Gelje Sherpa on His New Route Up the South Side of Cho Oyu

Last week, at the very end of the climbing season, a team of seven Nepalese and client Alasdair McKenzie of France summited Cho Oyu from the difficult south side.

It was Gelje Sherpa who led the team to the summit up a completely new section of the SSW Ridge. We asked the Nepalese star for details about this tantalizing new route.

Gelje’s beginnings

Gelje is one of the best-known sherpa climbers of the current Himalayan scene. He began as an Icefall Doctor, laying ropes and ladders through the unstable seracs of Everest’s Khumbu Icefall. It is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

Gelje Sherpa survived and became a high-altitude guide. Soon, he emerged as one of the best of a new generation of sherpa climbers. Gelje helped Nirmal Purja on his 14 Peaks project. A little later, he became the youngest on the Nepalese team to climb K2 in the winter of 2021.

A viral video further spread his reputation as a hard man. It showed him at 8,400m on the Balcony on Everest, carrying a sick climber down on his back.

Gelje had two dreams: to start his own company and to climb Cho Oyu from the South Side. This year, he has fulfilled both. He shared with ExplorersWeb how it feels.

From Everest to Cho Oyu

In May, Gelje led a team to the summit of Everest — the first Everest climb outfitted by his own company, AGA Adventures, which he started with Adriana Brownlee.

“From Everest, I flew to Kathmandu for some days of rest,” he told ExplorersWeb. “There, I learned the Cho Oyu expedition was still ongoing, but the team was about to give up. They lacked enough manpower and didn’t know the route, so they [Seven Summit Treks] asked me to go and help as head sherpa. They also knew it was my dream, so I immediately accepted.”

The team had previously been up to 7,600m. From there, they tried to launch a summit push but ran out of ropes and enough oxygen for a summit push. Seven Summit Treks sent new supplies. They also brought other sherpas to replace those team members who were sick or too exhausted by then.

“With the new gear, we were able to launch the final summit push, but it was not easy,” recalled Gelje. “The upper part involved climbing up a couloir overloaded with fresh snow, and we used all the new rope there. Luckily, after the couloir, the climb was not so technical, so we went the rest of the way to the summit without ropes.”

A rockly face split in two by a dihedral and a thin couloir heading to the higher peak

The upper sections of Cho Oyu, with a narrow snow couloir between two huge outcrops. Photo: Gelje Sherpa

The route’s commercial future

“We took the route from the Thame side,” he continued. “It is definitely more technical than any normal route on the 8,000’ers. It has a long approach to the upper parts, mostly on rock and ice, and the final couloir is also quite technical.”

Gelje said the team traversed some sections with a high risk of avalanches, given the amount of snow. He also mentioned the stress of climbing against the clock since the season was about to end.

Climbers at a high camp on the south side og Cho Oyu

Climbers on Cho Oyu some days ago. Photo: Seven Summit Treks


Gelje said he was not aware of which route the Russian team followed last fall, but Gelje and his team followed more or less the same line eyed by Mingma Dorchi Sherpa, up the SSW ridge until Camp 3 at 7,400m.

“From that point,” he said, “we climbed a totally new route.”

Gelje has not forgotten his first attempt to climb Cho Oyu from Nepal when he attempted an even more difficult route.

“That was four years ago, and we didn’t have enough manpower to climb that route, not to mention that we attempted it in winter.

Gelje tried again in the fall of 2022, but bad weather thwarted that too. “Finally, I am proud to have had a chance to fulfill my dream.”

The team celebrates their Cho Oyu summit in Kathmandu. Photo: Purna Lopchan


The new route is not for everyone

Gelje highlighted teamwork as a key part of the ascent, especially during the rope fixing. He said that Alasdair McKenzie also helped carry ropes.

In addition to a client’s project and Gelje’s dream, Seven Summit Treks and other Nepalese operators have hoped for years to open a route on the South Side of Cho Oyu, in Nepal. It would make them less dependent on the whims of the China-Tibet Mountaineering Association. China has often kept its peaks closed in recent years.

In Gelje’s opinion, the new route can be used commercially, although it is not suitable for beginners. “Not all clients will be able to go here, but those with previous experience on other 8,000’ers and advanced climbing skills may do it.”

Gelje is now in Kathmandu, resting for a few days before heading off to guide the 8,000’ers in Pakistan, followed by Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro.

“I want to keep guiding in the mountains for at least five more years,” he says. “Then we’ll see how it goes, but I might then start assigning other sherpas with that job.”

Now that he has his own company, he has that flexibility and more. “Now I do not have to ask for jobs or assignments,” he said. “Now I decide which jobs to take and I have the ability to provide jobs for other people who need it.”

a tent by a serac in a rough section of Cho Oyu

Expedition on a lonely Cho Oyu. Photo: Seven Summit Treks

The achievement

The Seven Summit Treks team summited Cho Oyu on June 7 at 8:35 pm in the dark. Summiters were Gelje Sherpa and Tenging Gyaljen Sherpa leading the rope-fixing team, followed by Alasdair McKenzie, Chhangba Sherpa, Lakpa Temba Sherpa, Lakpa Tenji Sherpa, and Ngima Ongda Sherpa.

Other Nepalese climbers also participated in the expedition — the work took weeks — but not all joined the final summit push. The climb was done in modern siege style, fixing ropes along the route, with plenty of oxygen. They replaced sherpa members as needed.

The route will receive the name of the outfitter (SST – Nepal Route). But Gelje dedicates the line to his late friend Ashok Rai. Rai perished in 2022 in a fire that engulfed Elite Exped’s headquarters in Kathmandu, where he worked.

“Ashok was my brother, who always supported me in the dream of opening a route to Cho Oyu from Nepal and had a main organizational role during my first attempt in the winter of 2022,” said Gelje.

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides graduated university in journalism and specializes in high-altitude mountaineering 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.