|At the summit with Lhakpa Rangdu Sherpa - half a year later we'll be on top of Mt Everest together.|
The extreme altitude of 8,000-meter peaks is called a death zone. At that altitude, the human body starts to die. The air there is only 30-40 percent, barely enough to sustain human life. Acclimatization at that level is impossible because the body starts to shut down. The digestive system stops functioning while the other vital organs slowly dies. Advanced form of AMS such as pulmonary and cerebral edema are other potential problems. The extreme conditions in a death zone make summiting quite a challenge. The summit isn’t a place for humans. A climb to the peak is an endeavor sitting between extreme adventure and insanity.
My challenge was to raise the Philippine flag on one of these death zone peaks, a first for the country.
After a short acclimatization trip in Langtang, I went back to Kathmandu and finally met my climb team.
After a couple days for last-minute shopping and preparation, we moved to the Nepal-Tibet border, stayed overnight in Zangmu where we happily ate Chinese chow that was a welcome departure from Nepali-Indian fare.
There was one truck for our gear and supplies good for five to six weeks, another two off-road four by four vehicles and later 27 yaks from the Chinese base camp to the advanced base camp (ABC). We carried at least 35 kgs. of personal gear or around 230-250 liters in backpack size terms, enough to last us five weeks without a wash of garment. Who wanted to wash in sub-zero temperature?
We moved to Nayalam and stayed another night. We traveled quickly by jeep and gained significant altitude, and it was dangerous for us. We hit the trail to climb high, sleep low or to acclimatize ourselves for the next stop. It was also a good stretch after a few days of rest in Kathmandu.
After the mountainous road to Nayalam that reminded me of the Sierra Madre, we moved to Tingri (4,400 meters) and saw the real Tibet, a flat, endless plateau with an average altitude of 15,000 feet. There were miles and miles of empty, arid, desolate land broken by occasional sightings of a Tibetan, leading herds of goat and sheep.
I felt all right in Tingri and hiked at my own pace during the acclimatization trek in a nearby mountain. I hoped I would remain in this acclimatized condition during our summit bid. I guessed that it would be one easy climb. I was mistaken.
We stayed for one night before moving to gain more significant altitude at the Chinese base camp (4,900 meters). I couldn’t recall why the camp was called as such, but I guessed that the Chinese Mountaineering Association designated it theirs. Most people considered ABC as the real base camp.The Chinese camp was more a logistics transition point. Yaks were used from this point instead of motor vehicles.
We stayed at the Chinese base camp for a full three days to ensure our bodies were fine-tuned for the higher camps. On the second day, we hiked up for another acclimatization. I felt sick and immediately vomited after an hour of walking with 150 meters of altitude gained. I turned back alone and concluded it was best to rest. I was sick for two days but still able to eat. I told myself, “I’ll live.”
After three days of rest, we moved to the intermediate base camp (IBC) of 5,200 meters. Other teams went straight to the ABC, but some got sick due to the sudden change of altitude. My two teammates – Mike and Peter, also felt the effects of the altitude. It was almost a flat trek on a long, gradual incline, but it took them a while to reach the camp. I felt fine on the trek up to IBC and later to ABC.
During those days, I had a glimpse of the Tibetan way of life. Tibetans generally spoke Tibetan. A few knew a few words of English. There was no chance for me to learn more because of time constraints and limited interaction. It was either they didn’t like foreigners or they were very reserved. I heard stories about them from our Sherpa guides. They said once a Tibetan woman married, she was considered married to all her husband’s brothers. The wife was thought to be common property. I found this odd. I also learned that it was irrelevant who the offspring’s father was because the entire family shared the same property.
Tibetans lived a difficult life with scarce resources around them. Like the Sherpas, they were of Mongol origin, not Chinese. Their lifestyle was simple and religious.
I read about their struggles in the book Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer, the first man to climb the Carstensz Pyramid. In the latter part of his book, he detailed the chaos and war brought about by the Chinese invasion of Tibet after World War II. Some six million Tibetans mostly freedom fighters, died while the Dalai Lama went on exile to India. That was the time Harrer left Tibet.
