Chronicled by Freddie Wilkinson
“Miss Hawley told me: ‘If you can’t see Everest, you are not on the Summit!’,” Ueli Steck wrote in an email sent over the weekend from Tibet. “Funny, I just kept thinking of that sentence up there, the words of an old woman…”
News of Steck’s successful ascent, with Don Bowie, of the normal route of Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world, came just 18 days after he made a solo ascent of nearby Tibetan 8,000er Shisha Pangma. “I’m happy,” the thirty-four year old alpinist writes. “Cho Oyu was a beautiful mountain.”
Compared to the steep and deserted Southwest face of Shisha Pangma, Cho Oyu, offered Ueli and Don a different flavor of the high-altitude experience: community. As one of the least technically demanding climbs on any 8,000er, the normal route is a favorite for guided parties and commercially organized expeditions. For Ueli and Don, Cho Oyu was a final fitness test before turning their focus to their ultimate goal, the North side of Everest. It also proved a challenging exercise in alpine strategy.
Attempting several 8,000-meter peaks in the same season is as much a matter of timing as anything. Shisha Pangma, Cho Oyu and Everest are not accessible from the same basecamp; several days of jeep travel and walking are necessary to transfer from one mountain to the next. The overall success of Project Himalaya hinges on Ueli and Don’s being in the right place at the right time in order to strike during any fortuitous weather windows. There’s little margin for error: just one prolonged spell of bad weather might delay their ascent long enough to make Everest impossible.
“Even if we do not achieve the summit on Cho Oyu, our main goal is the summit of Everest,” Ueli explained beforehand. “That means, on the 10th we have to leave no matter what. The countdown is on. This idea is somehow liberating. Now Cho Oyu, then Everest, and after that – home!”
“Most people left days before to make C1, C2, and then C3 and then the summit,” Ueli reported. The pair lingered at ABC to receive the latest weather forecast, and then broke trail to 6850 meters, where they bivied at an intermediate camp between C1 and C2 on the night of May 4th. “At 1 a.m. we left, again trailbreaking, sometimes knee deep…”Ueli wrote. “The night was very very Cold.” They reached C2 at 7,200 meters at 3.30 a.m., and arrived in C3, at 7600 meters by 7 a.m., just as other teams were embarking for the summit. “A nice French guy served us some tea.” Joining a mixed summit group that included a team of young French mountaineers, two Bolivians, and a handful of climbing-Sherpas, Don and Ueli pressed on.
After a short rocky band above C3, Cho Oyu rolls back into a great dome of featureless snow. Though not technically challenging, this summit plateau is a formidable test of endurance – more than one would-be summiteer has called it quits along this stretch, only to declare theirs a successful ascent once back in basecamp. “I remember what Miss Hawley told us in Kathmandu,” Ueli relates. “Funny words from an 80 year-old woman… one who has never climbed the mountain yet read everything about it ever documented. ‘If you can`t see Everest, you are not on the Summit!’… We stood on the summit for about 10 minutes, certainly not longer.”
“Now, two peaks are in my bones,” he says, “and I don’t feel quite as fresh as I did on Shisha Pangma,” he says. “Still, I am happy.” Steck finished his report of the ascent with special praise for the warm community of 8,000-meter climbers he and Bowie met on Cho Oyu.
“I enjoyed all of the people we met here. Despite any claims to the contrary, everyone was very helpful, and everyone helped each other as much as possible. One side offers tea, another helps a newcomer to set up a tent. Sure there were climbers and non-climbers here on the mountain. Sure it is a less technically demanding route. Nevertheless, the summit is 8201 meters high. Each person has his or her own objective. Whether one starts from 7600 meters to reach the summit or whether someone needs 10 hours or 20 hours does not matter. Each of these people brings their own experiences back home with them, and that’s what counts. I will take good memories back home from Cho Oyu.”