Cho Oyu North Face: Interview with Louis Rousseau

A small, lightweight team on a dark and steep north face, via a new route into the deathzone

Louis Rousseau is well known to veterans at Pythom/Explorersweb. Most notably, the French-Canadian climbed via a new route on Nanga Parbat (8125m) with late Gerfried Göschl and the two also made an attempt to winter climb Gasherbrum I (8080m) in a new line.

Instigator of the upcoming new route attempt on Cho Oyu north face; Rousseaus’ return to the top of the world is true to his ideas about what makes mountaineering worthwhile.

High altitude climbs are notorious for the toll they take on the human body. The winds are brutal, the temperatures frigid. The thin air turns blood into a black, thick slur clogging the human system.

Unable to oxygenize, the brain, the lungs, the entire body bloats. It becomes hard to think, breathe, eat, sleep and walk. Not to mention to climb.

On the north faces you go from bad to worse. Shaded, such walls cause temperatures – and human spirits – drop even more.

Steep North Faces – not all have them

Not all peaks have an obvious, base to summit, north face.

Pending criteria, among the fourteen 8000ers, only four are prominent. Everest, K2, Dhaulagiri and Cho Oyu. (Some add Broad Peak).

Other north faces among the 8000ers either don’t face direct north or are shorter.

And there is more.

Among the 8000ers, Cho Oyu generally counts as the easiest peak to climb. That is, if you go the normal route.

Scaling the north face becomes a different story.

Cho Oyu’s NF is steeper than Everest NF (45deg) and about on level with K2 NF and Dhaulagiri NF (+50deg).

Everest north face has been scaled by a handful of expeditions, K2’s NF is unclimbed. (Some veteran climbers actually consider it impossible to climb.) The 2000 meter tall Dhaulagiri NF only had one successful (direct) climb, interestingly the British/Russian team included current expedition member Rick Allen. Also Cho Oyu’s north face has been climbed successfully only once before.

We caught up with Louis to get his take on the situation ahead.

Pythom: What made you choose Cho Oyu north face as your target?

Louis Rousseau: After a pause of 5 years away from the Himalayas, the stars have aligned for me for a nice come back.

As you know, I shared rope with Austrian Himalayan climber Gerfried Goeschl from 2007. In winter 2011, Gerfried, Alex Txikon and I made the first winter attempt on G1.

Sadly, in 2012 during a second winter attempt on the peak Gerfried disappeared with Nisar Hussain and Cedric Hahlen.

Before this tragedy, Gerfried and I planned many other projects on different 8000 meters peaks. New routes, first mountain traverses, off season ascent, etc.

Like a heritage, I still have in my possession all these ideas and related information. An archive of images, logistics and climbing strategy.

After some more research on Cho Oyu and with the help of Marko Prezlj and Anton “Tone” Škarja I figured out a great plan to climb a new line on the north face of the mountain.

So I called Adam Bielecki to ask him if he would like to try a new route in Tibet. The answer was YES, right away!

I feel this project is mainly to pursuit the dream I had with Gerfried, to explore new alpine terrain.

Pythom: Your team consist of climbers with proven achievement, each bringing unique experiences to the table (Mazeno ridge, virgin 8000er winter climb etc). How will you use those differences and how did you hook up in the first place?

Louis Rousseau:u2028 The north face of Cho Oyu is an amazing objective. Four kilometers wide and more than 2000 meters high! It’s going to be tough for sure!

That’s why we needed a kick ass team to increase our chance of success. I asked Rick Allen and Adam asked Felix Berg and both accepted. We all come with a different background and different skills, but one thing we truly have in common, we love high altitude climbing!

I know Rick Allen from 2009. We climbed Nanga Parbat together during the acclimatization phase. He did the summit with Sandy Allan a day before me. In summer 2011 I climbed on Gasherbrum I, again with Rick. I know Adam from winter 2011. I was on G1 and he was on Broad Peak. After our respective expeditions, both teams had dinner in Islamabad. Felix is a friend of Adam so he invited him.

Pythom: Cho Oyu’s NF is steeper than Everest and about as steep as K2 NF. Do you think this is one of the biggest challenges among the 8000ers today?

Louis Rousseau:u2028 No I don’t think so, there are scarier ideas than that! Regarding our chance of success, I’m writing this answer sitting comfortably in my chair so at this point I can only truly say that I don’t know.

This wall is steep and almost unexplored; it is really exceptional for an 8000 meter mountain. We will know more about our chances when we see the face for the first time and of course everything will mostly depend on the weather and the climbing conditions.

I’m a “let’s go and find out” kind of guy. I always went on expeditions with doubts about reaching or not reaching the summit. For me the motivation and the guts come from the route itself. Yes, it’s great to reach a summit, but it is way more fun to each day discover new ground with great partners. I learned this on Nanga Parbat in 2009.

In terms of weather we will get the help from the Himalayan meteorologist, Karl Gabl. Thanks to Gerfried, I got weather forecasts from Mr. Gabl during all my expeditions since since 2007.

(Editor’s note: A legend and life line for many veteran Himalaya mountaineers; Karl Gabl has decades of experience forecasting difficult mountain weather on extreme altitudes.)

Pythom: Can you walk us through the main obstacles of the face and your planned route?

Louis Rousseau:u2028 As described by Marko Prezelj, the north wall is steep and highly technical. The main obstacles might be the combination of the unknown, the northern aspect of the face, the technical sections, the steepness of the wall, the high altitude and the long plateau to cross above 8000m.

Pythom: What will be your strategy? You are mentioning an alpine style attempt. If that fails, will you consider a classic expedition style?

Louis Rousseau: With this project, we hope to contribute to the tradition of lightweight climbing on the world’s highest peaks. That’s why we will climb in clean, self-supported style. Expedition style is not an alternative, and we didn’t bring fixed ropes anyway.

Pythom: Which are the main dangerous features/sections on the wall that you anticipate?

Louis Rousseau: As I mentioned, the wall is steep so it could become hard to find good spots for bivouac. Also if we reach the plateau, it’s going to be a long way above 8000m to reach the summit and a long way to get back down.

Pythom: Finally, if you reach the summit – will you descend standard route?

Louis Rousseau: Yes, it’s an option, but it also means we must carry all our gear to the summit and down. Personally, it’s not my first choice. There is only one way to find out!

Details about the expedition


Interview with Louis Rousseau: “K2 in winter still remains a challenge” (Andrzej Zawada)

Winter GI commentary: ExWeb interview with Louis Rousseau, “It’s a mixed challenge of survival and mountaineering”

ExWeb interview with Louis Rousseau: “Friends fight, brothers fight – then become stronger together”