To this day, the fight for Tibetan freedom continues, led by the Dalai Lama. Support mostly comes from overseas. It was common to see “Free Tibet” flags flying. Even some visitors wore a piece of clothing with these words as a form of protest against the Chinese occupants. We were warned not to openly show support for the Tibetans or else we would offend the Chinese.
Though remote, Tibet remained an alluring place to visit because it was pristine and far from any chaotic metropolis.
After one night at the IBC, we walked to the real base camp, ABC. It was better to sit there because it was close to the target mountain and there was a magnificent 360º degree view. That was our home for the next few weeks.
The camp (5,700 meters) was like a mini-city with a hundred tents of various shapes, sizes and colors. It was the highest city I had ever been to. We each had a tent that could fit our bulky gear. There was a big kitchen, dining tents and a tiny toilet tent. A big part of the camp was sitting on a glacier - moraine and boulders covered the ice.
The view was perfect with majestic Cho Oyu to the east and nice mountains and crystal-white glaciers all around. The view from my tent was to the south where I saw Nangpa La, the popular pass between Tibet and Nepal. Tibetan traders had used this pass to transport goods since the early days, but the Chinese closed it.
A year after my Cho Oyu climb, we heard the shocking news that Chinese border guards shot several unarmed Tibetans who were crossing Nangpa La on their way to Nepal. The Pinoy Everest team witnessed the shooting. Given the chest-high snow in the pass, the Tibetans couldn’t move fast away from the trigger-happy soldiers. That made them sitting ducks who didn’t stand a chance. Among those killed was a nun. Several were hurt and 32 arrested.
Imagine the shock of those Cho Oyu climbers resting at ABC when the shooting started. A Romanian climber-photographer among them was able to film parts of the incident that made headlines around the world.
ABC the tent city was like a flea market on a Saturday morning. Yaks dropped supplies from time to time. Crows, doves and other birds hovered in the sky, snatching food near the kitchen tents. Hundreds of climbers of varied backgrounds and nationalities chatted with fellow climbers or walked to fight boredom.
My team sorted out our gear, excited for the tough days ahead. We didn’t realize until dinner time that our Australian teammate was suffering from AMS. He said his head was “exploding”. He was sick the entire night, couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep and wanted to bang his head against a wall to ease the pain. He seriously thought of going down for good the next day.
He was still sick the next day but felt better after he took some medicine. He improved some more the day after.
We did our Puja on the third day at ABC. This Sherpa ritual sought to appease the gods so we could have a safe journey. No matter what our beliefs were the Puja was taken seriously. We all wanted to be protected up there.
Afterwards, the Sherpas put up colorful prayer flags around the camp. We had a mini altar on a big rock where Sherpas burned incense for the next several days.
After the ceremony, we took off for the high camps at a leisurely pace so we could acclimatize. After the walk, we realized that our plan to climb high, sleep low to reach Camp 1 wasn’t feasible given our deteriorating state. We had to balance acclimatizing and saving strength at the same time. After his headache at ABC, Peter announced that he did not want to sleep at Camp 1 on our first visit because the altitude difference was a big 700 meters.
After seeing the killer slope on the way to Camp 1, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to go up and down the same day without exhausting myself. It was too damn difficult and tiring. With the encouragement of our lead Sherpa, we decided to stay at Camp 1.
We packed and prepared early the next day. We were to carry full loads upwards. I thought that I was strong enough for this. Little did I know that this day would become the most tiring one in the expedition. During my first hour of trekking, I felt the onset of an acclimatization problem. The heavy backpack worsened it.
Going up would normally take six hours, but it took me ten. My pace was slow, typical for a summit day. I arrived at sunset, my teammates all concerned about me. They felt relieved when they saw me staggering towards the camp and still smiling. They didn’t know that I could smile even while dying.
