Cho Oyu FAQ
Tibet
26,907 feet 8201 meters
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Cho Oyu is considered one of the 'easy' 8000 meter mountains. I am focusing on the North West Ridge since it is the normal route and the one I took in 1998. I am asked many questions about climbing especially since I am not a professional climber. So here are the most popular questions with my answers. As always, this information is based on my experience and are my opinions so always consult with a professional before making any serious climbing decisions.

About Cho Oyu Training, Gear & Communication Expedition Basics My Experience

About Cho Oyu

Q: Where is Cho Oyu?
A: It is located on the border of Tibet (China) and Nepal. Cho Oyu (pronounced Choy -O-U) is a massif that is 30 miles west of Everest. It is the 6th highest mountain on earth at 26,907' and has a reputation as one of the easier 8000m mountains. The nearest airports are Kathmandu or Lhasa. But most people fly into Kathmandu and take about a week by jeep to reach base camp in Tibet. It can be climbed from Nepal, but this is rare. View Larger Map

Q: When is it usually climbed?
A: As with most Himalayan peaks, Spring is best since every day it gets warmer with less threat of snow. However since winter can still be around, the snow slopes and the ice wall can be quite treacherous with frozen precipitation.The Fall season is just the opposite with colder days and increasingly unstable weather. I climbed in September and had OK weather but we had severe snow towards the end of the expedition that stopped the climb for most of our team and all the other expeditions. Most guides climb in the Fall since they are occupied with Everest in the Spring.

Q: I understand that Cho Oyu is an easy 8000m climb. How hard is it?
A: It is not 'easy' - no 8000 meter mountain is easy. It is a serious high-altitude mountain where climbers lose their lives every year - 2 people died in the Fall of 2008. While the actually climbing is not difficult, meaning you are not climbing with crampons on smooth rock or doing extensive rock climbing; it is quite taxing given the altitude. The route is usually set with a fixed line from Camp 1 higher. There are two sections that present challenges to some climbers: the 150' ice wall and the Yellow Band at 24,600'. Both are not huge issues but at the high altitude it takes a toll on your body and mind.

Q: How does Cho Oyu compare with Denali or Aconcagua?
A: It is a longer climb but similar to Denali in that you climb on steep snow slopes most of the time but obviously at a significantly higher altitude. Also you are using fixed ropes continuously from Camp 1 on. Finally on Denali you are pulling a sled with personal and group gear whereas on Cho Oyu Sherpas usually carry the tents, food and stoves while you carry your personal gear including clothing and sleeping bag and pads. It is measurably more difficult than Aconcagua due to the snow, weather and length of the expedition.

Q: How does Cho Oyu compare with Everest or other 8,000m peaks?
A: It is a great training climb for aspiring Everest climbers to see how their body reacts to high altitude - 8,000m. It is very similar to Shishapangma and Broad Peak except that Broad has more sustained steep climbing. There are no features like Everest's Lhotse Face or Hillary Step on Cho Oyu but the overall atmosphere is similar.

Q: Is a Cho Oyu climb dangerous?
A: Absolutely. You should only attempt Cho Oyu if you have the proper experience and logistics for emergency situations. It is isolated and helicopter resource is not available. Most deaths are a result of falls but the weather and altitude also takes it's toll.

Q: How many people had summited and how many people had died trying?
A: According to 8000ers.com 41 people have died with about 2700 summits.

Training, Gear & Communication:

Q: How did you train for this climb?
A: I did a lot of running for aerobic conditioning and climbed Mont Blanc multiple times prior to leaving. I wished I had been in better aerobic condition in hindsight since it was tough above 8000m for me.

Q: Was altitude a problem on this climb?
A: Yes, it is always a challenge on 8,000m climbs. We used supplemental oxygen for the summit push. Altitude can be a problem for anyone above 8,000', much less when you are going above 22,000'. To acclimatize en route, the travel to base camp takes about a week along including a few side climbs. We climbed to 16,000' one day just to acclimatize in Nyalam. As usual when you climb big mountains, you follow the climb high, sleep low routine. On my Cho Oyu climb we had one climber who became sick at base camp, 15,500', and never really recovered. Sadly another climber died at C2 after summiting. We buried him in a crevasse and never really knew why he died.

