The lack of oxygen was sapping my strength and my lungs were working overtime. Behind me, en route to the summit of the world’s sixth-highest mountain, one of my climbing partners was struggling with a pounding headache and a black spot in his vision.
Unknown to me, the oxygen supply to the nerves in the back of his eye was becoming interrupted. It was time for him to forget about the top and to descend in order to avoid irreparable damage to his sight. Of our team of three visiting climbers, I was now the sole member still heading towards the summit of Cho Oyu.
Lying on the border of Tibet and Nepal within eyeshot of Mount Everest, Cho Oyu was first climbed 60 years ago. These days, the mountain is often described as one of the easier 8,000-metre peaks. But far from being a gentle introduction to life above the clouds, it challenged me on every day of my six-week expedition.
HOT AND BOTHERED
Before my departure for Tibet, I had expected that the cold Himalayan weather would cause me the most physical discomfort. In reality, it was the impressively high daytime temperatures that quickly became my main enemy. The sun’s rays reflected off the snow and ice, intensifying the heat and penetrating my clothing.
My philosophy on expeditions has always been that prevention, and not cure, is best. As a redhead with a pale complexion, I had to take extra precautions to protect myself from the sun. I wore light-coloured base layers to help regulate my temperature, as well as a peaked hat with an integral neck protector.
I applied a thick suncream with a sun-protection factor of 50 to ward off the wind as well as the sun. The cream also helped to stop my skin becoming dry, broken and sore. Feeling hot, greasy and sweaty was unavoidable on a cloudless day.
Although I hated feeling dirty and smelly, a proper wash was a rare treat. I found wet wipes to be the easiest way to stay clean. I also carried a tiny bottle of perfume. Its scent lifted my spirits, even if it only temporarily masked my body odour. I made use of the full-length zips on my trousers to vent my legs in high temperatures and occasionally bathed my legs with a handful of ice.
The cold air at high altitude is incredibly dry. It irritates your throat to a debilitating extent. I breathed through my nostrils instead of my mouth and climbed with a thin fabric neck gaiter over my mouth and nose to help re-circulate moist air.
I guarded against snow blindness with sunglasses. At night, I kept them in a solid case to prevent them from being damaged in the cramped tent.
When I decided to try to reach Cho Oyu’s 8,201-metre summit, the highest altitude to which I had previously ascended was 4,167 metres. I found it difficult to appreciate what climbing an 8,000-metre peak might feel like. Most of my questions revolved around the effect of high altitude on my body. Unsurprisingly, our team’s acclimatisation programme was a daily topic of conversation. We monitored our blood oxygen saturations using a pulse oximeter. Even before I reached Base Camp, the percentage of oxygen in my blood had dropped to below 90 per cent. At home, I would have almost certainly been hospitalised.
It didn’t take long for altitude headaches to come on. I became used to climbing with a dull ache in my skull. Painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen relieved the discomfort most of the time. The challenge for me was to understand my body and learn how it reacted to the thin air – there’s a fine line between a persistent headache and the more serious medical condition known as acute mountain sickness.
Although altitude affects the sleep patterns of many climbers on 8,000-metre peaks, I found that a lattice arrangement of closed-cell foam mats and inflatable mattresses enabled me to enjoy a good night’s rest. My self-inflating mattress became one of my most treasured mementos when fellow mountaineers drew sketches and wrote anecdotes on it.
Getting to the top of Cho Oyu requires patience. I experienced a lot of downtime as I waited for my body to acclimatise and for favourable weather to arrive. By the end of the expedition, the number of days I had spent travelling to, and waiting at, Base Camp exceeded the number of days I had spent climbing.
I found the mornings on Cho Oyu to be the most testing time of each day. Common sense told me to rise early in order to avoid climbing when the sun reached its zenith. But at the same time, crawling out of my down sleeping bag when the inside of the tent was coated in ice was the last thing I wanted to do.
I would lie there thinking, ‘I’ll just wait another half hour until the sun hits the tent and the temperature notches up a few degrees.’ Before long, the ice would start to melt. The water would drip onto my sleeping bag and I would wish that I had risen earlier.
At the start of the expedition, I was guilty of taking too long to get ready each morning. I quickly learnt to reduce my ‘faff factor’ and to prepare efficiently so that no-one was forced to wait for me in the cold. I got into the habit of putting away clothing and equipment in the same stuff sack or pocket each time, and eventually began to take some satisfaction from being able to find items in the dark by touch alone.
My attitude on Cho Oyu was the most important thing. At 1.57 metres tall and weighing only 57 kilograms, I was never going to be able to compete physically with climbers who were taller, stronger and faster than me. However, I never thought the summit was beyond me. I employed a tortoise rather than a hare approach, ascending steadily and efficiently.
That said, a serac wall at 6,800 metres forced every climber to move incredibly slowly, no matter how strong they were. I clipped into the fixed ropes on the serac and felt safe as I took a step, paused to regain control of my breathing and then continued with the next step.
Suddenly, a whishing noise cut through my thoughts. Before I realised what was happening, an aluminium oxygen cylinder hurtled past my head. It narrowly missed me and the rest of the team. I had been alert to avalanches, rockfalls and ice debris falling from above, but this was a scary reminder that human error could also be a threat to our safety.
