In an Instagram story posted last week by Nepalese mountaineer Gelje Sherpa, the camera follows his teammate Gesman Tamang as he struggles to walk through a thigh-deep snow field somewhere on the lower flanks of 26,750-foot Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-highest mountain.
Despite the difficult progress, Gesman is laughing. The sun is bright across Gelje’s back and casts a silhouette of the Nepalese flag that hangs limply from his pack across the snow ahead of him. With a levity that belies the seriousness of the situation, he comments to the camera in Nepali, “A short person would drown in this goddamned snow.”
Thin and wiry, Gelje Sherpa isn’t exactly a towering person himself. But there is no question that he is a leading figure in the boldest and most ambitious generation of young mountaineers Nepal has ever produced. He cut his teeth on 8,000-meter peaks as a part of the Project Possible team, supporting the larger-than-life character of Nirmal “Nims” Purja, who starred in the recent Netflix documentary 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible. He’s now on track to become the youngest climber to summit all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks. Cho Oyu is peak number 13 for him, leaving only the 26,414-foot Broad Peak in Pakistan. His latest challenge is no less impressive: this month, Gelje is leading an all-volunteer team of ten Nepali professional climbers pushing to open a new client-friendly climbing route up the sheer southern side of Cho Oyu.
The team hopes to find a line that sidesteps the traditional route through China, which has closed its borders due to the pandemic, and opens the mountain to commercial trips from the Nepal for the first time. This new route could increase revenues for local communities, the government, and aspiring guides like Gelje.
Gelje spoke to Outside from a teahouse in the small tourist outpost town of Machermo, deep in the Gokyo Valley of the Everest region. He had just descended with his team from a meager base camp at the base of Cho Oyu’s southeast face after establishing Camp III at 24,280 feet on a steep wall in gale-force winter winds.
“Initially, I had planned to climb Cho Oyu from the Chinese side to get the record,” Gelje Sherpa said. “But when China closed the border, I had no option but to give up on my dream. Then it occurred to me that it was an opportunity for me to do something for Nepal as well as myself by trying to climb Cho Oyu from Nepal. Cho Oyu from the south in winter is a tough target, but I believe it is achievable. We are confident that if we open a commercial route from Nepal, we will get a lot of clients who want to join us in the future.”
Cho Oyu straddles the Nepal-China border like a shed with a slanted roof. The mountain’s west face on the Chinese side rises gradually toward the broad summit plateau on a long ramp that offers few obstacles or hazards. The south side, located in Nepal, is a near-vertical wall. Since the first ascent of Cho Oyu in 1954, most expeditions have utilized the relatively safe northwest face. According to the Himalayan Database, a digital archive of all Himalayan ascents, more than 3,900 people have summited Cho Oyu, making it the second most popular 8,000-meter peak behind Mount Everest. Of these climbers to reach the summit, only 14 have ascended the peak from the Nepal side, according to the Nepal Department of Tourism. These were all professional climbers seeking an extreme challenge.
Working as a mountaineering guide pays better than many other occupations in Nepal; however, it doesn’t generate nearly the amount of income needed for a full-scale winter first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak. In November 2021, Gelje launched a GoFundMe campaign with a goal 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.
Gelje’s next stop was the Nepal tourism board and ministry of tourism. In 2021, the two agencies pledged $100,000 in funding to Nepali mountaineers who sought a new route on Cho Oyu. But two waves of COVID-19 outbreaks that year left Nepal in complete lockdown for more than four months, and those pledged funds produced only a few crowded helicopter trips to scout the route before the budget disappeared into the country’s bureaucracy. Maya Sherpa, a member of the Nepal Mountaineering Association’s Executive Committee, told Outside that funding for a Cho Oyu ascent could become available after the next fiscal year begins in June. But Gelje and his team aren’t holding their breath on that 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 manage the climb’s logistics. After that assurance, Gelje purchased the remainder of the team’s supplies on credit, amassing around $50,000 in debt for the expedition.
Not many years ago, the idea of commercially guiding clients up an extreme, avalanche-prone route of this nature was laughable. But in recent years, Nepali expedition operators have begun to push the envelope for clients who seek increasingly serious objectives and even greater levels of comfort in the mountains. Last year, Gelje was part of the famed team to make the first winter ascent of K2. Less than a year later, companies began offering guided winter climbs on the mountain.
So far, it appears that Gelje is in a favorable position to complete the route up Cho Oyu. Team member Lhakpa Dendi told Outside, “The route definitely seems possible for clients 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 it stays warm late.” Although, he added, future winter ascents will demand a rugged clientele. “To start with, it’s minus 20 at base camp,” he said.
Gelje’s team is not alone on the mountain. A rival Nepali team led by Mingma Dorchi Sherpa, director of Pioneer Adventure, is currently also trying to establish a commercial route along the southwest ridge, which is shorter but much more technical. That group has established their base camp in the Thame Valley, one drainage to the west of Gelje’s camp. After reaching Camp II, they too retreated to base and are waiting for better weather for a summit push.
If both teams summit, questions loom: Which route will be most viable for commercial clients, and which team will have access to the theoretical funds coming from the government? When asked why they didn’t combine forces with Gelje to maximize their chances, Karki said, “We initially had a single plan, but I am not sure why the other team was formed to do the 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 tougher to climb. We can’t say just yet which route is viable.”
During a recent interview at the teahouse in Machermo, Gelje didn’t come across as nervous or stressed about the conditions. The team had just received a dismal, but not disastrous, weather report. They were planning to retrace their five-hour slog through waist-deep snow to base camp and then continue their push onward to the summit, hoping to make the most of a brief break in the wind on the morning of February 21.
When asked about the prospects of the team reaching the top, Gelje was supremely confident. “After 7,000 meters, it only gets easier,” he said.
How he plans to reconcile his not-so-insignificant debts once they returned to Kathmandu, Gelje flashed his trademark smile. “I have no idea,” he said. “Maybe I’ll sell my kidney.”
Hopefully it won’t come to that.