Clif Maloney, a seasoned amateur climber married to New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, reached the top of Tibet’s 26,906-foot Cho Oyu in 2009. It had long been a dream, and because the 71-year-old investment banker had tried before and failed, the moment was especially sweet.
“I’m the happiest man in the world,” he said to his guide.
On his way down, though, an exhausted Maloney stopped at high camp (23,000 feet) and died.
That’s the world of elite peaks: one minute jubilation, the next shock and sadness.
I understand Maloney’s love of heights, and the rollercoaster of risk involved in attaining them. I’ve wanted to climb in the Himalayas, the highest peaks on earth, all my life.
Cho Oyu is a logical choice. Amateurs like it not just for its stunning beauty, but because it’s one of only 14 peaks in the world above 8,000 meters (26,250 feet). And, while it is the sixth-highest overall, it’s considered easier than some of its lower siblings like Annapurna (26,547 feet), because of relative accessibility and forgiving terrain.
But you don’t just go out and climb something like Cho Oyu without training -- and experience.
There are two types of mountain climbing: rock climbing and mountaineering. The first, spidering up vertical walls with ropes, harnesses and rock shoes, is what one does on Yosemite’s Half Dome. Falling is the obvious risk. Mountaineering, what Cho Oyu is about, involves snow and cold-weather camping, often at extreme altitude. Weather, avalanche and mountain sickness are often more the danger than falling.
Getting Into Shape
For any mountaineering effort, the first step is getting into shape -- and not just to reach the top. Most problems occur on the descent, when climbers are tired and clumsy.
To build leg strength for Cho Oyu, I’ve become the building eccentric, marching up and down the stairs of my Manhattan apartment complex three times a week with a 50-pound (23- kilogram) pack. During each session, I lose five pounds to perspiration.
To strengthen my cardiovascular system, I run 6 miles at an 8-minute pace in Riverside Park, along the Hudson River. The thinner air at altitude combined with long climbing days -- often more than 10 hours -- means plenty of heavy breathing. I also lift weights to strengthen my upper body for ferrying heavy packs between camps on the mountain.
As for a climbing resume, it takes a while to build it. A good introduction is provided by Rainier Mountaineering Inc., which offers year-round training and a climb of Washington’s heavily glaciated, 14,411-foot Mt. Rainier. My classes covered the basics of snow-climbing: travel in roped teams, use of an ice axe for self-arrest in case of a fall, use of crampons (spikes strapped to boots) for traction on snow, and crevasse rescue.
After Rainier, my next step was some high-altitude exposure. It’s impossible to overstate how difficult it is to do anything -- including think -- above 18,000 feet, where oxygen is less than half what it is at sea level. I went to Mexico and climbed volcanoes, 17,887-foot Popocatepetl and 18,851-foot Orizaba. While they are difficult physically, the summits are doable in one day from high huts, and thus don’t require camping. For that, and even more altitude, Aconcagua was recommended as a final test.
At 22,834 feet (about 7,000 meters), Aconcagua is the highest peak in the world outside of Asia. Its extreme weather, altitude and short acclimatization time probably best simulate conditions on an 8,000-meter peak.
Like Cho Oyu, it also requires building a series of higher and higher camps to slowly acclimate the body to thinner air. If a climber ascends too quickly, he develops mountain sickness or, worse, the more extreme HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema). Untreated, both can lead quickly to death.
In the course of two weeks our group built four ever-higher camps on Aconcagua, each time suffering initially from lower oxygen levels at the higher altitude, then gradually becoming acclimated. Finally, from our high camp at 19,300 feet we set out for the top early one morning in below-zero weather.
That day, I found out what altitude was all about. The last section, the Canaleta, is simply the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It is 800 vertical feet of loose scree -- a kind of hell up near heaven. Three steps up, then a slide back, or a fall on my face -- over and over, like trying to climb a down escalator.
There was no concept of time. I just knew I had to put one foot in front of the other and soon I’d be standing on the highest patch of ground outside of Central Asia. My guides later told me it took a full 20 minutes to cover the last 50 feet. At the end, I was taking five gasps per step.
The Bad News
Fun, eh? My date with Cho Oyu is this fall or next spring, depending on my fitness progress and schedule. The bad news: Cho is 4,000 feet higher than Aconcagua. The good: I have an extra three weeks on the mountain to acclimate and will use supplemental oxygen above 24,000 feet.
The plan is to go with Jagged Globe Expeditions, a U.K. outfit that offers a quality program for $17,000. More important, though: Two-time Everest summiteer Robert Anderson will be my guide. He knows me as a friend and a client (we climbed virgin peaks in Greenland a few years back).
If anyone can get me to the top safely, it’s Anderson. And back down again, I hope.
(Jim Clash writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.
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