Gelje Sherpa’s Big Gamble: A New Route on Winter Cho Oyu, From Nepal

Gelje Sherpa is trying to become the youngest 14x8000er summiter ever, but the odds seem against him. He has no sponsors, two peaks left in two different foreign countries, and only 11 months left. Mingma David Sherpa, the current youngest, finished his list at age 30 years and five months. Gelje is ready to go to extremes to surpass that.

Currently, Gelje has only Broad Peak and Cho Oyu to go. He plans to climb Cho Oyu this winter, but not by the straightforward Tibetan route. With China closed to foreigners, Gelje will attempt the 8,188m peak via a new route from his own country.

The challenge is huge. Only 14 people, according to Mingma G, have ever summited Cho Oyu from Nepal. Denis Urubko and Boris Deshesko did it last, in 2009.

Unlike the normal route from China, the peak’s southern side is highly difficult and exposed. If we add winter to the equation, we get an extraordinary venture, fit only for the very best. But Gelje, though only 29, fits that category.

“This would be the 13th peak in my 14×8,000’er challenge [and] my sixth expedition to winter 8,000’ers,” Gelje told Explorersweb. “If I succeed, it will be my second winter 8,000m summit after last year’s K2.

Cho Oyu’s south side from Gokyo. Photo: Solukhumbu Treks and Expedition


Gelje has a route up Cho Oyu in mind.

“I checked a potential route during a helicopter flight last year,” Gelje said. “Also, three members in the team have been at Cho Oyu’s South Side Base Camp and are familiar with the route. Finally, I fully trust in my climbing partners’ wide experience.”

There is much at stake, both for Gelje and Nepal. If he succeeds on Cho Oyu, this may be the alternative that Nepali outfitters have long sought, one that does not depend on China’s complicated regulations.

A Sherpa leader

But there is something even more important at stake with Cho Oyu. For the first time in his career — and in the history of most Sherpa climbers — Gelje will succeed without piggybacking as a guide for others. This time, he wants to be the leader of his own all-Nepali team. And he is not short of volunteers.

Gelje Sherpa on his most recent 8,000m summit, Kangchenjunga. Photo: Gelje Sherpa


So far, the list of confirmed climbers includes Nima Dorji Sherpa, Tenging Gyaljen, Pemba Sherpa, Mingma Sherpa, Karma Sherpa, IFMGA guide Vinayak Malla, plus some Base Camp staff.

“The list is not final, though,” Gelje told ExplorersWeb. “If I obtain enough funding, I’d like to add at least three more climbers in order to have as strong a team as possible.” He has obviously learned a lesson from Winter K2, where the combined effort of 10 strong Nepalis was the key to success.

Funding is currently the main issue. With no sponsors, he is trying to raise about $66,000 through a Gofundme page. Other Nepali climbers are trying to help by spreading the word. We heard about it from Mingma G, who was also one of the Winter K2 summiters. Mingma, however, is not joining Gelje on Cho Oyu. “My family does not agree with it,” he explains.

Gelje ticked off two peaks of his list this year: Lhotse in spring and Kangchenjunga in fall. After Cho Oyu, he will need to go to Pakistan for Broad Peak. He’ll have all summer to do so.

The next generation

“They say we are nice guys, but I want to be the world’s BADASS!” Gelje wrote on Instagram this week. This is a good sign for the younger generation of ambitious Sherpa climbers, eager to grab their opportunities and leave behind the old patronizing image of the patient Buddhist, smiling with a huge load on his back. Gelje is used to being recognized in Nepal as a climbing celebrity. And yes, he is surely a nice guy too.

Only a few years ago, he was risking his life as Ice Doctor at Everest’s Khumbu Icefall. Alex Txikon hired him to help on his first winter attempt on Everest and counted on him for subsequent expeditions. So when Gelje joined the Winter K2 expedition as its youngest member, he was also the most experienced at dealing with 8,000m peaks at that time of year.

Like Mingma David, Gelje climbed most of his 8,000’ers as part of Nirmal Purja’s 14×8,000’er project. However, while Mingma David is Purja’s business partner at Elite Exped, Gelje freelances for several outfitters. Most recently, Dolma Outdoor hired him to guide Grace Tseng on Kangchenjunga and Seven Summit Treks contracted him on Ama Dablam shortly after.

His dream, however, as he told us in a previous interview, is to start his own company and give his two kids an easier life than his. Nevertheless, mountains are more than a job for Gelje. They are, he suggests,  “my dream, my passion, my life.”