There are only fourteen 8,000 meter peaks in the world. Climbing one of these giants is an ambitious goal often set by mountaineers. Cho Oyu, found on the Everest Massif at the China-Nepal border, is a name that more than often pops up in their mind. Why? Despite being the sixth highest mountain in the world with an elevation of 8188 meter? Cho Oyu is regarded as the easiest of 8000 meter peaks. An expedition on Cho Oyu is the best introduction in Himalayan mountaineering. If this expedition is on your list, here are a few things you should know.
As is the case with Everest, a 8000 meter peak that is considered to be ‘easy accessible’ attracts more than just experienced mountaineers. This reputation is good news for amateur mountaineers who want, well earned, bragging rights on having climbed one of the highest mountains on the Earth.
This huge flock of tourist mountaineers caused the Chinese government to ban climbing routes to the summit of Cho Oyu for a year in 2009. Reason was there were simply too many ambitious climbers who had set Cho Oyu as their climbing goal.
Cho Oyu was first attempted in 1952 by an expedition financed by Great Britain, as a preparation of the Mount Everest climb in the following year. It was led by Eric Shipton and had members Edmund Hillary and Tom Bourdillon. However the attempt failed at an altitude of 6650 meters. It was only two years later, on October 19th, an Austrian expedition succeeded in reaching the summit. Cho Oyu was the fifth mountain above 8000 meters that was climbed in mountaineering history, after Annapurna (1950), Everest (1953), Nanga Parbat (1953) and K2 (1954).
How easy a climb, is Cho Oyu?
The reputation of a mountain being ‘easy’ is a dangerous one. While the grade of difficulty of a mountain peak often goes together with the technical difficulty, it is often overlooked that there is physical aspect as well as the the important factor of the altitude. The latter one causing altitude sickness, the main cause of deaths in mountaineering.
So yes it’s true, Cho Oyu lacks the technical difficulty other 8000 meter peaks do have or even smaller mountains around the world, still an expedition in the Himalayas should be regarded as one of the greatest physical challenges one can engage to. Carrying a heavy pack with gear and food for several weeks in thin air is much harder than on sea level. While most climbers have experience with mountaineering on 4000 and maybe even 5000 meter peaks, reaching the altitude of 8188 meters is of a whole other level.
While sea level often means humans have an effective oxygen level of 20.9% in the air, altitudes above 8000 meters only have an oxygen level of a mere 7.5%, which is only one third of what we are used to. It is a fact that humans can’t survive on this altitude for a longer period of time, why is the reason it is referred to as the Death Zone.
What are the dangers of climbing Cho Oyu?
A Cho Oyu climb offers no really technical sections and the objective dangers are close to non-existent. Yet, this climb has claimed the life of so many people. One of the main reasons is altitude sickness. This can only be prevented by decent acclimatization and even then, it can still occur.
Altitude sickness is a common reason of fatalities in the sport of mountaineering and is caused by a lack of oxygen. Both high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) can prove to be fatal when no measures are taken. It is often hard to diagnose altitude sickness, why is the reason that it often leads to these serious and deadly syndroms. The first symptoms of altitude sickness are similar to a hangover. Headache, nausea and vomiting are the primary ones. However dehydration also comes with headache and is for this reason another diagnose that could be made.
Cho Oyu death rate
Despite the fact that Cho Oyu is regarded as the easiest mountain above 8000 meters, it has claimed the lives of 200 mountaineers since its first ascent in 1954. It has a death ratio of 1,46 which isn’t that high compared to the Annapurna the deadliest mountain with a ratio of 37,91. Still, in actual numbers Cho Oyu has a high death toll.
How to get to Cho Oyu?
Likewise the most famous mountains in the world you will find Cho Oyo on the Everest Massif at the China-Nepal border. Although it’s deeply in the Himalayas, you can easily reach the Base Camp by jeep from the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla or Kathmandu. The drive usually takes about two days to drive, however most organizations tend to stop on the way for acclimatization as you are going from 800 meters to 5150 in one go. Nyalam is the only major city where climbers spend time acclimatizing. Along the way, you will be treated with excellend views of the upper sections of Everest and Cho Oyu. Once at base camp, mountaineers start a easy two day hike to advanced base camp where expedition spend the majority of the time.
What is the best time for climbing Cho Oyu?
As with most Himalayan expeditions, spring is the high season for mountaineering as the days get warmer and there is less chance of snow. Most expeditions start in March and reach their climax around beginning of May.
The Fall season also is an option for expedition but less chosen, since it is the opposite of spring season with colder days and increasingly unstable weather. This has the disadvantage that the weather window could be very short or lacking towards the end of the expedition. In reality, Fall season is often used by guides since they are working on other mountains like Everest during Spring.