We went down early the next day. I had barely walked 10 meters from my tent when I vomited. With the strong headwind and my vomit streaming behind me, I doused Peter’s tent with it. He was safe near his tent, yanking out his frosted trekking poles.
The trip to Camp 1 gave me fever and altitude sickness. It took two days before I could eat real food again and another day to recover and recharge my body. The altitude at ABC made it impossible to fully recover . The question was mental: To give up or not.
The team planned to move up to Camp 1 on my third day of rest. I would have to move up alone the day after. Mike developed diarrhea on hike day. We decided it was best to move together on the fourth day.
The killer slope lived up to its name, but spirits protected me. I reached Camp 1 after a less than six hours, still weak but a lot better.
We walked halfway to Camp 2 the next day to acclimatize. We viewed the dreadful vertical icefall that became our motivation to move up to Camp 2 the day after. Peter wanted to go farther, conscious about his altimeter record and wanting to gain more altitude to better acclimatize before going back. The memory of his recent AMS at ABC was fresh on his mind. I decided to turn back ahead to conserve my energy, and Mike soon followed.
We moved to Camp 2 the next day, another killer day. My previous illness had affected my performance. I was last to arrive past sunset after nine hours of trekking. I lagged behind the other climbers on the same trail. They all went past me, leaving me to negotiate the vertical icefall alone. It was surreal but nice to be alone in what seemed like a lifeless, icy planet.
The long haul to Camp 2 was so exhausting that the last steep section before the camp took me endless hours to climb.
I was clipped to the rope, stomping my boots and crampons on soft snow, attempting to pull myself up inch by agonizing inch only to slide back. I repeated this over and over, feeling like a lab rat trapped in a spinning wheel, running endlessly but never getting anywhere. The wind was relentless, the clouds obscured the setting sun making my bones rattle from the cold.
Desperate, I prayed for the wind to abate and for the sun to reappear. I wasn’t sure if the spirits heard me, but after 10 seconds, the clouds parted to reveal the setting sun. The wind left. Inspired, I continued to take steps and pull myself up over the steep snow trail. I made little progress and was tiring out fast. Darkness would soon come. At the rate I was going, I figured I’d be stuck till sunrise by which time I’d have turned into a frozen turkey.
Here lay the big difference between mountaineering and other sports. I could stop adventure racing, triathlon or any indoor sports in the middle of things, then be okay after. But if I quit up in the mountain, I would die.
I looked at the other end of the rope and over the steep trail, turned my head to the sky and said aloud “I need a miracle!” I imagined an angel snatching me from where I was and throwing down my sorry ass back to Camp 2. I said the prayer, but I knew I had to do this alone, to finish what I started, no matter how tough, or die trying.
Ten minutes later, I did see an angel - in a Sherpa form. One of our climbing Sherpas – Lakpa Rangdu concluded that I wasn’t fully recovered from my illness and might need help. Or he thought I was too weak.
The first miracle was when I heard: “Do you want some hot tea?” Of course, I did. I left behind my stainless vacuum flask at Camp 1 because it was too heavy. The Nalgene bottle with a liter of water that I carried was frozen solid. Lakpa had a thermos strapped around his body. I grabbed it, opened the cap and greedily drunk the hot fluid. Ahh, it was the best hot tea I ever had!
The second miracle was an offer of help. He said,“Given your pace, it will take you three more hours to reach the camp. Do you want me to carry your pack?” By this time I had no more pride left so screw the macho bullshit. I answered, “Yes, please!” It only took us 1.5 hours to reach Camp 2. I was exhausted, but I felt fine. With this kind of exercise at this altitude, I forced my body to be fine. It was all in the mind!
We decided to skip the up and down routine for acclimatization. We risked having edema if we went straight to Camp 3, then the summit. But our deteriorated state left us with this option.
Normally, at high altitudes a climber must reach a significant altitude of 300-600 meters. This fooled the body as the climber breathed thinner air up, then returned down to sleep with relatively thicker air. This hastened acclimatization and helped avoid AMS and edema. A guideline in high-altitude mountaineering is to space the camp at 300-vertical meters to allow for better physiological adaptation.
