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The author of this story, Charlie Fowler, and his climbing partner Christine Boskoff both died tragically in China in November of 2006 while attempting to summit several peaks that had never before been climbed.
In May 2000, a trek in Tibet on the north side of Everest whetted my summit appetite. Everest. I wanted to climb it someday, so I began pulling an expedition together to test myself on the slightly lower peaks of Cho Oyu and Shishapangma. Who knew we'd set a "downhill" record!
In late August 2000, Andrew, Jim, Laura, Christine, and I flew to Kathmandu. We were met by our cook, Pasang, and his helper, Chuldin, both of Asian Trekking, the Sherpa-owned company expediting our trip.
While Christine attended to the details of organizing her group on Cho Oyu, the rest of us spent a few days in Kathmandu sightseeing and shopping.
Then we parted; Andrew, Jim, Laura, and I headed out for the border of Tibet by truck; Christine and her team took a flight to Lhasa.
Monsoon rains washed out large portions of the highway, and the four-hour drive to the border turned into an all-day affair. We spent the night in Zhangmu, and then headed to the next town, Nyalam. Thirty kilometers from the town we encountered another landslide, which had blocked the road. We were forced to carry our gear across the washed- out highway to trucks waiting on the other side.
We spent a few days acclimating in Nyalam, which is over 12000 feet, and then drove over the Tang La to the village of Tringri. It was here, seeing Nomads and soldiers in an uneasy co-existence, that I finally felt I was back in Tibet.
Chinese Basecamp, one and a half hours from Tingri, is our yak pick-up point. Most parties breeze through here on the way to Advanced Basecamp (ABC).
We spent three days here, acclimating with hikes and plenty of bouldering.
ABC, at 5800 meters, is another two days away and just shy of the Nangpa La, the main trade route into the Khumbu region.
The regular route on Cho Oyu, which we planned to attempt, is considered the easiest on an 8000-meter peak, and quite popular.
There were well over 20 teams sharing moraine camp with us-big commercial groups, national teams, sponsored expeditions, and several private groups such as ours.
After a couple days rest we began carrying loads up to Camp One at 6500 meters.
Many teams use Sherpa support to establish camps and rig fixed lines, but we climbed self-supported. After a night at Camp One, we returned to ABC for a few more days of rest.
Andrew was not feeling well, but the rest of us were fine. Chris arrived with her group and began her ascent as well.
Jim, Laura, and I returned for another night at Camp One, and then carried on to Camp Two, at 7000 meters, the next day.
The routes follow a broad ridge of snow, with a short ice cliff offering the only technical challenge in this section. We spent one night at Camp Two and returned to ABC the next day.
Back at ABC we took five days of rest-lounging, socializing, and enjoying Pasang's cooking-to prepare for the summit push. We were anxious to be on our way up, but knew how important it was to rest up before our attempt.
Andrew was initially bolstered by the rest and joined us for the climb. We stumbled, once again, across the glacier and up a loose scree slope to spend another night at Camp One. Next day Jim, Laura, and I slogged to Camp Two, but Andrew wasn't up to continuing and returned to ABC. On the third day we continued up to Camp Three at 7400 meters. Not long after our arrival, Jim decided to call it quits as well. He simply stepped into his skis and disappeared over the edge.
Laura and I felt well enough to continue. We slept a few hours, then got up at midnight. At 1:30 am, after hot drinks and a light breakfast, we donned our headlamps and headed up. Other climbers were on our trail and heading for the summit. They eventually passed us. We climbed slowly, conserving our energy. Laura patiently dragged her skis.
Not long out of camp the route passes through a short, steep band of rock and ice, and then evens out into a straightforward snow-slog. The final push to the summit is the psychological, as well as the physical crux. We crossed the nearly flat summit plateau, now well above 8000 meters. I reached the summit at 11:30 am. Laura joined me a few minutes later.
