The Turquoise Demon: Ueli Steck on Climbing Cho Oyu

Ueli Steck | Project Himalaya
Climbing Cho Oyu (The Turquoise Demon)
By Ueli Steck

Don arrives with the latest weather forecast. Today is unpredictable. The forecast calls for wind and snow. Sun is not predicted. The weather window is clear for the 4th and 5th of May, but from May 6th on, there may be more moisture moving in. Today’s forecast called for clouds, which ended up being true. There were thick clouds over the summit, but somehow I could not believe the weather report, which is a bad sign, and was surprised that it had come true. Despite what the forecast calls for, the weather will still take place outside and not in an office in Bern. But the office in Bern is a great help! Without those meteorology reports I would not have attempted Shisha Pangma.

We decide to move up the next day. On May 5th, we will try for the summit. If it does not work, we will have one extra day. Then on May 9th, the yaks are ordered to leave advance base camp (ABC). On May 10th, the entire expedition leaves for Everest base camp, with or without the summit. Even if we do not achieve the summit on Cho Oyu, our main goal is the summit of Everest. That means, on the 10th we have to leave no matter what. The countdown is on. This idea is somehow liberating. Now Cho Oyu, then Everest, and after that – home!

The weather calms down a bit. Before lunch we visit another expedition in ABC that we met in Nyalam. Now they’ve arrived at ABC too. I find it amusing on this mountain. That expedition has a lot of people but they are in a good mood. They also have a functioning heater. We are a little jealous. We had the same model heater on Shisha Pangma and the system did not work at higher elevations. The chef told me he had tested them in Kathmandu. It worked perfectly at 30 degrees at 1600 meters…

At 12:00 lunchtime we pack slowly. This time, I am glad we do not have to load up like a pack mule. All the non-essential gear is put away. Here, we need to make sure we’re careful when it comes acclimatization and take things slowly. It is not about time. Whether we climb the normal route on Cho Oyu in 2 days or 10 hours, we need to be fit for Everest.

The climb to the next camp at 6850 meters is difficult. There’s snow the whole way. The other expedition also planning to summit on May 5th has left already. First, they camped at 6400 meters, then 7200 and are now at camp 3 at 7600 meters. In the meantime, it has snowed and we have the pleasure of kicking steps. Luckily, our backpacks are light and we take it very easily and comfortably. We have no stress on the glacier, which as we edge upwards is impressive. The bizarre peaks and towers in blue shimmer in the sun rising in the dark blue sky. The weather is most beautiful. We have a short, steep climb before camp 1. A can of Coca Cola carries us forward. After 10 minutes, we continue upwards. We recognize the middle two climbers descending from camp 2 to camp 1. Fortunately, we’ll have at least half of a track made above us. The track will not be perfect. The steps are too far apart because they were made while the climbers were descending. But at least they help a bit. Our tent welcomes us in middle camp at 6850 meters. We eat food and try to get some sleep. The alarm clock is set to midnight. A long day awaits us. Midnight comes too soon, I would have liked to stay happily in the sleeping bag. Now the wind is blowing a cold breeze on my face. It is freezing cold. Kari Kobler warned me that this is a cold mountain. But I’m still thinking positively!

The monotonous trail-breaking continues. Don and I take turns leading. At 3:30, we arrive in camp 2 at 7200 meters. We look for an empty tent in which to take a break. I have my feet outside of the tent because I had pulled on my crampons. Don sits in the corner with his legs straightened. He complains of cold feet. Mine are nice and warm. I have a heater in my shoes, which I let run on the third power setting. I make use of the break to add new batteries, so I have heat for another 5 and a half hours. By then we should be in the sun and the cold will not be so bad. Half an hour later we left the tent.

Two young French people have also done well to get to the summit. Together with their Sherpa, we are now five people on the go. Camp 3 at 7600 meters. We’re watching as the first climbers leave camp 3. The sun finally warms us! Paul, a mountain guide from Chamonix, offers us some hot tea. A blessing. We accept the offer for a second cup before we go any further. It gets steeper now. A section of yellow rock with the fixed ropes comes next. The climbing is not difficult. I just clip the rope with a carabineer connected to a sling as back-up, and then climb the pitch, which is a lot more fun than just pulling on the rope. By the end of the yellow band we have overtaken most climbers. Our two friends from Bolivia, Elio and Bernardo are way ahead as well as Sophie and her climbing Sherpa.

The mountain is almost skiable. I’m glad I have my carbon Leki poles – they are much more helpful than an ice ax here. After a traverse, the route goes through a cornice and onto a summit ice field that goes on forever. I remember what Miss Hawley told us in Kathmandu. Funny words from an 80 year-old woman come to mind, one who has never climbed a mountain yet read everything ever documented. “If you can` t see Everest you are not on the Summit!” It took a while longer until we finally saw Everest! We stood on the summit for about 10 minutes, certainly not longer. We took a few quick pictures and then headed back down. Step by step.

This was my second Summit of an 8000 meter mountain within 18 days. I’m not feeling quite as fresh as I felt on Shisha Pangma. Still, I’m happy. Cho Oyu was a beautiful mountain. And I enjoyed all of the people we met here. Despite any claims to the contrary, everyone was very helpful, and everyone helped each other as much as possible. One side offers tea, another helps a newcomer to set up a tent. Sure there were climbers and non-climbers here on the mountain. Sure it is a less technically demanding route. Nevertheless, the summit is 8201 meters high. Each person has his or her own objective. Whether one starts from 7600 meters to reach the summit or whether someone needs 10 hours or 20 hours does not matter. Each of these people brings their own experiences back home with them, and that’s what counts. I will take good memories back home from Cho Oyu. Now, I am a little tired. Two peaks are in my bones. We will now go to Lhasa and try to relax a little bit. Then, if the Chinese permit us, we will drive to Everest Base Camp. Perhaps we will be lucky there as well!


  1. Szabi
    Posted May 8, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Very impressive and told from the heart. Thank you Ueli.

  2. Asim Gupta
    Posted May 10, 2011 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    Astounding feat by Ueli Stuck & Don Bowie. Very much impressed to read their expedition. Congratulations to both of them specially for his double ascent on Shishapangma & Cho you within such short time. Like to habe a signed photograph of Ueli in my mail.

  3. Marcos Gómez Cole
    Posted May 10, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Hoy Ueli, when you go to Patagonia??

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