In an Instagram Story posted last week by Nepalese mountaineer Gelje Sherpa, the camera follows teammate Gesman Tamang as he struggles to traverse a thigh-deep snowfield somewhere on the lower flanks of Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world. .
Despite the difficult progress, Gesman laughs. The sun shines on Gelje’s back and casts a silhouette of the Nepalese flag hanging limply from his bag on the snow in front of him. With a lightness that belies the seriousness of the situation, he comments to the camera in Nepali: “A small person would drown in this fucking snow.
Slender and wiry, Gelje Sherpa isn’t exactly a towering person himself. But there is no doubt that he is a leading figure in the boldest and most ambitious generation of young climbers that Nepal has ever produced. He cut his teeth on 8,000-meter peaks as part of the Project Possible team, supporting the larger-than-life character of Nirmal “Nims” Purja, who starred in the recent Netflix documentary. 14 summits: nothing is impossible. He is now on track to become the youngest climber to scale all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks. Cho Oyu is peak number 13 for him, leaving only the 26,414ft Broad Peak in Pakistan. His latest challenge is no less impressive: this month, Gelje leads an all-volunteer team of ten professional Nepalese climbers as they strive to open a new, friendly climbing route on the southern slope of Cho Oyu.
The team hopes to find a line that bypasses the traditional route through China, which has closed its borders due to the pandemic, and opens the mountain to commercial travel from Nepal for the first time. This new route could increase income for local communities, the government and aspiring guides like Gelje.
Gelje spoke to Outside of a tea room in the small tourist town of Machermo, in the heart of the Gokyo Valley in the Everest region. He had just descended with his team from a meager base camp at the base of the southeast face of Cho Oyu after setting up Camp III at 24,280 feet on a steep wall in fierce winter winds..
“I originally planned to climb Cho Oyu from the Chinese side to get the record,” said Gelje Sherpa. “But when China closed the border, I had no choice but to give up on my dream. Then it occurred to me that this was an opportunity for me to do something for the Nepal as well as for myself trying to climb Cho Oyu from Nepal. Cho Oyu from the south in winter is a difficult goal, but I believe it is achievable. We are confident that if we open a trade route from the Nepal, we will have many customers who want to join us in the future.
Cho Oyu straddles the Nepal-China border like a pitched-roof shed. The west face of the mountain on the Chinese side gradually rises to the broad summit plateau on a long ramp that offers few obstacles or hazards. The south side, located in Nepal, is an almost vertical wall. Since the first ascent of Cho Oyu in 1954, most expeditions have used the relatively safe northwest face. According to the Himalayan Database, a digital archive of all Himalayan climbs, more than 3,900 people have summited Cho Oyu, making it the second most popular 8,000-meter peak behind Mount Everest. Among those climbers to reach the summit, only 14 climbed the peak from the Nepalese side, according to the Ministry of Tourism of Nepal. They were all professional climbers looking for an extreme challenge.
Working as a mountaineering guide pays better than many other professions in Nepal; however, it does not generate nearly the amount of revenue needed for a first full-scale winter ascent of an 8,000 meter peak. In November 2021, Gelje launched a GoFundMe campaign with the aim of raising £50,000 ($68,000). By January of this year, he had raised just $11,000, barely enough to buy ten pairs of expedition-grade climbing boots.
Next stop from Gelje was the Nepal Tourism Board and Ministry of Tourism. In 2021, the two agencies pledged $100,000 in funding to Nepalese climbers seeking a new route on Cho Oyu. But two waves of COVID-19 outbreaks that year left Nepal completely in lockdown for more than four months, and those pledged funds produced only a few crowded helicopter trips to explore the route before the budget disappeared. in the country’s bureaucracy. Maya Sherpa, executive committee member of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, said Outside that funding for a Cho Oyu climb may become available after the start of the next fiscal year in June. But Gelje and his team aren’t holding their breath over the money coming in.
“Nims” Purja, Gelje’s mentor, recently pledged his support for Gelje’s expedition on Cho Oyu with a $25,000 grant and offered to have his own company handle the logistics of the climb. After this insurance, Gelje bought the rest of the team’s supplies on credit, racking up about $50,000 in debt for the shipment.
Not long ago, the idea of commercially guiding customers on an extreme, avalanche-prone route of this nature was laughable. But in recent years Nepalese expedition operators have begun to push the boundaries for customers seeking increasingly serious goals and even higher levels of comfort in the mountains. Last year, Gelje was part of the famous team of make the first winter ascent of K2. Less than a year later, companies began offering guided winter climbs on the mountain.
So far, it looks like Gelje is in a favorable position to complete the route to Cho Oyu. Team member Lhakpa Dendi said Outside, “The course seems definitely possible for customers in the fall. It’s also surprisingly good in the winter too. There are fewer avalanches and the south face gets the sun early and stays warm late. Although, he added, future winter climbs will require a robust clientele. “To start with, it’s minus 20 at base camp,” he said.
The Gelje team is not alone on the mountain. A rival Nepalese team led by Mingma Dorchi Sherpa, director of Pioneer Adventure, is also currently trying to establish a trade route along the shorter but much more technical South West Ridge. This group established its base camp in the valley of the Thame, a drainage to the west of the Gelje camp. After reaching Camp II, they too retreated to the base and are awaiting better weather conditions for a summit push.
If the two teams come together, questions arise: which path will be more viable for commercial customers and which team will have access to notional funds from the government? When asked why they didn’t join forces with Gelje to maximize their chances, Karki said, “We initially had a single plan, but I don’t know why the other team was formed to do the job. same job. We have completely different routes. The southeast ridge is long but easy to climb. The southwest ridge, which our team is working on, is short and much more difficult to climb. We cannot say at this time which route is viable.
During a recent interview at Machermo’s teahouse, Gelje didn’t seem nervous or stressed about the conditions. The team had just received a dismal, but not disastrous, weather report. They planned to retrace their five-hour trek through waist-deep snow to base camp and then continue their trek to the summit, hoping to make the most of a brief break in the wind. the morning of February 21.
Asked about the team’s prospects of reaching the top, Gelje was extremely confident. “After 7,000 meters it gets easier,” he said.
How he plans to reconcile his not-so-insignificant debts once back in Kathmandu, Gelje flashed his signature smile. “I have no idea,” he said. “Maybe I’ll sell my kidney.”
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.