It was my one day off in a three week stretch; my one day out of the mountains, one day to pretend I have a normal life. I had walked to one of my favorite local coffee shops just a few blocks from my home in Seattle. The place was filled with the diversity for which this neighborhood of Seattle is famous. The cup of rich dark coffee provided a welcomed reminder of the finer things. I had settled into a book in the corner of the establishment, trying my best to relax. My cell phone rang. I glanced down at the number. It was one of the heads of our Himalayan programs. “Hello, this is Dallas…”, I answered.
Over two decades ago I began my climbing career by scrambling to the top of a small cliff in central Alabama called Shades Mountain. Looking back, it cannot be more than 10 or 12m high. No matter, I was hooked. As a boy, I remember dreaming of big mountains-- the Alaska Range, the Andes, and the Himalaya. I never dreamed that one day the mountains would be my office.
Becoming a guide was not intentional, nor was it purely accidental. Like most truths in life, reality was somewhere in between. Five years ago, I began work as a full time guide for International Mountain Guides (IMG). IMG is a Washington based guide service with programs all over the world. For my part, I guided trips on Mt Rainier, in the North Cascades, Mexico, and Alaska. Now, IMG was calling to ask if I wanted to go guide Cho Oyu, the 6th tallest mountain in the world at 8201m (26,906’). “Hello, this is Dallas…” I answered. Greg filled me in on the details of the trip, my responsibilities, and my opportunities. “Dallas, you need to talk to your wife and see if this is something you want to do.” Want to do? Are you kidding me? Of course I “want” to go to the Himalaya. Of course, I “want” to climb Cho Oyu. But this was a big decision. It's a long trip. Climbing in the Himalaya is risky, and I'd never been that high before.
My day was wrecked. My one day to not be in the mountains, my head was entirely in the mountains. I had to wait till that evening to discuss the topic with my wife. “That’s amazing! Of course you’re going!” She may have been more excited for me than I was for myself (it's worth mentioning I have the most amazing wife of all time). I was in. I was going to the Himalayas. I was going to a place I had been dreaming about for more than two decades. Gear began to accumulate.
Somewhere in they middle of the night I awoke to the sound of snow on my tent fly. Snow? My sleepy brain tried desperately to register. It wasn't supposed to be snowing. What would this do to our summit bid? How were the other teams doing up higher on the mountain? By morning several inches of snow covered our base camp (5700m/18,700’) and the route to Camp 1 (6400m/21,000’). We delayed leaving as long as we could, hoping the sun would make travel through the fresh snow easier, or at least warmer. Eventually we loaded up our packs and headed off for the upper mountain.
The team arrived at Camp 1 after making great time. While we had received a only few inches of snow at basecamp, the upper mountain had received considerably more. My fellow guide and I discussed the new snow and our concerns about conditions higher up. The next morning we had word from Camp 2 (7000m/23,000’)-- avalanche concerns were preventing teams from advancing and the route on the upper mountain was still not established. Not wanting to join the waiting crowds at Camp 2, we decided it was best to stay in the relative comfort of Camp 1. However, we needed to see conditions for ourselves. Mike asked if I would go up and have a look. At mid-morning, I set off alone up the ridge toward Camp 2.
Climbing alone along the ridge was surreal. Save for a few descending climbers, I had the route to myself. I wasted no time climbing the ice cliff, ascending through the serac field, and up to Camp 2. There I quickly set about talking to other guides, assessing conditions, and formulating a plan for our team. Several teams were ready to climb out of Camp 2, and a plan for establishing the route on the upper mountain was set. The following day our team joined me at Camp 2. While they climbed, I pitched tent after tent to prepare for their arrival. Above the crowds formed a line marching to the summit.
No matter how you cut it, it is cold at 23,000 feet. Frost covered everything in the tent and I could see my breath with each exhale. We waited patiently in our sleeping bags for the sun, and welcomed the warmth as the first rays slowly spread across the tent. After some tea and breakfast we began the long climb to Camp 3 (7500m, 24,600’). Camp 3 is perched on a small subtle ridge in the middle off the massive northwest face of Cho Oyu. It was our new home for a few, short hours of rest.
The alarm startled me out of what could hardly be described as sleep. It was dark as Mike peered his head out of the tent. “Clear skies,.” hHe said. Over a month of travel, acclimatizing and climbing had led to this moment. The Sherpa team arrived on cue and the team set off to a symphony of crampons crunching on cold snow and carabineers clipping ropes under the glowing spotlight of our headlamps. I love climbing at night.
Somewhere around 7900m, dawn began to break. The sky above Cho Oyu was streaked with reds and oranges as the Himalaya to our west illuminated with the first light of day. Shishapangma (8027m) stood watchful over the western horizon. We were nearing the summit, each climber and Sherpa making a team within our team. I moved quickly across the summit plateau feeling strong with the rush of adrenaline. I arrived at the summit alone. The pile of prayer flags marked the spot in an otherwise featureless plane. I took a moment realizing the culmination of decades of dreaming, thousands of days spent in the mountains, and endless support from friends and family. I was on top of my first 8000m peak.
As the clients arrived with their Sherpa teammate, I busied myself taking pictures, checking oxygen systems and ensuring each client had something to eat and drink prior to descent. Because after all, even though I was living my dream, it was also just another day at the office.
A special thanks to Fits Socks for supporting keeping my feet warm during the expedition. I used Fits socks exclusively throughout the trip: Ultra Light Runner- No Show socks while trekking to ABC, Light Hiker-Quarter socks while climbing on the lower mountain to 23,000’, and Medium Ski –OTC socks while climbing to the summit.
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