CHO OYU, 1988
First Solo-Winter Ascent of an 8000 m Peak
6 FEBRUARY 1988. It was very cold. I had just a few minutes of daylight to take some photos on the Cho Oyu summit. At 6201 m in wintertime and nearly dark, it was not really nice. I could not enjoy it at all. Besides I was worried about the way down, in the darkness, without any moonlight. So I stayed on the summit just for five minutes.
I started to think about going to Cho Oyu only two months before departure, when I had just arrived from an expedition to Everest. That one was a big expedition to the north wall (Tibet side). We could not reach the summit and I also had got a lot of personal problems with my companions. So, after all that I felt very bad and I was in need of doing something that made me feel all right again. I like climbing alone ... I like altitude . . . and I thought that nobody had still climbed alone an 8000 peak in winter. Why could I not be the first?
In just one month I laid on everything that I needed for the expedition. That was a real busy month and I had to work very hard. Thanks to the help of Maribel, my wife, I could carry out nil the preparations. She wanted to go along with me, but it would be very hard for her because winter in the Himalaya is really cold even in the base camp, so she stayed at home.
19 December 1987. I leave Spain alone. In a short time I collected the climbing permit issued by the Nepal Government, Once I arrived in Nepal, I hired a mail-runner and a young Sherpa. He .stayed with me during the whole expedition, cooking, translating, and in addition to all that, he was a very good friend.
We spent 14 days to reach the first base camp 5200 m. We started On our way with some porters who carried all the material and food up to Namche Bazar, and from there, crossing Thame, we made use of yaks. I like this animal. It is strong, peaceful and so beautiful with its long hair and good balance when it walks on the ice. After a few days in the first base camp, we moved ahead because it was too far away from the mountain.
Base Camp: The Kingdom of the Cold
Tenzing and I stayed alone in the new base camp 5450 m. We hnd arranged two tents over the ice of the glacier. We kept the material, food and the 'kitchen' into the big one. The small one was our 'bedroom'.
Altitude was not my main problem. I felt O.K., maybe because of the fact that I had been at 8700 m a few months ago. The real problem was the cold. Temperature was below 0°C during the whole expedition, reaching - 35°C (in sunny weather) in the base camp. Everything was frozen and we always had to melt snow for cooking and drinking.
Weather is quite steady during wintertime in the Himalaya with no precipitations or clouds, therefore I think that in the future there will be an increasing number of winter expeditions that will take advantage of this good weather. In spite of all we were frightened of the wind that blew; very strong and cold.
22, 23 and 24 January, wind became a hurricane and blew down both our tents. That incident put us down and may be those days were the worst ones on the expedition. When the strong wind calmed, Tenzing built an ingenious rocky hut where we could live comfortably during the rest of our time in the base camp.
One day we met a caravan of yaks coming from Tibet. They were carrying salt, meat and leather to Nepal. It was an astonishing sight for me to see those people dressed as 300 years ago and walking along the ice of the glacier.
Tenzing helped me to carry food and material up to 5850 m, where we set up one tent. From there I wanted to climb completely alone.
On 1 February it was fair weather and I felt O.K., so I decided to go up to the top. I took my rucksack, climbing material, tent, gas and very little food because I am not hungry at all when I am at high altitude, and then I only have tea, coffee, sugar, powdered milk, biscuits, toast and proteins. I do not like artificial oxygen.
I said goodbye to my friend Tenzing and I set off alone. He remained there (5850 m) during my ascent to take photos with the telescope. We had not got any radio because I had not enough money to afford such a thing. In Spain I got very few sponsors and I had to pay a lot of my own money to carry out this expedition. In any case it was worthwhile.
So I was alone. Firstly I crossed the glacier and climbed the stony slope for one day up to 6450 m where I set up my small tent to sleep that night.
Next day I could not carry on upwards because it was too windy, and I had to stay there until the weather was better. After two nights at 6450 m the wind stopped and I went on climbing. My plans were to sleep one night at 7000 m and another one at 7600 m before reaching the summit. At 6800 m I crossed the ice barrier, which was not quite vertical but I had to pass across it very carefully because of the pure ice and the fatal risk in the event of a fall. Meanwhile I was thinking about the way down without any rope. That worried me.
During all the way up the mountain I was climbing with crampons as the snow was very hard. That fact helped me a lot because it allowed me to go up faster, without having to make a track on the snow layer.
At 7000 m I put my tent in a crevasse. There I saw a very beautiful sunset. First the snow became yellow, then orange, red, pink and lastly violet. Next day I could not leave that place because the wind was so strong that I had to hold the tent tight to avoid its tearing. I was afraid of starting to fly over Cho Oyu inside my tent.