In Cho Oyu, we violated this rule. While other teams tired themselves going up and down, we went straight up and risked altitude sickness. Patay kung patay!
We soon found out that if our bodies failed us, we would cough blood, won’t be able to walk straight or start hallucinating or seeing butterflies and humming birds.
Our lead Sherpa said my team should skip the long up-and-down process. He could say that since he was a Sherpa who couldn’t identify with our altitude suffering. Or maybe he wanted to finish the expedition sooner.
We stayed one night at Camp 2, went straight to Camp 3 and on to the summit after a few hours of rest. Camp 3 was above the next ridge, but the trail was so steep. Earlier, I packed light, wore my Down suit without inner layers instead of carrying it in my pack. I thought that I’d survive the night without my high altitude sleeping bag. That was a crazy gamble.
I hiked with Peter, keeping the same pace. On the way up, he felt cold while trekking and decided to wear his upper Down jacket. I went ahead briefly, looked back and saw him trying to put on his Down trousers, change his mind and pack the pair. I thought it odd.
I ate my jelly snack and drank my cold, nearly frozen Tang before resting. My companion appeared and said he was very cold. It must’ve been hypoxia. Meanwhile, his trousers were ‘giving him trouble’. He sat beside me while I checked his new Down trousers bought a day before his flight. It looked broken. It had full-side zip design, i.e., it could be worn without removing the boots or crampons by fold-zipping its sides on each leg. I helped him put his trousers on. We finally figured it out.
We arrived at Camp 3 where we ate instant noodles for dinner (I didn’t like the freeze-dried food that we had with us), using melted snow for water. Wake-up call was at 11 p.m. We would start as soon as we were ready.
During this summit night, there was chaos as people noisily moved around our camp. Our team was ready but seemed close to panic preparing for the assault. Mike woke up a different person as though he was having an out-of-body experience. He didn’t look aware of what was going on.
Peter couldn’t feel his toes so one guide rubbed and nursed them back to life for 20 minutes. Good thing his toes returned to normal or he would’ve aborted his climb.
We didn’t expect to have a good night’s stay at Camp 3. With the altitude, anything could happen. Even the teeth of my Sherpa tent buddy chattered in the early evening due to the cold. I was okay during the night even without my high-altitude sleeping bag that I left at Camp 2 because another gram of weight would kill me during the hike up. I spent the night in my full heavy-rated TNF Down suit with fleece layers and my Aluminum Aveolite inner boots and thick Down over-mitts. Surprisingly, I survived the minus 20 to minus 25ºC cold. It would’ve been a different story if it was minus 40ºC.
It took me more than an hour to prepare myself for the assault, even if I was already wearing 80 percent of my gear. At this height, everything we did was in super slow motion.
Soon we were on our feet, dressed like astronauts. I wore a full up and down fleece, a full Down suit, a balaclava, huge boots with crampons, fleece and over-mitts. Hell, I was wearing everything I had with me! Then came the fun part, the oxygen set. My tank weighed 3.3 kgs. If the apparatus was included, everything weighed 3.8 kgs., a dose of torture.
It took me a while to get used to using O2-mask and to trust the damn thing. As I climbed higher, I appreciated it for giving me the power and prana to climb. It made a difference.
The Australian zoomed up fast, concerned that his frostbite problem would recur. He wanted to finish the climb fast before frostbite attacked him again. Later, he zoomed faster, driven by adrenalin when he learned that his oxygen tank wasn’t working properly, leaving him with only one tank for the up and down. In the end, it did him good. Nothing like extreme motivation to make him go faster.
I was climbing with Mike and Lakpa. We concentrated on breathing, on where to step, which rope to clip on, where to stick the damn trekking poles into.
It was challenging to transition from one rope end to another. I used a three-point LED headlamp, but its light wasn’t bright enough for a night’s work. I avoided turning on my Halogen lamp because its battery drained faster. My mask and regulator set always got in the way, blocking the view below me.
