97 Cho-Oyu Himalayan Expedition
Expedition Leader: Eric Simonson
Chris Horley, Kim Gattone, Laury
Lewis, Mike Dunnahoo, Andy Mondry
Robert Link and Jake Norton (assistant)
Summit Sherpas: Phinjo and Ang Passang
Pemba and Passang Nuru
The 1997 post-monsoon season in the Everest region of the Himalaya was largely a bust. Dozens of teams failed on Everest from both the north and south sides, and all attempts on Nuptse, Lhotse and Makalu were also rebuffed. A few miles a way on Cho-Oyu, however, a number of teams were well positioned when a window of marginal conditions opened. Among the expeditions to reach the summit was an International Mountain Guides guided party lead by Eric Simonson and Robert Link.
We started up on September 24th, to Camp I (20,600' or so) on a nice day. During the night at CI, the weather turned brutal with high winds on the upper mountain. I think the jet-stream touched down. In the morning we could see CIII getting raked by the wind, and CII was also getting blasted. We heard on the radio that the teams at CIII were bailing out, and we could see climbers coming down from CII... so... we decided to stay put. Good thing, as the winds continued, and the climbers coming down reported 30¡ below temps and 75mph wind.
The 25th was better, and we climbed up to C2 (around 23,000') without any problem. The ascent of the icecliff went smoothly since we had all been up it before. We noted that conditions had changed up high with the hard winds. Now the snow surface was firm, which is good cramponing conditions, but with all the wind transport, there was also a lot more windslab, especially hard slab.
The 26th was again pretty good. We all climbed to CIII (around 24,500'.) At the same time, we watched several other teams going for the summit. We got to CIII early on the afternoon with time to melt water and rest before the big day! We wanted to get to bed early. During the "night," several members sniffed a little of their oxygen, but most of us decided to put up with the headache and dull brain feeling and save our bottle for the summit attempt.
We woke up at 1am and started brewing. It always seems to take a long time to get ready. This morning was no exception. Complicating matters was the fact that the wind was picking up. By the time we were ready to walk, it was about 4am, and there was a stiff breeze blowing... colder than hell. For the first hour, we climbed in the dark by headlamp. We were each wearing full down gear, either a complete suit or pants and parka, along with insulated overboots. At the first break, I put on my mittens, which I rarely need to wear (I stay pretty warm and usually just need ski gloves.)
As the sky lightened, we saw lots of clouds below us and above, big dark bands sweeping across the sky. The wind was stripping snow off the summit. I thought the weather looked pretty ominous, and like I said, it was pretty damn nippy. We kept plugging along, climbing fixed ropes through the yellow band (a rocky step about 100' high.) Above, the slopes were slabby. It was good cramponing, but the slab would sometimes break underfoot, and you would punch through. Since we were on the northwest side of the mountain, we didn't get the sun until our second break, about five hours after we started.
What a difference a little sun makes! I ate a little food and had a slurp of warm water out of my thermos, and put my sunglasses on under my ski goggles. The wind was still whipping but now it was a bit warmer, and I could start to feel my toes and fingers. We plugged on, everyone climbing together. The group was doing well, everyone able to keep up. We were all breathing O2 at the rate of two liters per minute.
When we hit the summit plateau, we had our third break. The wind started to die down a bit, and the day was looking good. We were getting lucky! I turned up everyone's O2 to 2.5 LPM since we were looking fat on gas. It takes about 45 minutes to get across the summit plateau which is a wavy shoulder that culminates in a hump. I think a lot of people say they climb Cho-Oyu, but don't actually go all they way. You know when you are on top when you can see Mt. Everest. What a view... The trilogy: Everest, Lhotse, and Nuptse are just sitting there, about 20 miles away and they are at eye level. Incredible! It was about 11am.
We only stayed on top for about 15 minutes, taking photos and doing the summit thing. As a guide, this is where I get nervous as hell. I just want to get out of there in the worst possible way. Before starting down, I turned up everyone's Os to three LPM, because I wanted everyone super strong and psyched to get their butts down.
And down we went! The windslab was brutal going down, with a lot of punching through... conditions that can really poop you out. Coming down through the rock bands and on the steeper places we had everyone turn in, facing the slope to back down. This is the way to go when the snow is funky. Even if your step breaks out, you can stop easily.
By the time we got back to CIII, it was about 3pm, and everyone was pretty beat. No time to collapse in a heap though. We kicked butt and got the camp broken down as the wind started picking up again. By the time we left CIII, it was starting to nuke.
We got to CII just at dark and all bailed in to brew. The wind really was starting to blow, but it was great to be in the sack listening to it in a well pitched tent.
The night turned into an epic. Gusts hammered us like crazy. We didn't know it until the next day, but up at CIII tents were getting shredded by winds well in excess of 100mph. The parties who were one day behind us were trashed, with most of the tents at CIII destroyed by the wind. CIII climbers were forced to endure a wicked night with the nylon of their destroyed tents beating on their faces.
We had our little epic too as one of our members awoke midway though the night with snow blindness. Kim Gattone had taken off her goggles on the descent and was paying the price. Snow-blindness, while temporary, is excruciatingly painful. While plenty strong, Kim would be unable to descend in the morning due to lack of vision.
It was still blasting in the morning, but we decided to get things going nonetheless. Guides Robert Link and Jake Norton, along with doc Steve Greenholz, would stay at CII with Kim another day to let her eyes get better while I headed down with Mike Dunnahoo, Andy Mondry, Laury Lewis, and Chris Horley. After brewing for the morning, we headed down about noon, getting to CI about 3pm. Laury, Chris, and Andy were doing pretty well and decided to keep going to ABC, which they did, arriving at dark. Mike was beginning to show some signs of minor frostbite on his hands, and we decided that it would be better to spend the night at CI rather than turn it into an epic.
On the morning of the 30th, Mike and I descended to ABC from CI and Robert, Kim, Steve, and Jake headed down from CII (Kim's eyes were much better.) By the evening, everyone was back at ABC, tired but happy. What a great feeling... a full stomach, a warm bed, enough oxygen in the air to breath... it really puts everything in perspective.
The fact that we were 100% successful on Cho-Oyu this autumn is a credit to a terrific team and staff, and some good fortune when we needed it. It has been a pleasure working with climbing leader and guide extraodinaire Robert Link, assistant guide Jake Norton, summit sherpas Phinjo and Ang Passang, and cooks Pemba and Passang Nuru.
This morning we ate about four dozen eggs and drank about six thermos jugs of drip coffee. Now we are hanging out listening to tunes and doing email, telling lies and getting our stories straight. We made it this time. We are happy. Next time maybe we'll be a day late and a dollar short and get our butts kicked.
If it was a sure thing, it wouldn't be worth doing.