Steamboat Springs It sank in again high on the slopes of the world’s sixth-tallest mountain, Cho Oyu, a towering hunk of rock that tops off at 8,201 meters, or 26,906 feet.
Matt Tredway, who until last May taught at Steamboat Springs Middle School and led the school’s Everything Outdoors Steamboat program, was hunkered down at Camp 2 with his team, an international collection of climbers led by Sherpa Chhiring Dorje.
A Dutch climber stumbled into the camp after a long climb up the mountain. He hadn’t reached the summit, finally turning back and returning to the season’s highest camp, where Tredway waited. He was alive and seemingly healthy, but there was reason to worry.
“He was limping along. He said he was getting blisters,” Tredway recalled. “That’s never a good sign.”
The climber continued down the mountain and actually traveled all the way back to Kathmandu in Nepal. His toes, once blistered, turned black with frostbite, and soon the big toe on each foot was amputated.
“I’d probably have followed him up there,” Tredway said. “Chhiring stopped me. He said it was a bad idea, so we didn’t go.”
Tredway didn’t reach the mountain’s summit. It marked his second trip to the world’s mountain-climbing mecca, the Himalaya, without a photo of himself atop an 8,000-meter peak to show for it.
But on Friday, just days after he returned from the most recent trip, he said it’s also his second trip to the Himalaya without serious injury or death.
“That’s something I definitely don’t take for granted,” he said.
The first person he credited was the man who has emerged as a Steamboat Himalayan climber’s best friend: Chhiring Dorje.
A huge challenge
Cho Oyu stands above the west China high desert like a wall at the end of a hallway, spiking thousands of feet into the heavens from an otherwise flat plateau.
First climbed in 1954 by a pair of Austrians and a Sherpa, manageable slopes and relatively easy access make it by many estimations the easiest of the world’s premier peaks to climb.
It’s not a Sunday stroll, however, as Tredway learned during his nearly six-week stay on and around the great mountain.
“Only a few people summited this season,” he said. “There were more people who died.”
Tredway’s party avoided any real problems but saw plenty. They were drawn from their tents one day when a Chinese expedition triggered an avalanche high above Camp 2. Two large gashes in the otherwise smooth snow showed the path the debris had taken. Miraculously, the Chinese team emerged only with broken arms and legs, and none died.
Climbers of the Himalayan giants generally aim for two seasonal windows. Most years, there are a few “nice” days atop the summits either before or after summer monsoon season. The jet stream whips the peaks during winter.
Dorje had hoped to hit the fall weather window with his expedition. Tredway saw it as a chance to bag an 8,000-meter peak after he was turned back high on Mount Everest in 2006.
It wasn’t to be, however.
After months of preparations and weeks of acclimatization hikes, the team twice gathered at Camp 2 and waited for a green light to go for the top. Even when the weather looked clear for an assault, it wasn’t, and both times Dorje waved off the attempt as furious winds lashed the upper slopes.
In good hands
Dorje became one of the world’s most accomplished climbers thanks to his many high-altitude exploits and his always-sound decision making and leadership.
He was a key life-saving figure in Steamboater Eric Meyer’s 2008 attempt on K2. Poor weather and nasty avalanches led to the deaths of 11 climbers on that trip, but Dorje managed to summit and saved the life of another Sherpa on his way down, tying the injured and exhausted man to his back as he used a single ice ax to make his way down a slippery wall of ice.
He’s been a frequent visitor to Steamboat, speaking of his hometown in Nepal and working during summer.
He recently started his own expedition company, Rolwaling Excursion.
Tredway already had plenty of experience with the Nepalese master thanks to the many visits to the Yampa Valley, but he found himself again and again amazed by the man who grew up in a small village and never received a formal education.
“I felt lucky to get to hang around Chhiring on his home turf,” Tredway said. “Here we all know what a wonderful guy he is. He’s so personable and so humble, but then you see him there, on his own turf, and he’s just amazing. The language and culture barrier don’t allow him to be that guy here, but there, literally, he’s larger than life.
“He’s revered by all the Sherpas, all the international climbers. He’s a field general, but this compassionate guy. He’d give food to the yak drivers and take care of everyone.”
Tredway is undecided on what’s next after what’s already been a whirlwind unworthy of the word “retirement.” He wants to climb ice across the region and he said he’d love to teach skiing in Steamboat. Hundreds of peaks remain on his checklist, including some in the Himalayan range, which now has stumped him twice.
There’s no one he’d rather chase those with than a Steamboat climber’s best friend: Chhiring Dorje.
“It was the highlight of the trip,” Tredway said.