Sometimes I slid the mask down to breathe thin air so I could see properly. My backpack hip-belt also blocked my harness set. I had to unclip it first so I could freely access my climbing hardware and tools. I had to use two or three devices (an ascender, an anchor, an eight ring or auto-blocking). This took lots of effort because of the altitude, the temperature, the visibility and the challenge to move in that astronaut suit. I couldn’t do rope work properly with my huge over-mitts. Later, I removed them as well and let them hang in my harness so I could use a layer of thin fleece gloves. I almost ran out of patience. The question in my mind was: “Why am I doing this shit again?” I had to banish that thought fast. Otherwise, it would turn into a chant of “Quit now!”
Within an hour or two, we reached the vertical Yellow Band that required rock and ice climbing skills. Mike was a few meters ahead and on top of me; three other climbers were below me. We looked like one long caterpillar.
Chunks of snow or ice fell on my head with a thud. I had no safety helmet on so I prayed that the climbers above us weren’t dislodging big rocks or bigger chunks of ice.
I thought snow was falling on me though it wasn’t snowing until I looked up and saw that Mike’s crampon got detached from his right boot. He was frantically trying to dig into the ice with his other crampon to break his fall as he slid towards me. Lakpa tried to fix his crampons, his ice axe pinned safely somewhere.
As they danced dangerously together, Mike slid some more so I quickly climbed up a meter or two, grabbed his anchor line and attached it to my ascender that was clipped to the main rope. Secure, he no longer slipped down. He looked at me but was too tired to say thanks. Lakpa signaled for me to move ahead while they arranged to get to safety.
Mike later said he vaguely remembered the whole thing, even my climbing with him the whole eight hours.
Later, we were past another very steep ridge, and I knew that we had reached the 7,800-meter mark. My heart was smiling.
The open question was whether I’d run out of strength, patience, luck or oxygen. Or, whether I could reach the summit and become the Filipino to reach an 8,000-meter peak.
We had perfect weather on our summit assault, but the terrain, the trail, the snow and ice made the going tougher. I thought my Aconcagua climb was difficult, but with Cho Oyu, I felt like I could I run up and down Aconcagua with ease. Cho Oyu was a different level. If the weather had been foul or if the snow was heavier, our summit story would’ve been different.
While walking the last ridge towards the summit plateau, Peter appeared from nowhere. With our lead guide, he had finished the climb. I was so surprised and wondered how he got there so fast after his frostbite and malfunctioning oxygen tank, I understood why he pushed himself harder and faster to the summit.
I resumed climb-walking at a rate of one step for every six breaths. Knowing that the summit was closer, I was more motivated and I reset the oxygen flow rate from No. 2 to No. 3. I took one step for every three breaths and on a steep trail above 25,000 feet, this was fairly normal to moderately fast. I left Mike who was not on oxygen, eager as I was to finish the climb.
Around 10 a.m. I was on the summit’s plateau. It was anti-climactic. The difficult, heart-pumping stunts were done early in the assault. The last part was a simpler walk on a flat plateau. The key was to find the highest part, the true summit. If the weather was a nightmare, the exposed plateau couldn’t offer any natural protection.
I walked past Dirk - my German teammate, who did the assault on the same day. He was exhausted, resting on the trail to the summit. He, too, wasn’t using supplemental oxygen.
In the distant horizon was the world’s highest mountain sitting behind the ridge. I was told that if Mt. Everest was visible, that meant I was on Cho Oyu’s highest point.
I saw two flag markers and quickened my pace so I could stand atop Cho Oyu. My goal to put the first Filipino flag there and be the first Filipino to set foot on top of an 8,000-meter peak. I did all that and savored the euphoria of putting a Filipino mark on the peak of the world’s sixth highest mountain.
I closed my eyes, thankful to all the celestial beings who helped me climb. It was hard to believe that days ago I was lying on a sick bed at ABC.
I opened my eyes to check if I was still there. It wasn’t a dream. I really made it to the TOP!