The slow trudge up Cho Oyu
Lipstick Blondes save a man's life...
Claire Maxted from Trail magazine
14 October 2008 14:45
Two members of the Lipstick Blondes mountaineering team became the first people and only ladies to summit Cho Oyu this autumn. The 8201m Himalayan giant Cho Oyu is the world’s 6th highest and known as the most easily obtainable 8000m peak. This September Suzy and Squash found out that this mountain is anything but a push over as they crawled through 100mph winds, fought a constant battle to save their tent from blowing away at 7100m and saved a man’s life on the descent. As we go to press three have died on Cho’s gleaming white slopes. Watch this space for video footage of their trip. First, Trail brings you an exclusive interview with team leader Suzy.
You summited on Oct 2nd! How did it feel?
Very emotional. I have been trying to ski an 8000m peak for five years and managed to ski from 8200m. I was expecting to be out of breath and to collapse but my climbing partner Squash and I were on oxygen so it was absolutely brilliant.
Because that was during a break in the foul weather, right?
Yes, what should have taken us four days took nine. We hung out at 7100m for nights waiting for a break, trying to keep the tent from blowing away, by staying inside it. The sides were blowing in all the time; we were constantly pinning it back down and re-shoving ice axes into the snow. It was a constant battle with a 60mph wind. At that altitude you don’t feel like doing anything, you have to force self to eat even a spoonful soup so it wasn’t very much fun.
How did you get through it?
We tried to keep laughing and smiling. Anyone who got too worn down just had to go back down. Squash is like turning on a happy tap, she’s hilarious. Our favourite joke was that I forgot all my spare pants, including our special summit knickers. We had the same pair, frilly, black with skulls and crossbones, because we thought the combo was funny.
Your tents did actually blow away at one stage didn’t they?
Yes, at camp one (6400m) earlier in the trip, with about 8 other people from our company, the Bristol based Summit Climbs. We spent the whole night trying to survive without getting blown away by the 100mph wind.
Were you scared?
I had a real clarity of thought rather than fear, thinking about how to get ourselves and our kit out of the situation. Lots of people lost kit, but Squash and I were very strategic so we didn’t lose anything. It was ridiculous, we were not even crawling; we were literally sliding on our stomachs jamming our ice axes into the slope, pushing kit in front of ourselves to shelter in a crevasse.
It’s an understatement to say the weather was bad then?
Altogether Summit Climbs had 20 clients and one third left early because of the grim weather. It was really bad this year, September is supposed to be more settled, but I think due to a late monsoon, Nepal had a bumper snowfall and our side, the Tibetan side of the Himalayas got incredible wind.
And you rescued a guy on the way down?
Oh God, it was quite surreal. Descending from Camp Three to Camp Two in the dark on summit day we found a snowblind Chinese man in the dark sitting in the snow with his headlight flashing.
“I’m waiting to be rescued by my team,” he said.
“How do they know you’re in trouble?” we asked.
“Because I’m calling them with my flashing headlamp,” he said.
Basecamp was miles away, they would never have seen him. So, we half crawled half dragged him down, otherwise he would have died there. What should have taken us half an hour took three.
Had he been abandoned by his team?
He might have got separated from them, that summit day was really chaotic. His team were very surprised to see him when we got them reunited, I think he was called Tim. He called us his “Snow Angels,” - we were the only women on the mountain. He was so grateful.
What else happened in the summit day chaos?
People were falling 100s of metres. One died on our summit day and two the day after. One of these, a Canadian guy, ended up outside our tent, and we were woken on the third day after summiting to a guy saying, “Did you know there is a dead man outside your tent?” I didn’t want to look. An American guy died from I think a stroke or cerebral edema, and a Slovenian guy died abseiling down, I think because he caught his crampon, got flicked up-side-down and bashed his head on a rock. It shows that you must make sure your basic skill levels are really, really good.
Does this ever make you think, “I’m not going to do this again?”
No. These people had pushed themselves too far. We knew the American and Slovenian were both not feeling good and were struggling, from Camp 2 and 3 respectively, but they just carried on. The Slovenian guy said to us, “No, I’m not bothered about the summit, I’m just here to have fun,” but he still continued.
Why do you think this was?
Ego and pride can get in the way of making the sensible decision; to turn back. It seems some people, when they set out to climb an 8000m peak, would rather summit and die than turn around. People don’t listen to their bodies. And also it is difficult to hear your body in that extreme environment. That’s why it is important to have done quite a few other mountains previously, so you learn how to hear your body when it's very confused at altitude.
How long had you been training for this?
I wasn’t really in training, but I had a five year plan. Five years ago I had zero mountaineering skills, but, starting with Aconcagua with the Lipstick Blondes in 2003 I climbed a mountain per year, improving my skills and deciding to combine mountaineering with skiing. Descending Aconcagua I was thinking, “This descent is rubbish, where are my skis?”
So can any normal walker climb Cho Oyu?
Yes. Definitely. To do it, you need to have a really clear idea about what your goal is and then set intermediary journey goals. Firstly, I would go on a course winter mountaineering skills course. You have to make sure your mountaineering skills are way better than the trekking company says they need to be because you never know what is going to happen.
What might happen?
Due to extreme weather on Cho Oyu, the Sherpas couldn’t get up to fix the regular six fixed ropes for people to jumar up the mountain on ascenders (clipping into a secure rope with a device that lets you climb upwards but grips the rope if you slip or fall down). Squash and I were basically free climbing up Cho Oyu. I was shocked at people’s lack of mountaineering experience on Cho Oyu, and it is those people who have the real difficulties.
What big mountain would you climb first?
Kili. You ascend so quickly you feel really ill from the altitude (almost 6000m) at the top. I’ve never felt that ill since, so I think it’s a good test ground. If you can handle that sickness feeling you can do pretty much any other peak a lot slower.
You made a film of your last year’s trip, to Mustag Ata (a 7546m Chinese summit), which made the top three at Kendal Mountain Film Fest. Did you make another on Cho?
Yes, for the Short Film category. It was quite tricky mainly because we could only take one tiny handy Camera as the Chinese were being very strict about visas etc. I don’t know what the quality will be like. [Watch this space for a sneak preview soon!]
It is one of my dreams to ski down Everest. It’s so expensive I would have to get sponsorship.
Read the Lipstick Blondes colourful blog and keep an eye out for the sneak preview of their video, coming soon.