Cho Oyu From Nepal: Why It’s So Hard

Nepali expedition companies are determined to open a commercial route on Cho Oyu’s Nepal side, possibly next winter, possibly sooner. There has been no concrete decision yet, but outfitters and climbers are considering their options.

We spoke to Hungarian climber Csaba Varga and explore why climbing this “easy” 8,000’er is so different on the Nepal side of the mountain.

The route ahead: Two faces of ice and rock

Varga was among a small group of climbers on Cho Oyu last fall. He was the only non-Western climber to ascend a significant part of the route. Going without supplementary O2 or Sherpa support, he advanced alongside the rope-fixing team and reached Camp 3. From what he saw, the route is far from easy.

 

“Climbers say that Cho Oyu from Tibet is pretty straightforward, relatively safe, and with somewhat stable weather. From Nepal, it is the opposite,” Varga told ExplorersWeb. “The route is steep, prone to avalanches, and with rather unpredictable, unstable weather.”

Difficulties on Cho Oyu’s south side begin almost immediately. From Base Camp, the face is only accessible after traversing a heavily broken glacier (above video).

A line of Sherpas climb up Cho Oyu.

Sherpas advanced across the face toward Camp 3. Photo: Csaba Varga

 

“From Camp 1 (5,900m), the route goes up a big, steep face of snow and ice, all the way to Camp 3 at 7,200m, and it is often swept by avalanches,” Varga recalled.

“Above Camp 3, there is a huge plateau, nearly two kilometres long. A plane could land there! The final part is also steep and difficult, a rocky/mixed face with several unopened lines.”

the shadow of a climber on the snow of a huge , flat plateau. Cho Oyu's summit in background, swept by strong wind.

The big plateau and the final summit climb on mixed terrain. Photo: Urken Sherpa

 

Snow, avalanches, wind

“While I was on my way to Camp 2, an avalanche swept through Camp 1 right after I had left and returned to Base Camp. I lost most of my gear. After that, we had to move Camp 1 to a safer place.”

A tent on Cho Oyu's Nepal side sits surrounded by snow, the mountain in the background.

Camp 1 on Cho Oyu’s Nepal side before the avalanche. Photo: Csaba Varga

 

Check out the video of Camp 1 after the avalanche below.

 

The weather was unforgiving during Varga’s entire attempt. Snow fell relentlessly for the first few days. When the skies eventually cleared, the wind was so ferocious that climbing the upper sections of the mountain was impossible.

“In my opinion, we would have stood a better chance if we had got there earlier, by mid-September,” Varga said. “We might have had the same weather window that opened on Manaslu.”

Manaslu was the reason why the Cho Oyu attempt started late in the season. Expedition companies focused their logistics on Manaslu and Dhaulagiri first. After those expeditions finished, they shifted to Cho Oyu.

 

We asked whether the route might be suitable for commercial climbing. Varga thought it was possible: “It is a very nice, challenging route. I really like it. Yet Cho Oyu [from Nepal] will not be an easy 8,000’er. This route is tough, technical, and exposed to avalanches. Cho Oyu from the south face is a totally different mountain.”

Varga has climbed five 8,000’ers. He only purchases logistics support to get to Base Camp, then climbs without O2 or Sherpa support.

 

Is anyone thinking of going back?

Grace Tseng of Taiwan seemed a likely candidate for Cho Oyu from the Nepali side. Still entangled in controversy after she claimed to summit Manaslu without O2 in just 13 hours (equaling Cazzanelli’s FKT), and equally engaged in a race for all 14 8,000’ers, Tseng is in a hurry. However, she told ExplorersWeb that she will instead wait for a permit to climb from Tibet.

Close shot of Csaba with three sherpa climbers on a steep section on snow in background.

Cho Oyu’s south side. Csaba Varga and some Sherpas on the steep route. Photo: Csaba Varga

 

Varga also hopes to return to Cho Oyu’s south side, but not any time soon. “The agencies are determined to have this route opened and commercialized. Opening this route is a matter of pride for Nepali climbers. China may open Cho Oyu or it may not. But even if it did, fees would be much more expensive.”

Pioneer Adventures was the first to eye the south-southwest ridge of Cho Oyu as the most suitable line to open a route. Asked by ExWeb, they explained that they are currently “in the planning phase, but with nothing confirmed yet.”

Lakpa Sherpa of 8K said they were waiting before making a decision. ExWeb has also asked Seven Summit Treks but we have yet to hear back.

Also keen to return are record-seekers Kristin Harila and Adriana Brownlee. ExWeb caught up with them together, since both have been attending the Kendal Mountain Festival in the UK. This is what they had to say:

“Following our autumn expedition [to Cho Oyu’s south side], we feel as though we have unfinished business on Cho Oyu. However, engaging in a winter expedition can’t be a rushed decision and needs organization, funding, and time. [A winter attempt] is possible, it’s just down to the weather, which we already had problems with a month ago.”

Flexibility

Yet the events of recent years show that plans are often concealed or changed. Improved expedition logistics have greatly increased flexibility. Climbers don’t need to prepare for months before an expedition and getting a permit generally involves less red tape than it used to. This is especially true in winter, because it is low season and there is no shortage of base camp workers or Sherpas.

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides is a college-graduated journalist specializing in high-altitude mountaineer and expedition news. She has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of local and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporations, press manager and communication executive, and a published author.