are abandoned by their stronger teammates and get lost or stuck out after dark. In the later case, it is not unusual to see those people get some pretty bad frostbite.

Guiding in the Himalaya
I've led over twenty trips in the Himalaya, with all different types of climbers. My rule of thumb is that everyone brings something to the table. Himalayan climbing is not democratic, and everyone is different in what they can do and what they expect. I believe everyone can have a great Himalayan experience if they have realistic expectations and are flexible. People get into trouble when they remain rigid in a dynamic environment. Everything is changing around you...the route, the weather, your team, and your own capabilities. You have to be open and honest.

I know it is a subject of big debate these days, but for the record, I want to say that I think it's terrific that "normal" people can go climb these great mountains. When I was a kid, growing up in the '60s and '70s, the only way you could get on a Himalayan expedition was to be a part of some elite national team, or play the political game and meet the right people to get yourself invited on a big trip. Nowadays, if you have the skills, the money, and the desire, you can give it a shot. There's no guarantee that you'll make the top...and that is the way it should be!

There are a lot of companies offering mountaineering programs in the Himalaya. I encourage prospective climbers to shop around, and thoroughly understand the differences between the programs. Generally, you get what you pay for, and you can get any level of support that you require: guides, Sherpas, oxygen, fixed rope, use of high altitude camps, emergency jeep, etc.

Eric Simonson, Correspondent

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