Mystery Cho Oyu South Side Climber is Young Record-Seeker

One of the season’s mysteries is out of the bag, to the disappointment of those hoping for a bold solo climb tackling a difficult 8,000m face. The single foreigner with a permit to climb Cho Oyu from its sheer Nepali side is Alasdair McKenzie, a 19-year-old record seeker. He will climb fully supported by five sherpas from Seven Summit Treks.

Born on June 20, 2004, Mckenzie aims to become the youngest 14×8,000m summiter. He needs Cho Oyu to get ahead of other contenders such as Nima Rinji Sherpa and Shehroze Kashif. With Cho Oyu, he would be level with Adriana Brownlee (who is already 23).

Mckenzie is determined to finish the quest at age 20, and here lies the problem. The Chinese don’t care for records and have kept the Tibetan mountains closed.

McKenzie was originally a member of the huge Seven Summit Treks team aiming to climb Shisha Pangma. However, Chinese authorities did not grant their permits, and the Scottish-French climber searched for an alternative target. He eventually decided to try Cho Oyu from the south, despite the fact that the four teams who had tried over the last three years all failed.

McKenzie points to a Guinness World Record certificate framed

McKenzie with his first Guinness World Record certificate as the youngest Lhotse summiter. Photo: Alasdair Mckenzie

Peaks on the run

Mckenzie (who lives in Tignes, France) first climbed the Matterhorn at 16. He switched to the Himalaya in 2021 for a first try at climbing Baruntse. Originally, he was a member of an EliteExped expedition, with whom he climbed 8,516m Lhotse before his 18th birthday. According to Guinness World Records (GWR), he climbed the mountain in four days and summited on May 15, 2022.

Mckenzie then switched outfitters and went mainly with Seven Summit Treks. More GWR certificates followed at a pace that would have been unbelievable 10 years ago but has now become, if not the norm, a plausible option, if fitness, determination, time, and money are not a problem. In 2022, after Lhotse, he summited Makalu and attempted Dhaulagiri and Manaslu.

Last year, he ticked off 10 peaks: Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, Everest, Kangchenjunga, Nanga Parbat, Broad Peak, K2, Gasherbrums I and II, and Manaslu. He has summited all the peaks with supplementary oxygen and sherpa support.

McKenzie can be hardly recognized with cap and O2 mask, on a flattish summit in a foggy day.

Alasdair McKenzie on the summit of Broad Peak, summer 2023. Photo: Alasdair McKenzie

The Cho Oyu plan

Unless there are last-minute additions, Mckenzie will climb Cho Oyu from its south face as the only foreigner. He will be supported by Mingtemba Sherpa, Chhangba Sherpa, Wangbak Sherpa, Phurba Sherpa, and Lakpa Tenji Sherpa, the Everest Chronicle reported.

While this is a personal project for Mckenzie, Nepali expedition operators have spent the last few years trying to find a route suitable to commercialize on Cho Oyu’s south side. The problem is that there is no easy way to the top from Nepal. Only a handful of highly skilled alpinists have dared attempt its sheer faces and ridges. Few have succeeded. For a commercial approach, teams would need strong sherpa staff, plenty of ropes and oxygen, and many high camps.

Two strong sherpa teams, led respectively by Mingma Dorchi Sherpa of Pioneer Adventure and by Gelje Sherpa, attempted to find this coveted “commercial route” in the winter of 2021-22. Mingma Dorchi tried the SSW ridge and reached 7,700m. Gelje’s team, climbing from the Gokyo side, reportedly reached 7,900m.

The teams tried again in fall 2022, hoping to find less harsh conditions, and record-seekers Kristin Harila and Adriana Brownlee launched another attempt at the beginning of winter, under the leadership of Gelje Sherpa. High winds didn’t let them go very far.

Last fall, a Russian team under Andrei Vasiliev made a promising attempt on the SSW ridge but eventually ran out of time and retreated without reaching the summit. The Russians encountered long, difficult sections on the ridges leading to the headwall. These sections looked highly technical, as the photo below shows.

A formidable face of rock and ice, the south face of Cho Oyu

Cho Oyu headwall from the south side. Photo: Andrei Vasiliev

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.