Most used routes to the top of Cho Oyu
Cho Oyu is one of a few eight-thousanders, which offers two main routes to the very top.
The first route runs along the Western side, while the second one starts from the Tibetan Village of Tingri. You must have heard about the village as the starting point of the Everest climbing as well as the other Himalayan giants.
The easiest and the most popular route to the top is through the Nangpa La Pass (5716 meters) from Nepal to Tibet.
Nowadays there are a lot of tours are available for those who want to step on the top of Everest Massif. Sherpa service is available if you don’t want to carry the heavy bag. Don’t overestimate your stamina – this climb requires lots of your energy!
The North West Ridge & The South East Ridge
- The North West Ridge
It is the most common route to the summit of Cho Oyu and is also known as the Tichy route. It requires little or no technical skills making it quite popular.
From Kathmadu, you cross the Tibetan Plateau all the way to Chinese Base Camp. It will take a roughly 3 days to Tingri from Kathmadu. There will be a few acclimatization stops in Nylam and Zhangmu.
Once you get to the Base Camp which is about 5,000m, you will proceed to Middle Camp at 5,300m and finally get to Advanced Base Camp which is 5,700m. It will take you a minimum of 10days to get to this point from Kathmadu.
From Advanced Base Camp, trek to Camp 1 which is at 6,400m and is located at the base of the North West ridge. This trail is dotted with a glacier, some snow and loose scree. You will therefore need trekking poles and good ankle support shoes for balance.
Proceeding onwards on this ridge will open onto the North West face and later onto Camp 2 which lies at 7,000m on a huge and flat plateau. The route between Camp1 and Camp two has many unskilled mountaineers and has many fixed ropes. You will climb another headwall that is above Camp 2 to Camp 3 at 7,450m. From Camp 2 to the summit it will take about 7-10 hours.
To get to the summit, trek through a mixture of snow and small rocks onto a wide summit plateau. Pass the long traverse onto a little bump that is considered the actual summit. Incredible views of Mount Everest, Mount Lhotse, the entire Khumbu valley and Cho Oyu itself await you on the true summit.
- The South East Ridge
This route is not popular and is mostly recommended for experienced Alpine climbers. The south west face is accessed from the Tibetan side.
Pavle Kojzek, an alpinist from Slovenia is now famous for using this route on a solo expedition from the Advanced Base Camp via the Gyabrag Lho Glacier in a single push to the summit. He did this in a record fourteen and half hours. The route follows the Polish Ridge and at 7,200m you will find a crux that he bypassed on his right to get to the summit.
Itinerary of a Cho Oyu expedition
A Cho Oyu expedition starts in Kathmandu, Nepal where the last logistics are done such as securing Tibetan visas. From Kathmandu, mountaineers fly to Lhasa and travel further by jeep towards basecamp (5400 meters). This drive takes about two days since most of the climbing organizations visit several Tibetan towns and monasteries along route, while acclimatizing.
When Base Camp is reached, they start a 3 to 4 day easy trek to Advanced Base Camp, which is the place where most mountaineers spend their time after having done acclimatizing treks. At this point, the expedition is 2 to 3 weeks on its way.
The next few weeks is filled with acclimatization hikes, setting up camp I and camp II. After about a month, mountaineers move to Camp III, where they rest before placing a summit attempt.
The cost of a Cho Oyu expedition
The cost of a Cho Oyu expedition varies widely depending on what you want. Commercial expedition with reputable guides often charge 30.000 dollars or more. They often ask for a climbing resume as well to check your experience. Ideally they like to see climbs on mountains like Denali or Aconcagua.
Still, it is possible for everyone to get a spot in a commercial expedition without too many questions asked. However, this never is a very good idea. The cost of the expedition includes all logistics such as transfers, permits, food, gear, bottled oxygen, sherpa services and guides.
Cho Oyu on a budget
However, if you have the time, skills and money, you can try to set up your own expedition and arrange your logistics. Cho Oyu is a serious high-altitude climb so think twice before deciding to skip on guiding costs. If you doubt whether you have the experience of going without guide, opt for a local guide instead, which often costs less than the Western companies.
Another option is to contract local agencies for yaks and porters. Usually,there are lots of mountaineers on Cho Oyu so you would never be truly alone, but bear in mind that in harsh weather or in a medical emergency, you will be on your own.
Getting all the logistics done yourself is a time-consuming endeavor. Basically everything needs to be arranged: permits, travel, hotels, food, gear, routes, communications, emergency contentions, etc. Make the right decision taking your experience level into account. Saving a few thousand dollars is not worth your life.
The expeditions organized by SummitClimb are recommended for mountaineers on a budget. They offer the option of Full Service (15,000 dollar) or Basic (11,000 dollar). This latter one includes transport, permits, taks and medical serviced, but excludes tents, gear, meals, toilets and showers.