Cho Oyu: The Turquoise Goddess of the Himalayas
With a majestic ice-encrusted peak soaring high above the Tibetan side of the Himalayas, Cho Oyu is the 6th highest mountain in the world. Cho Oyu means “Turquoise Goddess” in Tibetan, and Cho Oyu is a sight to behold, with massive glaciers flowing down her flanks and tiny climbers inching their way up her treacherous slopes.
This Himalayan giant sits majestically on the Nepal-Tibet border in the Mahalangur range 20 km west of Mount Everest. It has a broad, snow-covered summit with a moderate slope that belies its extreme altitude and deadly reputation.
In this blog, we will explore what makes this iconic peak a coveted prize for elite mountaineers seeking to summit an 8000er. From the history of its ascent to securing permits and choosing the best route, here’s an insider guide to climbing this Turquoise Goddess.
Cho Oyu Mountain quick facts
Cho Oyu elevation: 8,188 meters / 26,864 feet
Location: Nepal/Tibet border, Mahalangur Himalaya Range
First Ascent: October 19, 1954, by Herbert Tichy, Joseph Jöchler, Pasang Dawa Lama
Summit Success Rate: ~45%
History of Cho Oyu Ascents
Though the locals likely knew about the mountain for centuries, Cho Oyu remained untouched by climbers until the 1950s. In fact, a British expedition led by Eric Shipton attempted to climb Mt. Cho Oyu in preparation for climbing Mt. Everest. Notably, Edmund Hillary was also a part of this attempt.
After failed attempts in 1952 and 1953, an Austrian team finally summited Cho Oyu in 1954 via the North West ridge. This ascent came almost a year later than the first ascent of Mt. Everest in 1953.
After the first climb to Cho Oyu Peak, it opened the floodgates with hundreds of ascents each year since then during the short autumn climbing season. Being the least technically difficult 8000er peak makes Cho Oyu popular, especially as a warmup for Everest. However, its “easier” slopes hide objective dangers that have claimed many lives.
As of December 2022, 3,923 people have climbed Cho Oyu.
Securing Permits for Cho Oyu Climb
Though located on the Nepal/Tibet border, Cho Oyu is climbed mostly from the Tibetan side. So, you will need a Cho Oyu permit from the Chinese government. You’ll need additional permits for your support staff.
You can climb Cho Oyu from Nepal but it is rare. If you decide to choose the path from the Nepali side, you will fly from Kathmandu to Lukla and then trek to Cho Oyu. You can also proceed to Tibet after landing at Kathmandu. However, please allocate some days for the necessary paperwork.
Going with reputable operators makes the bureaucratic process smoother. Ensure that the expedition company secures all your permits and paperwork for entering Tibet and climbing Cho Oyu well at least a few days before the departure date.
Best Routes for Climbing Cho Oyu
There are three major route options on Cho Oyu, rated from easiest to hardest:
Northwest (Tibet) Route: This is the “standard” route via the North West ridge, first climbed in 1954. It follows the massive northwest glaciers starting from a Glacier Camp at 5,750m. There will be fixed ropes that assist climbers on steep sections. Summit success is highest on this route. It is also the safest route.
Northeast (Tibet) Route: This is a shorter route but more technically difficult, as you face mixed rock, ice, and snow climbing. You will start from the East side and join the Northwest route higher up after a steep climb.
Southwest Face (Nepal): This is an extremely challenging and avalanche-prone route only elite mountaineers aim for. This route provides spectacular exposure but is very risky.
Most expeditions take the Northwest route for the easiest line to the top, though it’s by no means an easy climb. Proper acclimatization and fitness are still essential for summiting an 8000-meter giant.
Cho Oyu Camps on the Northwest Route (Safest and the most popular route)
Since you cannot climb Cho Oyu in a single push, mountaineers set up a series of camps at different altitudes along the Northwest route to rest, acclimatize, and stock up on supplies:
Advance Base Camp (5,700m) – Location varies annually but is typically on the glacier moraine. The camp is comfortable and scenic. You can see the complete frontal views of Cho Oyu from your tent. You must acclimatize at this camp for at least a week before moving up.
- Camp 1 (6,400m) – It takes 4 to 6 hours to reach Camp 1 from Advance Base Camp. You will follow the Gyabrag Glacier, then navigate a steep scree slope to arrive at a broad snowfield where Camp 1 lies.
