Unclimbed – Make it or break it

I’m exhausted and I’ve barely slept an hour. Numerous times throughout the night I awoke to the feeling of snow slamming against the back of the tent. The thin nylon North Face walls were being struck with what seemed like endless amounts of snow. With each blast I couldn’t help but think: Is this it?

After a perilous night on the ledge, I check my watch for the tenth time and it now reads 6:30am. I poke my head outside the tent window, expecting grey overcast skies, and instead I’m awe-stuck by the stunning beautifully lit south face of Mt. Cho Oyu, the 6th highest mountain on Earth. We heard there might be a summit window over on the North Side of Cho Oyu in Tibet, a mountain I summited in 2011. Maybe the Monsoon is finally going to give us a break? Wouldn’t that be nice!

I force myself to eat a less than stellar 525 calorie Pad-Thai dehydrated breakfast with peanut butter and the three of us gear up for our final push to camp 1. We’ve been working on this route for a week straight and I know that we are less than 200m beneath camp 1. The current problem is that there are giant ice walls surrounding us and we have no idea which one to climb to access the upper part of the mountain. If we go left, we need to traverse a dangerous pass and then scale a 70-degree ice wall with no guarantee of an access point to camp 1. We decide as team that we’re going to go right, climb vertically through deep snow and use the higher vantage point to scout the best line to reach camp.

PK leads the pitch and I watch in awe as he masterfully and almost effortlessly climbs high and disappears from my viewpoint. I nervously wait, trembling in the early morning mountain environment. Unfortunately, my gloves and socks are only half dry and I worry about my fingers as I sit and wait patiently for word from Pasang. I know deep down that if this last effort turns out to be another impasse, we’re likely going to have to turn around and descend.

“Elia, Elia, do you copy, over”.

I take the walkie-talkie out from my bag, turn the volume up and press and hold the send button.

“Yes, PK, I copy, what do you see?”

“There is no way. We can’t go from this way. There is a 90-degree ice wall and no guarantee of what’s on the other side. If we climb left, there is a big hole and no way to reach the plateau. I’m coming down.”

My heart sunk deep into my chest as I realized that once again, we were met with a dead end. As I watched PK down climb towards us, feelings of sheer disappointment went through my body. We worked incredibly hard to reach this point, and for what? We surmounted every obstacle placed in our path. We endured hardship never-ending, climbed in deep snow, carved out a ledge with our ice axes in the night and even slept exposed on the side of the mountain in a tent. And we’re now faced with another dead end? This is the challenge of climbing an unclimbed mountain. Investing your time, heart, soul and energy into one route can lead to absolutely nowhere – and this is exactly where we are. Again! For the second time in two weeks, we once again know exactly which way not to go.

“We need to get down and out of this weather that’s forming. These blue skies aren’t going to last”. I said to PK.

“Ok. Sorry.”

“Sorry? t’s not your fault my friend. No need to be sorry. We both made the decision to come this way. The most important thing now is to get down safely. That’s all that matters”.

Regrettably, PK, Kusang and I descend through the ever changing and deteriorating Monsoon weather to basecamp. With us comes all of the snow pickets, rope and ice screws that we arduously placed along the path we created and for hours we down-climb to the top of the couloir where Gabriel had his accident.

“What now?” PK asks.

“Honestly, PK. I have no idea”.

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