Q: Can you prepare for the altitude?
A: Not really. The common approach is to move slowly up the mountain (1000' a day maximum) spending your days at a higher altitude than where you sleep up until your summit bid. The human body simply does not function well at high altitudes and especially above 8000m (26,300'). As you go higher, the barometric pressure decreases, although the air still contains 21% oxygen, every breath contains less molecules of oxygen.

Everest legend Tom Hornbein explained it to the American Lung Association this way:

The lower oxygen stimulates chemoreceptors that initiate an increase in breathing, resulting in a lowering of the partial pressure of CO2 and hence more alkaline blood pH. The kidneys begin to unload bicarbonate to compensate. Though this adaptation can take many days, up to 80% occurs just in the first 48 to 72 hours. There are many other physiologic changes going on, among them the stimulus of low oxygen to release the hormone, erythropoietin to stimulate more red blood cell production, a physiological and still acceptable form of blood doping that enhances endurance performance at low altitudes. Adaptive changes are not always good for one’s health. Some South American high altitude residents can have what’s called chronic mountain sickness, resulting from too many red blood cells; their blood can be up to 84-85% red blood cells. The increased blood viscosity and sometimes associated pulmonary hypertension can result in right heart failure.

You cannot do much to acclimatize while at a low altitude but there are companies that claim to help the acclimatization process through specially designed tents that simulate the reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations. I have no personal experience with these systems but you can find more details at the Hypoxico website. They cost about $7,000 or can be rented for about $170 a week. Outside Magazine posted an article in 2013 questioning their effectiveness.

Q: What kind of equipment did you use?
Click for a larger view of my Everest gear. A: Mostly I use the same gear I used on Everest. I use a 3 layer system: base, warmth and wind/cold. My personal technical equipment included a long handle ice axe, harness, carabineers and crampons. It is always critical to protect my toes, fingers and face since these were most susceptible to frost bite. See my gear page for a complete discussion and my gear list updated for 2013. I am very pleased with all my gear but had a few standouts that I note on my gear page.

Q: Anything special in your gear for Cho Oyu?
A: I used everything on my gear page under Cho Oyu including the full down suit. It can be extremely cold and windy so multiple down layers are required. My boots were the Everest One Sports.

Q: Did you use Sat Phones?
A: I climbed it in 1997 so Thuraya was not available which is what I (and other Cho Oyu teams) use today. For details on my expedition communications, please see this tutorial.


Expedition Basics

Q: Which route is most popular?
A: The North West ridge from Tibet is the most popular. Slovenian mountaineer Pavle Kozjek climbed a new route on the Southwest Face in 2006 but it is not usually offered by commercial guides.

Q: How long will it take?
A: A week to get to base camp, 4 weeks on the mountain and about week to get back to Kathmandu or Lhasa. Count on 6 to 7 weeks total.

Q: How much does a standard climb cost with and without a guide?
A: The costs can range from $13,000 to $20,000 depending on who you use. If you use a logistics company only, you cut the highest cost by a third perhaps. See my Guide page for more details.

Q: Do I need a permit to climb?
A: As of 2008, the rules have drastically changed. The Chinese now require climbing permits to be issued after 5 days upon arrival in Kathmandu (or Lhasa, I assume). The entire team must be present. Another permit must be issued by the Chinese military at a post near Tingri. There may be other new requirements that are revealed so make sure you climb with an operator with experience with these new rules to prevent delays and disappointment.

Q: Do I really need a guide for Cho Oyu?
A: You will need help getting a permit and entering Tibet at a minimum. Once there, It all depends on your skills, money and time available. Cho Oyu is a serious high-altitude climb. Some people go to Cho Oyu without a formal guide and contract with local agencies for yaks, porters or carry everything themselves. There are usually a lot of climbers on Cho Oyu so you would probably not be alone but easily could be. In harsh weather (white-outs) or in a medical emergency, you will be on your own so consider your skill level carefully. Climbing alone or in too small of a team is never a good idea.