During my second night at 7000 m I thought that I should decide whether to go up or down because I know very well that at 7000 m you get more and more feeble each day. I spent the time thinking about it. I could not sleep.
It was 1 a.m. and the wind slackened a little bit, but the cold was very deep, about -45°C. That is what I think because I had not got any thermometer. At last I decided to try the ascent, but just in one day, and leaving my tent there. I should climb 1200 m up to the summit.
I spent many hours before getting out of my tent. I felt very lazy. I put on two pairs of overboots, three pairs of gloves and my down jacket and I did all this inside my sleeping bag.
At last I could go out at seven in the morning. In my rucksack I had only the sleeping bag, gloves and glasses in reserve, a lantern and my camera. In hand my old ice axe that I have used for nine years and it always brought me good luck. I left the tent there, all the food and the gas.
I hurried up and did not stop a lot. That was the reason why I took very few photos of myself. Besides it was too complicated because I had to screw the camera on the ice axe, then setting the automatic release and start to run in order to appear in the photo.
At 7600 m I left my rucksack and so I could go up to the rock barrier faster. At that moment I was obsessed by arriving to the summit in daylight. I did not care about coming down in the dark, J only thought of going up without any stop. When my hands got frozen, mainly that one which held the ice axe, I stopped, took my gloves off, and placed the fingers in direct touch with the hottest part of my body: my genitals.
At 7800 m the barrier is usually an upright snow slope but in winter it is a 30 m rock and ice step. In spite of all it was not very hard to climb. At 8000 m in a long traverse to the right, the wind hit my face, my nose was as hard as nails and my lips stuck to each other. The daylight was getting over and I wondered if I could arrive at the summit.
Someone is coming along . . .
I never had felt something like that before. It seemed to me that someone was coming along. I had read in books that some climbers had experienced it, but it was something quite new for me. And those people were Arabs! I spoke to them in my mind and told to be careful of the most difficult places. Of course, nobody answered.
8150 m. I took my crampons out because the snow was over, and ran as hard as I could up to the summit. A few metres before reaching the top I stopped and took several photos taking advantage of the last sunshine. Then I looked for the highest point and went through the rim of the little plain of the summit.
I did not get excited or enjoyed those ten minutes that I was on the summit of the Cho Oyu looking for some summit trophies left by former expeditions. I only found some rocks piled up and an empty bottle of oxygen. I did not have any flag, only a photograph of my wife and closest relations. My intention was leaving that photo there as a proof of my climbing, but finally I did not feel like. . . . The surrounding was not pleasant and the place was not nice either
Descent in the darkness
I started to go down very fast to find the place where I had left my crampons. I arrived there just before the darkness was total. No moonlight. It had taken eleven hours to climb 1200 m from my tent. How long would it take to descend? With the head-lamp I put on the crampons after working more than half an hour to fit them properly in spite of the fact that they were automatic. They should not get loose!
I was not afraid because I was concentrating on the difficult situation in which I was. My mind was worried following the small marks left by my feet during the ascent.
I felt some fear when I began to see everything blurred. I wondered if it would be because of the altitude or may be my eyes were blind because I did not wear glasses.
I went down the rocky barrier very badly, almost crawling. It was dark, I could not see and my hands were frozen. I even thought of waiting for the dawn to descend the barrier, but finally I decided to go on because I could not bear that deep cold without any protection.
At 7600 m I found my sleeping bag and got into it for a while to get warm and rest behind a rock. Then I felt lazy and decided to wait for the dawn to go down to my tent. Because of the cold I shivered and could not sleep. Really a bivouac in winter at 7600 m without any tent is very hard. The worst memory of that night is the thirst. My mouth was completely dry and I ate little pieces of ice to get some feeling of moisture. Finally the rising sun appeared.
That day I could only go down to my tent at 7000 m because I was very tired. Next day I took down my tent and kept on going downwards very slowly, sitting on the snow every few steps. Altitude and bivouac had got me more feeble than I could imagine, and so it took me nearly an hour to descend the 50 m ice-barrier.
Before reaching the camp at 5850 m I saw Tenzing and felt very happy. At that moment, for the first time, I realized that I had achieved my aim. I felt deeply stirred and cried as a child.
We walked to the tent and I told him about the ascent endlessly. Tie had seen me the whole way up with the telescope and even took some photos when I was on the summit.
While we waited for yaks at the base camp to go back to the inhabited world, I felt OK.., very relaxed and happy.
The Sherpa and his son arrived with the yaks. I watched them as they did the packing without any gloves and wearing slippers as if they did not care about the cold and the altitude.
When we were going down, the child, aged ten, walked with a load heavier than mine. After walking for twelve hours I was completely exhausted and he was still smiling. Then I wondered: Really, am I the mountaineer that has succeeded in carrying out an ascent never made before in winter?