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The $50,000 party

The National Geographic Adventure-Arun Treks Cho Oyu Expedition, Fall 2001

by Jamie McGuinness

Bald, the sole Mongolian climber, was a tits and bums man, dancing with his hands, even while seated, but we are still unsure as to how he managed to feel up everyone in the tent without offending anyone, male and female, all 21 of us at the party. Perhaps it was to do with the 9 bottles of Chinese brandy we drank, passing the disgusting stuff around in a giant circle, just as likely a culprit though, was the Slovenian walnut schnapps, that tasted like flat, stale and fermented Coca-Cola. Or perhaps it was the combination, for out of the eight different drinks on offer, everyone had at least five.

Sparkie's effort was the most admirable, for he brought along virtually two dozen cans of San Miguel carefully nursed from Kathmandu. Apparently he had slept with them every night at base camp-ABC, and while he was on the mountain had them stored in another sleeping bag, with a hot water bottle some people say, to stop them from freezing. Although the Slovenian's walnut schnapps was truly vile, their other contribution, Jameson's whisky certainly wasn't and Mike's Bailey's disappeared early. Luis's CD collection played over some boosted walkman speakers kept everyone rocking and crying with amazement; who else would have 'The Cars', (real early '80's stuff), the latest Venga Boys, and classic sing-a-longs like 'Country Road (which we learnt the Slovenian version)?

Yep, it was possibly the finest party ever, at Cho Oyu ABC, nobody sick, in fact nobody except Baghman (assistant cook) even had a headache the next morning. We hadn't burnt the tent down, or even put a hole in it with the appropriated champagne, the North Face 2 metre dome was tougher than that. In our acclimatized state the quantity of alcohol and its effects contrast amazingly with our arrival at ABC. 3 cans of beer between 6 of us invoked cries of enough!

At least the party was successful. Our climb less so, although with everyone back safe and no injuries, it certainly wasn't a disaster. We has acclimatized over 10 days, and were ensconced in Camp 2 ready for a summit attempt before the first changes to the plan happened, Diana just didn't feel good enough to climb to Camp 3, so Ben, her partner escorted her down. Myself, Beth, Mike, Pasang and Namgyal (the cook) did make it to Camp 3 at 7500m. Later that night we began our summit preparations and that morning at 2am or so, the Adventure Consultants team set off, but since 1am when I had seen the wind change direction, I had be worried and doubtful, and sure enough at 3am, as we were ready to crawl out of the tents, the wind had picked up severely, and we retreated into our down nests. Adventure Consultants returned around 4am, battling the nasty winds. They had ascended the last fixed ropes to around 7600m before reluctantly turning back. Although it is possible to climb Cho Oyu in all but the severest of winds, it is extremely dangerous and certainly not appropriate for a commercial group. and there comes a point, especially if you don't have absolutely the best of gear, when the wind it too strong to stand during the gusts, as Bald found on his summit attempt at the same time as our second try. This time we had decided to begin from Camp 2 but begin relatively late since the afternoon weather, ie when we would be returning from the summit, had been decent. Bald had started at 11pm in perfect conditions but by 3am cloud had welled up and again the wind had picked up and in the end, Mingma, the sherpa assisting Bald had turned him back. They had reached 8000m though, and so Bald was the first Mongolian to do so. We, nervous about the change had postponed our start, and didn't even step out of the tent before cancelling.

By this time we had spent 6 nights at Camp 2 (and one at Camp 3) - we had tried, waited, and tried. In fact the wind that had began that early morning turned into a full-fledged storm, by daylight the gusts were severe and the snow flying horizontally in stinging gusts.

Beth and Mike with Pasang escaped, descending to ABC, as did the AAI team and Mark and Kathy's team, only myself and their sherpas staying, waiting to clear the camps. Unfortunately every expedition had tents and oxygen at Camp 3. Bravely, Lhakpa and the AAI sherpas, and Wangchu and sherpas climbed up thru the storm to clear it. Mark climbed up part of the route marking it with wands. The storm was fierce and from a different direction from the usual Bay of Bengal degenerating cyclone so I didn't commit myself to saying the storm would last less than 48 hours, but in the event it suddenly cleared 36 hours after it began, around 3pm, revealing that at least one avalanche had passed within 10 metres of the trail to Camp 3, and had presumably come down while Mark was on the trail, although he had heard nothing. Perhaps a foot/30cms of snow had fallen although the wind had also blown a lot around. A summit attempt the next day would have been foolish, especially alone, and in the event the wind was savage, so savage that I considered the chances of it abating were very low and descended unknowingly into the party.

That was the last chance any of us had since the yaks were due to arrive the next day to take our gear down to Chinese Base Camp, and the Landcruisers booked to coincide with them. While up at Camp 2 after our first unsuccessful attempt we had decided to order the yaks for the 9th of October reasoning that either we should have summitted by then, or what actually happened, we would be ready to leave by then. In contrast to most expeditions, originally we had planned simply to order them once we had summitted, and were willing to wait the week that they would take, but after the first try, that week had sounded a long time.

Murphy's law says it should have cleared and been perfect summitting weather the day we left ABC, but we didn&146;t get that ignominy, rather two days later fortuitously it calmed and cleared just at a spot where we could also see Chomolungma (Everest), and seeing Everest had been one of Mike's dreams.

Background

Mike Finkel, a freelance writer who had previously written for National Geographic Adventure magazine, received a National Geographic Society expeditions grant for a story about his sister Diana Finkels' efforts to climb Cho Oyu. Ben Woodbeck, her partner also joined, and Beth Wald was the photographer assigned by the magazine. Mike, Diana and Ben all run long distance races and Diana is particularly competitive over 100 miles, and all are hikers too. Beth has been climbing and taking climbing pictures for a couple of decades, so on paper they were a strong team. All they wanted was someone experienced to organize the expedition. In the end, after talking with a couple of guides and many operators in the USA, only Arun Treks and Expeditions could come up with an experienced western guide exclusively for them at a price they could afford (the expedition was partially sponsored only). That guide was me, Jamie McGuinness. I had climbed the mountain twice previously and had reliable sherpa staff plus all the contacts for permits etc.

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