Q: Are there local guides for Cho Oyu?
A: Yes but the Chinese have made significant changes recently favoring only Tibetan guides, cooks, porters and staff. You will definitely need some type of assistance. There are many quality choices based out of Kathmandu that can help with logistics. Some are less expensive than traditional Western companies but most charge about the same price. My usual advice is to get recent references from a climber with a similar background and skill level as yourself. Get everything in writing. Finally ask about food, group gear and language skills.

Q: How do you get on an expedition to climb Cho Oyu?
A:
Most reputable guides ask for your climbing resume and require some serious climbing experience. Ideally they want to see climbs of Denali or Aconcagua. But most anyone can get on a Cho Oyu commercial expedition these days without many questions so be careful who you select since you may get caught up in a mess.

Q: What is involved if I plan my own climb?
A: Basically everything: permits, travel, hotels, food, gear, routes, communications, emergency contentions - everything. There are local companies in Katmandu who can provide some services such as getting food or heavy tents to base camp. And some can provide a Sherpa at low costs. You can save a lot of money this way but as I said before, consider your skills in the event that something goes wrong - are you 100% self sufficient? What are your medical skills? HAPE and HACE are really possibilities on Cho Oyu - do you have the proper medicine and training to deal with it? And a hundred more questions. See my guide page for more. Again, climbing alone or in small teams is never a good idea. Saving a few thousand dollars is not worth your life.

My 1998 Experience

Q: Did you summit?
A: I reached the summit plateau at 8000m just short of the true summit. It was late in the day and too dangerous for me to go higher and return safely.

Q: Why did you choose Adventure Consultants as a guide service in 1998?
A: I was new to high altitude climbing and knew of their reputation from "Into Thin Air". I spoke with Guy Cotter and felt good about his company at that time.

Q: How did they perform?
A: They didn't! With a week to go Guy called and cancelled the climb. I ended up going with Eric Simonson's IMG. They were OK but I was disappointed with the attitude of the lead guide and some of the group equipment. Remember that this was ten years ago but I would still get current references on any guide service before committing your time and money.

Q: Which route did you take?
A: The standard Northwest ridge. We had camps at 18.5K, 20.6K, 22K, 24.5K to the summit at 26.9K. It was a blast to climb. Lot's of long snow slopes with some interesting spots such as the Ice Wall and the Yellow Band. The views were fantastic. My favorite site was Camp 1 with a view of the steep scree slope below and the high ridges above.

Q: What kind of weather conditions did you have?
A: It was cold - very cold and hot, very hot! The trek to ABC was nice but lower climbs to C1 and C2 were brutally hot. But the summit push was quite cold and windy.

Q: Do you think anything is different now in 2008?
A: Cho Oyu has become a very popular mountain and has been extremely crowded. But with the Chinese closing Everest and Cho Oyu to 2008 spring climbs everything is different The fall of 2008 saw only a few teams and less than 100 summits - compared with 300 in 2007. Time will tell how the Chinese treat Everest, Cho Oyu and Shishapangma in the future so I suggest going with proven operators with good relations with the Chinese such as IMG, Altitude Junkies or Project Himalaya.

Q: Did you use bottled oxygen?
A: Yes, we started using oxygen at 2 lpm on the summit push from Camp 3.

Q: Would you climb Cho Oyu again?
A: I would like to reach the official summit point since I reached the plateau at 8000m. But I would only go if it was with good friends and preferably on a small expedition with competent staff and support.


Bottom Line

Cho Oyu is a nice climb especially for your first 8000m mountain. But there are many complications as of 2008 with the new Chinese regulations and attitude. The actually climbing is enjoyable and satisfying. Seeing Tibet is educational and inspirational. But if the complications continue to grow, the Nepal climb of Manaslu may be the best alternative for a first 8000m climb.