NO TURNING BACK
As the end of September approached, I remembered that our climbing permit was due to expire soon. So far during that climbing season, not one climber had reached the summit. And now a severe weather system was approaching, bringing with it 80-knot winds.
I was devastated when our summit attempt was subsequently called off. There had only been two years during the previous 17 when the summit of Cho Oyu had been unreachable. It was difficult to believe that this was going be the third.
I began to pack my bags, but we then received a report from Sherpas climbing high on the peak that despite heavy snowfall, all bar one of our tents at Camp 2 were still standing.
Our summit attempt was back on. I did one final kit check – ensuring that I had packed my brand new summit socks – and then began my final ascent from Advance Base Camp.
When I vomited in the tent at Camp 2 three days later, I questioned whether I should continue. Despite the nausea, I forced down some chocolate, sipped a hot malt drink and prepared for the ten-hour climb to the summit.
I paid particular attention to my feet: I wanted to do everything I could to avoid frostbite. I stuck toe warmers to my unworn socks, making sure that there was enough wriggle room for my toes inside my triple-insulated boots. I knew that even with the most technically advanced kit, I wasn’t immune to frostbite. The trick was to recognise the difference between the sensation of cold and numb toes.
We left Camp 2 in the dark with our head torches lighting the way. After a few hours, I heard over the radio that two climbers had turned around. One of them was a team-mate. I didn’t know why he’d had to head back, but I was upset and worried about him. Nevertheless, I continued with my Sherpa, Lhakpa Thundu.
ON A HIGH
Only when the sun rose did the exposure become apparent. I reminded myself to concentrate on my footwork. I increased the oxygen supply to my mask for the final 100 metres of vertical ascent.
Then, after eight hours of climbing, I stood on the plateau that forms the summit of Cho Oyu. I will always remember what it felt like to reach the top. I was exhausted and on a high, both literally and figuratively. Using a small digital camera, I took a photograph of another Himalayan giant to the east: Everest.
Less than seven months later, I stood on the summit of Everest. While I was enjoying the sensation of being on top of the world, I looked across to Cho Oyu and remembered my time on the mountain upon which I had served my 8,000-metre apprenticeship.
Tori James is a speaker, adventurer and consultant. Her book Peak Performance describes her ascent of Mount Everest. Tori’s next expedition is a straight-line journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats. www.torijames.com
It goes without saying that climbing any of the world’s 8,000-metre peaks is an experience like no other. Having the most effective equipment might not make things easier, but it might help you avoid any unnecessary complications. Tori recommends taking high-altitude boots, down gloves with an integral nose-wipe strip and a portable urinal
Mountain Equipment Couloir Gore-Tex gloves
These hard-wearing leather gloves are comfortable, dextrous and great for ropework. The pile and fleece lining includes a waterproof and breathable Gore-Tex insert
Crafted from a single piece of aluminium and fitted with a comfortable grip, the Ascension works by sliding up a fixed rope, before biting into the sheath when the climber pulls down on the device in order to heave herself up. It’s simple to operate while wearing Couloir gloves
3. High-altitude mountaineering boot
£580/2.64 kilograms (pair size 8)
Insulated with PrimaLoft and protected with an integral Gore-Tex gaiter, with a Vibram sole compatible with most crampons. The inner boot can be removed so you can keep it warm in your sleeping bag at night
4. Stuff sack
Exped Fold Drybag Ultralight
£8.50/28 grams (medium)
I use these waterproof eight-litre bags to compress clothing and make maximum use of space in my rucksack. The ripstop nylon is coated with silicone on the outside and polyurethane on the inside
Mountain Hardwear Monkey Woman jacket
The warmest and most comfortable fleece I’ve ever worn. The Polartec ThermalPro Monkey Phur fabric traps a layer of body heat even in windy conditions. A stretch hem and stretch cuffs help to seal in even more warmth
Oakley Warm Up
Oakley’s ‘Asian Fit’ is perfect for my small face. The Warm Up provides good peripheral vision without any light leakage. The polarised lenses are made from Oakley’s ‘Plutonite’ material, which filters out 100 per cent of UVA, UVB and UVC, as well as blue light up to 400 nanometres
Smartwool Mountaineering Extra Heavy Crew
These are great socks for sub-zero conditions. The extra-heavy cushioning helped to keep my feet warm at 8,000 metres and wicked moisture away to keep my skin dry
8. Pee bottle
Nalgene Wide Mouth Cantene
For safety reasons, it’s sometimes sensible to avoid leaving the tent to go to the toilet. This three-litre wide-mouth bottle worked brilliantly as a receptacle (no funnel required). It can be collapsed when not in use to reduce bulk in the rucksack and to help avoid confusion with drinking vessels
9. Sleeping mat
Therm-a-Rest Women’s ProLite Plus
I chose this 1.57-metre mattress for its insulation rating, which is higher than that of the unisex version. Although designed to be self-inflating, at altitude it sometimes required some additional air
PHD Omega down mitts
These come with idiot loops to help prevent loss in windy conditions, as well as an integral nose-wipe strip – pretty much essential at high altitude. The 800-fill power down is protected by PHD’s 2-layer Tempest fabric
This story was published in the May 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine