The Open Secret is Out: Harila, Gelje, Brownlee Head to Winter Cho Oyu

After weeks of rumors, indirect posts, off-the-record conversations, and purported slips of the tongue in social gatherings, the open secret is no more. Kristin Harila, Gelje Sherpa, and Adriana Brownlee are returning to Cho Oyu. This follows their previous attempt in October and in Gelje’s case, a first winter try last year.

Gelje Sherpa plays Mystery Destination last week on his Instagram stories.

 

Kristin Harila announced yesterday that she received Europe’s Adventurer of the Year award at the ISPO fair. The decision received mixed reactions, given that Harila was a client, led by guides, on fixed ropes, breathing abundant oxygen. Some cited, by comparison, the previous mountaineering-related winners: Simone Moro after his winter climb to Makalu in 2009; Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner for the 14×8,000’ers without O2 in 2011; and Kilian Jornet for his joint trail-running and mountaineering achievements in 2014.

Kristin Harila, European Adventurer of the Year. Photo: ISPO

 

Adriana Brownlee revealed her plans in an interview with Spain’s mainstream sport paper Marca. The outlet dubbed her “la niƱa” (little girl) of the 8,000’ers in the headline. The interview focused on her family background, her motivation to climb, and her beginnings on UK peaks and then the Seven Summits. This culminated with climbing Everest as a member of Nirmal Purja’s team.

The paper stated that it was Nims who suggested she should pursue the 14×8,000’ers. Brownlee postponed her college studies to do it. Her parents reportedly agreed to pay for Everest but said that she would have to work or find sponsors to subsidize the others.

Adriana Brownlee and Gelje Sherpa atop Annapurna. Photo: Adriana Brownlee/Instagram

 

Brownlee, who has now summited 10 of the 14 peaks, told Marca that after Cho Oyu, she’ll go for the Gasherbrums and Shishapangma next year, without O2.

She also admitted that pursuing a record is stressful: “Sometimes you have to go down [from the summit] really fast because in eight hours, you are being airlifted to another BC.”

Not winter yet

According to Marca, Brownlee is already in Nepal and the Cho Oyu expedition begins tomorrow.

Brownlee takes a selfie on the glass of ski goggles.

Adriana Brownlee’s IG story, posted yesterday. Photo: Adriana Brownlee/Instagram

 

Today, December 1, marks the first day of the official winter climbing season in Nepal. However, climbers typically choose to mark time for another three weeks if they want a calendar (and thus controversy-free) winter ascent.

Three questions

The team

There are no further details yet about other members, foreigners or locals. Harila and Brownlee’s upcoming press release on Friday may provide further information. So far, Harila has climbed all her 8,000’ers supported by Pasdawa Sherpa and Dawa Ongchu.

Brownlee always climbs with Gelje Sherpa. Both have always climbed on busy mountains, which involves some troubles but also some benefits. These include well-trodden trails, fixed ropes, and plenty of help at hand if needed.

Things will be different on Cho Oyu. Even if they are supported by a Sherpa team (they are using Seven Summit Treks logistics), they’ll have the mountain to themselves. It will be also interesting to learn who will fix ropes, carry gear, and supply camps. Unless, of course, they intend to climb alpine style, in which case it would be a totally different kind of expedition.

The steep section before Camp 2 on the South Face of Cho Oyu this fall. Video: Csaba Vargas

The route

Their route remains uncertain. Last year, Gelje Sherpa tried a difficult line heading toward Cho Oyu’s East Ridge. It featured some remarkable challenges, including a huge gap above 8,000m requiring a steep rappel followed by a vertical climb. His team had to retreat without ever reaching the ridge.

This fall, Gelje joined Pioneer Adventure on their proposed route up the SSW Ridge. Pioneer had also attempted this last winter, led by Mingma Dorchi Sherpa, and also this fall. We don’t yet know which line this current winter team will follow, but likely they will use the Pioneer route.

Csaba Varga of Hungary, the only Westerner who reached Camp 3 during the fall 2022 attempt, has shared details about the route with ExplorersWeb. He described its difficulties, including a broken glacier at the base, steep, avalanche-prone ramps to Camp 2, and an imposing upper face after Camp 3.

Cho Oyu, below Camp 1. Video: Csaba Vargas

 

In winter, the mountain may be drier than in the post-monsoon fall, but that does not mean easier. Sections of snow may have turned to hard, crystal ice. The broken glacier might be particularly challenging, as on winter K2. And the upper part…well, no one knows what will the climbers find, because no one has been there yet.

The challenge

The climbers have often spoken about their targeted records: Harila wants to beat Nirmal Purja’s six months to complete the 14×8,000’ers. She is ready to restart her count, beginning with Cho Oyu, since even if she succeeds this winter, Shishapangma remains off-limits within Chinese territory, at least until spring.

Meanwhile, Brownlee intends to become the youngest 14×8,000m summiter. And while Gelje may not be able to compete with her in the age category, he can still try to best Sanu Sherpa’s record for climbing the 14 peaks twice, according to Marca.

The summit of Cho Oyu from the SSW Ridge route. Photo: Mingma Dorchi Sherpa

 

However, before we speak of records, the climbers have a long road ahead — a difficult route on unknown terrain, harsh winter conditions, and weeks of isolation. In other words, a winter expedition on an 8,188m peak.

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.