- Camp 2 (7,000m) – You must climb for 5-7 hours to reach Camp 2 from Camp 1. The average slope is about 35 degrees. This camp is prone to high winds and is set up just above a high ice cliff.
- Camp 3 (7,400m) – The route from Camp 2 to Camp 3 is short but steep. You will pass through the “yellow band”. Since most climbers briefly spend their time on Camp 3, this base camp has only basic amenities.
The Summit Push
After weeks of trekking, setting up camps, fixing ropes, and load carries for acclimatization, the summit push begins from High Camp. You will climb up the steep headwall and Northwest face-hugging slope covered in fixed lines. It takes 7-9 hours to climb the final 700-meter to the Cho Oyu summit. To avoid the afternoon wind, you must leave Camp 3 at around 1 am so that you reach the Cho Oyu between 7 and 10 am.
After enjoying the hard-earned fantastic views from 8,201 m of the Cho Oyu Peak. You will take the route back to High Camp. The descent can be equally dangerous when you are exhausted.
The roundtrip can take 15 to 20 hours from High Camp. Teamwork, skill, fitness, and some luck are required to summit and return safely. Celebrations await those who summit this Himalayan giant!
Challenges Cho Oyu presents
While an “easier” 8000m peak, Cho Oyu is still extremely dangerous with the potential for disaster. Key risks include:
1. Altitude Sickness and Exhaustion
Scaling the heights of Cho Oyu exposes climbers to the risks of altitude sickness and exhaustion. The thin air at high altitudes can lead to symptoms like headaches, nausea, and fatigue, while the demanding ascent requires physical stamina and acclimatization to prevent exhaustion.
2. Sudden Blizzards with Whiteout Conditions
Cho Oyu, like many Himalayan peaks, is susceptible to sudden blizzards, creating whiteout conditions. These weather phenomena can disorient climbers, reducing visibility and posing navigation challenges. Navigating through such conditions demands careful planning and experience.
3. Crevasses Hidden Under Snow Bridges
The glacial terrain on Cho Oyu presents the danger of hidden crevasses concealed by snow bridges. These seemingly stable snow-covered crevasses can pose a serious threat to climbers, emphasizing the need for cautious navigation and roped travel.
4. Avalanches on Steep Slopes
Steep slopes on Cho Oyu are susceptible to avalanches, especially during increased snowfall or warming temperatures. Climbers must carefully assess avalanche risk, choose safe routes, and be equipped with avalanche safety gear.
5. Trekking Accidents During Long Approaches
Long approaches to the base camp and higher camps can expose trekkers to various hazards. Slippery trails, river crossings, and challenging terrain may contribute to trekking accidents. Safety precautions, proper gear, and experienced guides are crucial for mitigating these risks.
6. Climbing Falls or Errors due to fatigue or inexperience
Climbing Cho Oyu demands technical skill and experience. Fatigue, combined with inexperience, can lead to climbing falls or errors. Adequate rest, proper training, and mentorship by seasoned guides are essential to minimize the risk of accidents during the ascent.
Having skilled Sherpa guides, sticking to a slow acclimatization schedule, and monitoring health diligently can help mitigate risks. But the mountain often claims victims each season.
Is Climbing Cho Oyu Right For You?
Before embarking on an expensive and risky Cho Oyu expedition, assess your skills honestly:
- Do you have prior high-altitude mountaineering experience above 7,000m?
- Are you physically fit enough to climb for 10 hours while carrying gear at high altitude?
- Can you handle extreme cold, low oxygen, and weeks away from civilization?
- Are you committed to careful acclimatization despite delays?
- Will you listen to and trust the judgment of your Sherpa guide?
If you lack the experience, skill, or mindset, reconsider attempting Cho Oyu. But with thorough preparation, reasonable fitness, and humble respect for the mountain, the Turquoise Goddess may reward your efforts!
The alluring summit of Cho Oyu continues to draw intrepid climbers worldwide each year. Standing atop the 8th highest point on Earth is an incredible achievement. But the price is steep, and the risks are real. You must come prepared mentally and physically for the adventure of a lifetime on the slopes of this Himalayan giant.
If you want to see this fantastic mountain in the Everest region, we invite you for an Everest Base Camp trek.