After snapping a few photos of her, with Mount Everest in the background, we turned to make our descent. Laura strapped on her skis, and I descended retracing our line of ascent. I watched as Laura zigzagged her way down, traversing often to avoid cliff bands and avalanche-prone slopes.
It was survival skiing to be sure, and she set off a few small slides. We arrived at Camp 3 in the late afternoon, tired but very happy. After melting snow and wolfing down a good meal, we crashed for the night. The next day we packed up camp and continued our descent, with Laura still on skis.
We passed Chris on her way up to Camp 3 for a summit push. We paused at Camp 2 to collect more of our gear and continued down. At the ice cliff above Camp 1, Laura took off her skis and rappelled, carrying her skis the rest of the way.
I opted for a night at Camp 1, and joined Laura at ABC the next day. Our yaks would arrive in a few days; and in the meantime we would rest and watch Chris's progress high on the mountain. Unfortunately, her summit climb was thwarted by high winds and down she came.
On September 29, the five of us departed from ABC and re-traced our journey back to Tingri, then Nyalam, where we had a rest day and got organized for Shishapangma.
On October 2, we hiked two days from Nyalam to basecamp on the south side of Shishapangma.
Chris and I pitched our tent not far from a memorial chorten to Alex Lowe and David Bridges, who were tragically killed in their fall 1999 attempt of the same face we hoped to climb.
The south face of Shishapangma is over 2000 meters high. It was first climbed in 1982 by a strong team of British alpinists. Since that time, only a few other routes have been done. Chris and I hoped to do a new line to the left of the British route, but after a day at the base contemplating conditions, we changed our plans and decided to repeat the safer-looking British route instead.
Chris and I were well acclimated and spent only one day at basecamp before starting to climb. We left on October 7. Andrew, Jim, and Laura plan to follow in a few days with their skis in tow as before.
Crossing the glacier, we headed up a rocky rib that defines the lower part of the route. The climbing was easy, but after some time we rope up.
With Chris in the lead, we climbed simultaneously, clipping the occasional fixed gear or placing ice screws.
Just before sunset we arrived at our first bivouac and pitched our small tent on the crest of a wildly narrow ridge.
We lay in bed until the sun hit our tent the next morning. With me in the lead, we continued up steep snow slopes.
After lunch, Chris took over the lead and climbed through a section of mixed terrain, which proved to be the technical crux of the climb.
In the mid afternoon we discovered an ice cave, dug out by a Korean team that had successfully done the route earlier in the season. We settled in for our second bivy.
The next day, we made a relatively short climb to another ice cave at 7650 meters. We stopped here and rested up for our summit push the next morning.
At 5 am we left our shelter with only light packs. As the climbing appeared to be easy, we even dispensed with the rope to save weight. Until then the weather had been ideal, but that morning high winds whipped off the summit, and it seemed like a storm was moving in. Nevertheless, we carried on and arrived at the top at 10 am in blustery winds and mist. We snapped a few photos and without further dallying, cruised back to our high camp.
We picked up our stash and continued down to the lower ice cave and crashed for the night. The storm did not materialize, allowing us to continue our descent the next day in balmy weather. At the foot of the mountain we paused for a long rest, then worked our way across the loose moraine toward basecamp. As luck would have it, we ran into Laura and two American trekkers out for a day hike. Laura, Jim, and Andrew had abandoned their ski attempt and were now waiting for Chris and me to return. Following the hiker's lead, we stumbled into camp right at dinnertime.
The following day Jim headed down to town to fetch our yaks-a couple day turnaround. We arrived back in Nyalam 12 days after leaving there. Once back in the thick of the hustle and bustle and chaos of Kathmandu, and I already felt a pull to return to the big mountains.
Charlie Fowler is a certified mountain guide, and has been guiding trips overseas for more than 15 years. He is a member of the American Mountain Guides Association and has served as an instructor and exams assessor with the AMGA. Fowler also works as a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. His future expedition plans include trips to China, Patagonia, and Everest.
When not on expedition you can also find Charlie with his colleagues at www.MountainMadness.com