Cho Oyu, Tibet

My 1st 8,000 Meter Peak

As the saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, attempt an even more audacious goal… or something like that. As part of my 2nd attempt to climb Mt. Everest in the spring of 2014, my small but strong team intended to climb 3 of the 6 tallest peaks in the world. We started by climbing and summiting the world’s 6th tallest peak, Cho Oyu (“Turquoise Goddess”), which stands at 26,906′. Once we completed our climb of Cho Oyu, the intent was to return to Nepal from Tibet and turn our attention to Mt. Everest (29,035′), and its adjacent peak Lhotse (27,940’), the 4th tallest peak in the world. However, in the world of high-altitude mountaineering, things rarely go according to plan.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck the south side/Nepal side of Everest while we were climbing Cho Oyu, when a serac collapse in the Khumbu Icefall killed 13 Sherpa and 3 Nepalese porters. This led to the Sherpa strike that allowed them to voice their grievances with the Nepalese government and effectively ended the climbing season on Everest’s south side, which rendered the latter parts of our plan irrelevant.

With our plans no longer intact, we shifted our sights to climb the North side (Chinese side) of Everest. However, the Chinese proved determined not to provide us a permit to climb Everest, despite the fact that we had an exceptionally strong team, a valid Chinese visa that was good through 5/31/2014, and we were already acclimatized and in the country on their soil climbing Cho Oyu — only miles west of the Everest base camp. We even had extraordinarily senior-level contacts from the US government reach out to their counterparts in the Chinese government at Ministry levels (essentially the equivalent of US Cabinet-level positions), who advocated on our behalf… to no avail.

As, we looked into other options to continue our goal to climb multiple 8,000m peaks (over 26,250′ tall) in a continuous push, we decided on Makalu (the world’s 5th highest peak at 27,765’). Unfortunately, the logistics, infrastructure and team required to climb Makalu in such a tight turnaround proved problematic and expensive, and we did not have the resources to send all four of us. So, Matt Moniz and Willie Benegas continued our team’s mission by changing gears and climbing Makalu in a record-setting, 3-day alpine ascent. Meanwhile, Mike Moniz continued his extraordinary efforts to attain an Everest permit for the team.

At this point, I remained in the region, by relaxing on the beaches of Thailand with my girlfriend, Carla (while Thailand was in the midst of a military coup, no less, but at least the beaches were beautiful), in case our last-ditch efforts shook free the ever-elusive North-side Everest permit. After waiting nearly a week and with the spring Himalayan climbing season quickly coming to a close due to the imminent arrival of the Indian monsoon to the Himalayas, it was time to fly home. I made it home on 5/31, and Mike and Matt Moniz soon followed. And, with that, our Himalayan season came to an end with the team climbing the 5th and 6th highest peaks in the world, but leaving some unfinished business.

I think we all believe strongly that our team would have accomplished our goal of climbing three 8,000 meter peaks in one push had the South side season on Everest not ended in tragedy or if the Chinese had simply granted us a permit to climb the North side of Everest. The team was strong, determined, acclimatized and in good health coming off our successful climb of Cho Oyu, which made the circumstances that were well beyond our control sting that much more. It’s one thing when you are unable to climb due to illness, physical exhaustion, inability, poor conditions/weather, etc. and it’s a whole other thing to be denied your dream by nameless, faceless bureaucrats. It was certainly a season of ups-and-downs, but I am thankful for the incredible climb of Cho Oyu and the camaraderie of my teammates, which will make the good memories far outweigh the frustrations of this adventure.

The ascent of Cho Oyu on its own will remain memorable for me for a number of reasons, despite how the rest of our expedition did not work out as planned. Cho Oyu is typically climbed in the fall season when the post-monsoon snows are plentiful, which makes the climbing easier and more straightforward. Climbing it in the spring season, which is rare, made it significantly more challenging with much steeper sections of near-vertical ice, and with the upper yellowband being nearly devoid of snow the rocky terrain was significantly more difficult to negotiate in crampons. These conditions made it more challenging, but in the end that much more rewarding.

However, the most rewarding part of this climb for me was the fact that due to our small team size, we really got to know our Sherpa team well, and we climbed with them more in partnership than is typical on most expeditions. Additionally, we put our entire team on the summit at the same time, including all of our Sherpa, a rarity on 8,000 meter peaks, where everyone typically climbs at their own rate. With such a strong team, we were all able to stay together and celebrate our success on the summit as a complete team.